Missions reflect truth in defense cuts

Where’s the peace dividend? American troops now are mostly out of Iraq. And their numbers are declining in Afghanistan, with about a third of the 98,000 troops scheduled to come home by summer. Yet, defense spending is not declining despite tough budget times and a federal deficit of $1.3 trillion for fiscal year 2011-12.

This reality is obscured by supposed “cuts” being made in the Pentagon budget. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta this week will lay out the Obama administration’s defense goals and budgets for the future. Reported the New York Times, “Mr. Panetta is expected to outline plans for carefully shrinking the military — and in so doing make it clear that the Pentagon will not maintain the ability to fight two sustained ground wars at once.

“Instead, he will say that the military will be large enough to fight and win one major conflict, while also being able to ‘spoil’ a second adversary’s ambitions in another part of the world, while conducting a number of other smaller operations, like providing disaster relief or enforcing a no-flight zone.”

About $450 billion in cuts over the next decade generally have been agreed on by the Pentagon and the White House, the Times reported. Mr. Panetta believes that further cuts would hurt national security.

But the cuts really aren’t there, Christopher Preble told us; he’s vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. It’s the old trick of “cutting” the baseline budget — as the baseline rises. He said the “cuts” would “put us back to 2010 — hardly a lean year as far as Pentagon spending is concerned.” He said that money also has been shifted from the Pentagon’s main budget to Overseas Contingency Operations – bureaucratese for wars. “The bottom line is that, from 2011 to 2012, the budget may not have been cut at all, if you include the roughly $10 billion moved into the OCO account. It’s virtually flat.”

The real way to look at Pentagon funding, Mr. Preble said, is to look at the expected missions. The funding then follows. He asked, “For me, the key question is: What exactly do Leon Panetta and the rest of the Obama national security team think or expect or want the U.S. military to be doing in the future? The No. 1 big-ticket item in the military is personnel. You need a lot of personnel to fight nation-building wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. If you’re not doing that, then you ought to go back to before 9/11” for personnel and funding levels.

Since 9/11, he said, Army troop levels have risen to 570,000 from 480,000; Marine levels have risen to 202,000 from 170,000. The Army and the Marines are most of the “boots on the ground” for these kinds of operations.

“There’s a growing appreciation that the kind of nation-building wars we’ve been fighting are extremely costly,” he concluded. “And they’re unpopular with the American people. It’s going to be harder to sustain those kinds of wars when we have budget problems here in the United States.”

We agree with the American people that nation-building wars should be ended. They haven’t contributed anything to national security. For example, Iraq, as even former President George Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledged in their separate memoirs, had nothing to do with 9/11. Bring those troops home and return to pre-9/11 troop levels. Do that, and spending cuts — real cuts, not just to a rising baseline — will follow.