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.

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