Obama Calls for Sweeping Review of U.S. Military Strategy

By Sandra I. Erwin
President Obama finally acknowledged what critics have been saying for months: Defense budget cuts cannot be treated as a “math problem” and must be accompanied by sweeping changes in U.S. military strategy and long-term objectives.
"We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but conduct a fundamental review of America's missions, capabilities and our role in a changing world," Obama said April 13 in a speech at George Washington University.
"I will make specific decisions about spending after [the review] is complete," Obama said.
Military analysts were expecting that the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review would have laid out priorities that matched the available resource. But it did not even come close. The QDR was widely ridiculed as an ambitious wish that dodged tough choices.
“Without a change in strategy, cuts in spending are worse than doing nothing,” said Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.
The absence of “strategic choice” is the reason why decisions about where to cut defense spending have been nearly impossible to make, said Gordon Adams, American University professor and former director of the Office of Management and Budget. Cutting the defense budget should not be about doing the same with less, Adams said.
A serious strategic review would have to determine what missions to scale back, so the military could be downsized accordingly. Only then can major cost savings be achieved, Adams contended. “At the end of the day, it’s about policy makers restraining their impulse to use the military in the reckless way it’s been used in the past 20 years.”
Too much of the cost-cutting efforts that are being suggested so far, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ “efficiencies” campaign to save $100 billion over five years, rely on optimism and the idea that by trimming excess overhead and scaling back on contractors, the Defense Department can contribute a big chunk of money to the Treasury. That is not going to be enough, as Obama himself noted in the speech.
The defense budget makes up 23 percent of federal expenditures, and will need to be “on the table” as part of a “grand bargain” to fix the nation’s fiscal mess.
Benjamin Friedman, research fellow at the Cato Institute, said the United States must take bold steps to curtain military commitments as part of a deficit-reduction strategy. The United States, he said, will be “pretty safe even with a small defense budget. What we do overseas matters to our security only on the margins.”
Obama’s speech, however, is only just the beginning of what is expected to be an ugly partisan brawl over fiscal priorities.
With presidential elections coming up next year, the last thing Obama wants is to leave himself open to criticism that he’s being soft on defense.
A panel of Beltway insiders predicted April 12 that cuts to the defense budget will be tough sell, even in today's anti-spending climate. The reason is that any serious effort to cut defense has to be supported by Republicans and, so far, GOP'ers remain sharply divided over military spending.
“Some time in the future, there has to be a debate within the GOP on defense spending,” said former Republican congressman Vin Weber. It has been easy for Republicans to avoid talking about defense cuts, but presidential candidates running for the GOP nomination will be forced to take a position. “I think we will have a debate in the Republican party that we haven’t seen in a long time,” Weber said during a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Obama’s dilemma, like many Democrats’, is to be able to stand up against government waste without appearing weak on national defense.
“You understand Congress' frustration. All politicians are squeamish when it comes to cutting defense spending,” Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., told Pentagon officials at aMarch 29 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. No other government agency could get away with the Pentagon’s bad fiscal behavior, Pryor lamented. Lawmakers often are guilty of enabling the situation by looking the other way. “I do think that the Department of Defense is in a sort of a different category than the other departments and agencies,” he said. “Honestly … Congress is afraid sometimes to push too hard on cost containment because it might be used in a 30- second ad that we're cutting spending or cutting some program or whatever.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget

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