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Obama gambles by slashing defense spending

by Robert Samuelson

The crisis in Ukraine reminds us that the future is unpredictable, that wars routinely involve miscalculation and that brute force — boots on the ground, bombs in the air — counts. None of these obvious lessons seems to have made much impression in Washington, where the Obama administration and Congress continue their policy of defunding defense and reducing America’s military power.

The administration’s new 2015 budget projections show how sharply the Pentagon shrinks. In nominal dollars (unadjusted for inflation), defense spending stays flat between 2013 and 2024. It’s $626 billion in 2013 and $630 billion in 2024. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, it drops by a quarter.

As a share of the federal budget, it falls from 18 percent in 2013 to 11 percent in 2024. Meanwhile, Social Security spending in nominal dollars increases 85 percent to $1.5 trillion by 2024 and Medicare advances 75 percent to $863 billion. The inflation-adjusted gains are also large.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has outlined some program cuts behind the spending declines. The army would drop from a recent peak of 570,000 to 450,000 — the lowest since before World War II — and, possibly, 420,000. The Marines Corps would fall 10 percent from its peak to 182,000. The air force would retire all its A-10 “Warthog” ground-support fighters, as well as its U-2 spy planes. The navy will halt purchases of its Littoral Combat Ships at 32 instead of the planned 52.

The United States has a military for two reasons. One is to deter conflicts. Even if every Pentagon spending cut were desirable — manifestly untrue — their collective size symbolically undermines deterrence. It telegraphs that America is retreating, that it is war-weary and reluctant to deploy raw power as an instrument of national policy. President Barack Obama’s undisguised distaste for using the military amplifies the message.

This may embolden potential adversaries and abet miscalculation. America’s military retrenchment won’t make China’s leaders less ambitious globally. (China plans a 12 percent increase in military spending for 2014; at that pace, spending would double in six years.) Nor will it dampen Iran’s aggressiveness and promote a negotiated settlement over its nuclear program. Probably the reverse. Diplomacy often fails unless backed by a credible threat of force.

The second reason for a military is to defend national interests — and prevail in conflict. Just what this requires is hard to say, because the nature of war is shifting to include cyber-attacks, non-state adversaries and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted, “our record [since Vietnam] has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.”

There are many potential war theaters: Persian Gulf nations, including Iran if the U.S. bombed its nuclear facilities; the South China Sea; the Korean Peninsula; Pakistan, if theft of its nuclear weapons were threatened. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine raises the prospect that U.S. troops might be stationed in the Baltic nations or Poland. All belong to NATO; all must now feel more threatened by Russia.

The Pentagon has already downgraded its capabilities. It has abandoned its past assumption that it could fight two major wars simultaneously. It has also disavowed any long-lasting counterinsurgency. “Our forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale prolonged stability operations,” says the latest Quadrennial Defense Review. The self-serving premise is that wars can be fought and won quickly, because otherwise budgets don’t work.

All this is a huge gamble. Hagel says that today’s reduced funding creates “added risk” (translation: higher combat deaths, lower odds of success). He warns that a return to “sequestration” (deeper congressionally mandated cuts) would create a “hollow force.”

Defense spending should reflect a strategic vision of the U.S. global role. This would balance Americans’ unwillingness to be the “world’s cop” with the observed truth that, given today’s interconnectedness, distant events can affect vital U.S. interests. In reality, strategy is driven by political expedience and a shortage of cash. It reflects popular disillusion with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It presumes that the world won’t punish the political preferences of America’s leaders. Obama and Democrats won’t sacrifice social spending for defense spending; Republicans won’t admit that higher defense spending requires higher taxes.

The inattention to these developments is stunning. The Washington Post’s main story on the administration’s 2015 budget barely mentioned defense; the same was true of the comparable story in the New York Times. Christine H. Fox, the acting deputy secretary of defense, recently noted that “the world has gotten no less dangerous, turbulent or in need of American leadership. There is no obvious peace dividend as was the case at the end of the Cold War.” But we’re pretending there is — and spending it madly.

© 2014, The Washington Post Writers Group