August 9th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

Cut defense spending

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Everyone in Washington this week is having a nightmare about a guillotine. I'm talking about the proposed cuts to the Defense Department.

If the Congressional super-commission cannot agree on ways to reduce the debt by about $1.5 trillion over 10 years, that pulls the trigger. And half those cuts automatically come from expenditures on national security.

I say, let the guillotine fall. It's about time.

The Defense Department's budget has risen now for 13 consecutive years, which is unprecedented in American history. In the last decade, overall defense spending has risen to about $700 billion, which is a 70 percent increase. If you include the spending on Iraq and Afghanistan, we now spend $250 billion more than average defense budgets during the Cold War. Now, that was a time when the Soviet, the Chinese and all East European militaries were arrayed against the United States and its allies.

Today, with no serious adversaries in the world, the United States spends more than all other countries on the planet combined. Even as a percentage of GDP, the number of countries that spend more than us is very small. Eritrea, Iraq, Saudi Arabia - so they're either war zones or oil states.

Cutting defense spending as we wind down military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be difficult; it's not unprecedented.

After the Korean War, President Eisenhower cut defense spending by 27 percent. Nixon cut the budget by 29 percent after Vietnam. Even Ronald Reagan scaled back military spending in the 1980s as the Cold War was becoming less tense. And, of course, as it got over, that process was accelerated by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton - all of it adding up to a 35 percent decrease in the defense budget by the mid '90s.

Given the enormous run-up in spending under George W. Bush, even if Obama made comparable cuts today, defense spending would remain substantially above the levels under all those presidents. After all, remember, the Simpson-Bowles plan proposes $750 billion in defense cuts over 10 years.

A recent report by Lawrence Korb, who worked at the Pentagon for Ronald Reagan, posits that a $1 trillion cut over 10 to 12 years is feasible without compromising national security.

The Defense Department is the best example of waste, fraud and abuse by far in the American government. Even when the results are pretty impressive, the costs and the cost overruns are eye-popping. Take a look at these F-35 planes. They can take off the traditional way, as well as vertical. But the Joint Strike Fighter Program that commissioned the jets to service the Air Force, Marines and Navy, has been plagued by years of design flaws and massive cost overruns. The total cost for this fighter program is something like $300 billion and counting.

Robert Gates has called the new designs for its second engine extravagant and unnecessary. That could be said of large swaths of the defense budget, "extravagant and unnecessary".

Budgetary measures aside, perhaps this is a chance for us to rebalance American foreign policy.

For too long, Congress has fattened the Defense Department, while starving foreign policy agencies. Robert Gates himself once pointed out that there are more members of military marching bands than servicemen in the Foreign Service. The result is a warped American foreign policy. It conceives of problems entirely in military terms, tries to present a ready military solution.

As he came to the close of his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower said, "Every dollar uselessly spent on military mechanisms decreases our total strength and, therefore, our security." It's time for a more balanced national security strategy. If the budget deficit forces that shift, so be it.

soundoff (500 Responses)
  1. oldguy

    "....then there is the problem of a weak economy now. In the short run you’re trying to create jobs. In that context, dramatic cuts in government spending further depress the economy. They put more people on unemployment insurance, which means fewer taxpayers and fewer secondary and tertiary jobs created by the service sector. "
    F.Z. May 2011 lobbying for increased government spending

    "I say, let the guillotine fall. It's about time."
    F.Z. August 2011 lobbying for cuts in government spending

    August 10, 2011 at 8:58 am | Reply
  2. KennyG

    Partially right. We need to keep our military strong and ready. However, cuts can and should have been made already. They are building a half billion dollar hospital to replace one that has been remodeled and is pretty much up to date. This is at Fort Hood, Texas. They could have save millions just by enlarging the current building and further upgrading. What a waste!

    August 10, 2011 at 9:11 am | Reply
  3. bill

    Cut defence spending? that is one industry that we have with strong exports. Reduce defence and watch our enemies take liberties all over the world. Wether we like it or not we are the policeman of the world, relinquish that and experience the same events unfold as to the years before WWII. People that dream of a peaceful world never studied history.

    August 10, 2011 at 9:41 am | Reply
  4. kc

    Wasn't it just last week that Obama was wringing his hands that without raising the debt limit the military would not get paid?
    Now he wants to cut their pay.

    August 10, 2011 at 9:58 am | Reply
    • mcp123

      "cut their pay"

      Obama never said cut their pay... cite a source when you make a statement. Cutting defense spending doesn't necessarily have to mean cutting pay. Payrolls yes... and the super gee whiz weapons the Pentagon likes too much and doesn't really need because their are more effective means to an end.

      August 10, 2011 at 10:33 am | Reply
  5. Chris

    One way to cut back on spending end the deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq. Then close some of the installations around the world like the Air Force Bases in England and Germany.

    August 10, 2011 at 10:41 am | Reply
  6. Jim

    There is no need to cut "Defense" spending. It's "Offense" spending that needs to be eliminated, not just cut. It seems that America is now in the "Business" of fighting wars for the sake of fighting wars. Winning is optional and an unfortunate byproduct if it happens because that means another war has to be manufactured. All this warring means massive profit for the military industrial complex. The war on drugs, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the action in Libya it's all the same. None are truly about "defense". They are about making more weaponry at taxpayer expense. It started in Vietnam and has been going on ever since. These conflicts are not about freedom, justice, defense or any other noble virtue. They are about making money for the industrial military complex that Eisenhower warned about.

    August 10, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Reply
  7. John Bailo

    "Today, with no serious adversaries in the world, the United States spends more than all other countries on the planet combined."

    Did you ever stop and think that one had something to do with the other?

    August 10, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Reply
  8. Paoli Pete

    cut the defense budget. now. a lot. bring the troops home. balance the budget. remember the alamo. walk the walk. do the hustle.

    August 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Reply
    • Paoli Pete

      you rock, pete.

      August 10, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Reply
      • Paoli Pete

        No, YOU rock, Pete.

        August 10, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  9. David Doney

    Amen. Let's cut the defense budget from $700 billion today to $350 billion over a decade. We have allies. Use some of the savings to finance education, infrastructure and green energy, the keys to competing in the future.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Reply
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