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In his plan to rein in ballooning deficits, President Obama proposed large cuts in Pentagon spending. Diane and her guests look at balancing security needs with budget realities.
- Gordon Adams professor, School of International Service at American University, fellow at The Stimson Center, and former senior White House defense budget official in the Clinton Administration.
- Thomas Donnelly a defense and security policy analyst, the director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, co-author with Frederick W. Kagan of "Lessons for a Long War: How America Can Win on New Battlefields."
- James Kitfield senior correspondent, National Journal magazine.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President Obama has called for large cuts in national security spending by the year 2023. Defense Secretary Gates made substantial cuts in January but said, when it comes to deficits, "the Department of Defense is not the problem." Joining me in the studio to talk about what these cuts might mean to the three wars we are currently in, Gordon Adams of American University, James Kitfield of National Journal, Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute. Your calls are welcome, your comments. 800-433-8850, that's the number to call. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, gentlemen.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood morning.
PROF. GORDON ADAMSGood morning, Diane.
MR. THOMAS DONNELLYGood morning.
REHMJames Kitfield, how much has actually already been cut from defense spending?
KITFIELDNot a lot has already been cut. Secretary Gates has announced about $178 billion of cuts in savings that he wants to, you know, gain over five-year period. Not a lot of that has been done yet. But he has cut some weapons programs: the C-17, the F-22, the Army's Future Combat System, Marine Corps' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. So he's made a sort of small down payment on what he knows are going to be the cuts to come. He's trying to stave off what we've seen this last week, which is he was hoping to sort of you know, plow most of the money, the savings, back into the Pentagon budget. That's not going to happen.
KITFIELDHe realizes now, I think, with President Obama saying he wants $400 billion of cuts from the Pentagon over the next 12 years, that, you know, the post-9/11 defense buildup is over, and we're now negotiating the terms of how it declines.
REHMTom Donnelly, at a time when we are in three wars, can we afford to cut defense spending?
DONNELLYWell, the whole question of affordability is a charged term, and, I think, actually, the program will end up sort of unraveling what that term does and does not mean. But it is going to constrain the way the military operates. In fact, you could even argue that the way we fought since 9/11 was already constrained by budget choices made by the Bush administration. The -- James was referring to the post-9/11 buildup. We really spent most of the money on fighting the wars -- on consumables, if you will -- so that...
REHMWhat does that mean?
DONNELLYWell, mostly, it's gasoline, beans and bullets...
DONNELLY...and the personnel cost of mobilizing reservists. Since 9/11, up until just about six months ago, we had more than 100,000 Americans who were mobilized from their reserve status to an active status. That whole period, and it just barely slipped below that. There was a very small increase in the size of the Army and the Marine Corps at the time of the Iraq surge, and that was really the only institutional change of all the Bush years. That is one of the things that's about to fall off the table, too.
REHMShould we be spending more on defense, Gordon Adams, considering that we are in these three combat issues?
ADAMSActually, no. The defense budget has doubled since 2001. Tom is right to say that some of that is in the area of funding the war costs. And we have funded probably over a trillion dollars worth of war costs at this point over the past 10 years. But we've also significantly increased what they call base budget, the defense budget that goes to things other than the war costs. And that has been -- that has made defense part of the problem, whether we like it or not. The big four that dominate the federal budget all have to be taken under control -- Medicare, Social Security, discretionary spending that's not defense, defense spending. They're all going to have to play a part.
ADAMSAnd, I think, Jim is right in saying we are now entering a build-down period. It's not the first time we've done this, but we're clearly in it. And every step that the secretary has taken, the president has taken or even the Congress has taken in the last two or three weeks says we're entering a build-down period. And the question is how do we manage it?
REHMJames, you said that Secretary Gates was trying to ward off even larger cuts, but, apparently, he learned of the cuts that the president was talking about only the day before the president's speech.
KITFIELDHe did. And I think that that -- I think he was surprised that the cuts that President Obama announced in his speech were as big as they were. I mean, next day, the Pentagon, which almost you never see, put out sort of a response to the president's, you know, proposed budget cuts. And what he got from the president was a promise that he would -- the Pentagon would formulate a commission, a review -- a strategic review to look at roles and missions. In other words, not just do a cost-cutting, bean-counting exercise where you cut 10 percent from all the major accounts, but you actually sort of rationalize your roles, your missions. You know, I think that's the right way to go.
KITFIELDAnd it will, I think, engender a debate -- first time we've had one since 9/11 -- about what it means to be this big, indispensable superpower because, as I wrote last year, it's becoming unaffordable. We talked about indispensable nation, but we're becoming an unaffordable nation. We're underwriting global security. We have troops, besides fighting three wars, in 120 countries on any given day. And at the same time, the rest of our allies, like Britain, France and Germany, are slicing their defense budgets in response to their own debt crisis, putting more of the burden of this sort of ensuring global stability on us.
KITFIELDAnd that's not sustainable. So there's going to have to be a very fundamental debate about what really is -- what risks we're willing to take to do less. And that's something that Gates said very clearly. He wants this debate to be about, what are we doing now that you are willing for us not to do? And what risks will you want to accept for us not doing that?
REHMAnd what gets included under national security?
KITFIELDWell, I mean, there's a huge gamut of things that you could -- homeland security, you know, all the things we've done to protect the homeland. You have the defense -- Department of Energy, which manages all the nuclear weapons, apparatus and weapons arsenal. You have, you know -- they lump in here State Department...
KITFIELD...CIA, intelligence, which has, you know, also grown dramatically post-9/11. So we're going to have a sort of rationalization argument in this country about what it is we should be doing, who should be doing it, and are there ways to, you know -- to just -- I would just tell your listeners, don't believe anyone who says we can get there with, you know -- by addressing waste, fraud and abuse, you know. It's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about fundamental choices about what we want the military to do and what we can afford the military not to do.
REHMWaste, fraud and abuse, Tom Donnelly.
DONNELLYI've been in this trade way too long and lost too many pieces of hair trying to find the waste, fraud and abuse account. I must...
REHMEven the toilet seats that used to cost $800.
DONNELLYDiane, those are very long and complicated source. Let me just say, anything that defied David Packard's ability to rationalize is above my pay grade. One of the geniuses of American business practice and defense practice over the past couple of generations couldn't solve this problem. And -- but James is right. You could make the Pentagon the most efficient bureaucracy ever invented by man, and it wouldn't solve the difference between what our strategic ambitions are and the capabilities of the current military. So -- and I would just say, fundamentally, the American taxpayer gets what it pays for when it comes to the military.
DONNELLYIf the Department of Education were doing as good a job as educating our children as the Defense Department is killing our enemies, our test scores would be a lot better.
REHMBut do you agree with James that as other countries are lowering their spending on military weaponry, ammunitions, that they're more and more looking to the U.S.? And the U.S. is saying, wait a minute, folks, we've got our own problems.
DONNELLYWe're beginning to say that. We have not said that for -- at least since the end of the Cold War.
REHMIs it about time we said it?
DONNELLYActually, I would argue the contrary. I think, actually, having nations and governments pursuing peaceful enterprises is really, in the long run, better for the world. I would actually prefer that the United States remain the dominant military power. And one quick bit about affordability. You have to measure affordability in a variety of ways to understand it. The dollar amount has increased. But as a slice of our gross domestic product, the portion of our pie that we devote to military power has been constantly reduced. So what we are trying to find a place to afford is the cost of entitlements.
DONNELLYThat's where the pie slice has really increased over the past generation. And what brings defense on to the table in these negotiations is the need to find a way to finance those entitlements for the future.
REHMSo take the money from entitlements and make sure that defense is strong. Gordon Adams?
ADAMSWell, you know, the bottom line here, Diane, is that defense is strong. We have a dominant military capability today, dominant in terms of being able to deploy global air power, global ground forces, FEMA, Navy everywhere in the world. Our information, communications, logistics, infrastructure outpace any other nation in the world, or most of them combined, and will, even if we cut as much as $1 trillion over the next 10 years out of the currently projected defense budgets. Look, there are basically two big pieces here that need to be dealt with -- one is the question of infrastructure. The Defense Business Board says 42 percent of the defense infrastructure, it's eating up 42 percent of the total defense budget.
ADAMSIt is employing 340,000 people in uniform in commercial functions. Five hundred and sixty thousand, that's over a third of the active duty military, have never been deployed. They're in the infrastructure in the Defense Department. And while Secretary Gates has taken a nice first cut at it, it's really what I call the pinking shears approach -- it cuts around the edges. But we haven't really tackled that infrastructure. It's an important thing to do. And missions is the other piece. We had a quadrennial defense review last year in 2010 that laid out about 15 different missions, set no priorities among them, said risk had to be reduced to zero. All those missions had to be performed. We're going to have to ask that question fundamentally now about what's important and what's not.
REHMWe'll talk more about infrastructure and missions when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd as we talk about military spending -- spending on defense -- we've gotten a lot of emails like this one from John, who says, "The U.S. can no longer afford to be the police force for the world. U.S. taxpayers cannot support a military that costs more than most of the militaries in the world combined. All of our allies have been reducing military spending, knowing that we will foot the bill. If South Korea, Japan, Europe want our military to be there to protect them, let them pay.
REHM"If they don't want us there, let's leave, so taxpayers can stop paying to support these troops. I still don't understand how they are protecting the U.S., sitting in far-flung bases all over the world, protecting those countries. Similarly, for situations like Libya, if other countries support the effort but don't have military resources to donate, have them pay us cash to offset our costs." James.
KITFIELDI actually think that's a pretty good idea. I mean, when Tom talks about the cost of America not being -- not taking the military lead -- and we have a perfect example in Libya, where we, you know, did a lot of the work early on that only we can do, but then handed it off to NATO. And we're already hearing that NATO is running out of precision-guided munitions to do the mission and are begging us to sort of come, get back involved in the airstrikes. You know, so it points to, if you're not going to take the lead, then you might not be happy with some of the circumstances and some of the outcomes from that, you know. And he makes a point about, you know, we are not defending this country at this country's borders.
KITFIELDWe are defending, basically, a global, international system of free trade, of stability in Asia, as well as, you know, free flow of energy from the Middle East. We -- global policeman is one way to put it. We basically have underwritten global security throughout the Cold War, and since the end of the Cold War we're still doing it. And the problem is it's becoming very expensive, and we have an economy saddled with $13 trillion of debt that shows every sign of not being able to underwrite this role as presently constructed. So I think it's high time for debate about what our priorities are and what is our interest because we're bankrupting ourselves while China goes on this economic tear. And exhausting ourselves in these wars is a prescription for the end of the U.S. dominance.
ADAMSYou know, I was out in Colorado last week, Diane, talking with people out there about this issue, among others. And what's interesting to me is that there seems to be a fairly widespread sentiment in the country, that being the police officer of the world is not an appropriate role anymore for the United States, and that there needs to be much more cooperative activity with other nations. The problem for the Europeans is that the Europeans have an unbalanced military spending plan. They have an awful lot of people in uniform they don't and can't use, which has constricted their ability to lay on stockpiles of munitions they now could use.
ADAMSWe're going to face the same kind of imbalance problem. We have pensions, benefits and pay exercises in the Defense Department that are way too expensive, health care benefits that are too expensive, an infrastructure that's completely out of control -- over 40 percent of the defense budget. And we're going to find, when the build-down comes -- and that's the question we need to be asking ourselves -- that we will be taking people out of the active duty force structure. The secretary has already projected that happening. We will be prioritizing on the hardware program side of the budget. But we're going to have to tackle the infrastructure. The overhead is going to be a key piece in saving money.
DONNELLYYeah, I just want to comment on the sort of the domestic politics of this as well because there's been a big change in the Republican Party. It's not really, certainly, a Reaganite Republican Party in the sense of being committed to spending whatever it takes on defense. So you find, you know, in young Republicans and in the libertarian wing -- the sort of Tea Party wing, if you will -- a similar concern about the fecklessness of our allies, to put it bluntly, and uncertainty about America's role in the world. So it's, you know, the sort of politics of the Cold War, the left-right politics of the Cold War, don't obtain today. It'll be interesting to see if there is this debate about the role that we want to play in the world, how the domestic chips will stack up.
REHMBut here's what I don't understand. On Friday, the Defense Department said its weapons buying price tag is going up by $64 billion. What does that have to do then with plans to cut the budget, James?
KITFIELDWell, it means that -- you know, it means that it's going to be a very difficult exercise the Pentagon is going through because they -- you know, this is unlike the Reagan buildup where we actually bought a lot of weapons and a lot of force structure. You know, we haven't increased our weapons. We haven't increased our force structure. Quite the contrary, we've worn the arsenal out. So they're going to have to spend more to recapitalize, which is a very worn-out arsenal, and that's going to mean shifting money from other accounts. But the problem is, you know, basically, as long as you're fighting two wars, you're not going to be able to get there 'cause you need to cut personnel.
KITFIELDCan I also make a point that, you know, decisions have, and bad decisions have, consequences, and we're -- you know, chickens are coming home to roost on three or four really bad decisions, one of which was we didn't -- we went to both these wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, not understanding how much heavy lifting they would be, thought we'd be long out of both countries by now. That was a big mistake. It's costing us in the sense that not only does it cost us a trillion dollars, but the country's gone south on both those efforts.
KITFIELDSo they're not -- there's no majority support for continuing. So democracies don't fight really long wars that well. For the first time, we didn't pay for a war. We didn't raise taxes to pay for a war. That has huge consequences. It's added dramatically to our deficit, and it's created a sort of sense in this country you can fight wars and not make any sacrifices. That was another huge mistake. We kept this war off the books with supplementals, which, as Gordon said, totally erased any budget and fiscal discipline in the Pentagon for the last 10 years.
KITFIELDAnd, finally, we fought an extended war with an all-volunteer force that was never envisioned to be fighting extended wars. It was going to be the corps around which you reinstituted a draft Army. We're finding out if you fight a war just with an all-volunteer force, it's very, very expensive. These guys have all kinds of pension needs and health needs, and it's becoming -- as the chairman of Joint Chiefs said, you know, health costs alone are eating the Pentagon's lunch. So these mistakes that we've made are having a -- bad consequences we're going to have to confront.
REHMAnd what about the politics that all of you have mentioned, if you've got Democrats lowering defense budgets and Republicans -- in the past, at least -- wanting to raise defense budget? Gordon.
ADAMSWell, I think there's a fundamental historical misunderstanding. In fact, there's a couple of them. One is that Democrats are anti-defense and Republicans are pro-defense. We've gone through four build -- this will be the fourth build-down, since the end of the Korean War, that we have gotten through. The last three have been overseen by Republican presidents, Republican secretaries of defense. The last one, in the Powell-Cheney -- you remember that old softie, Dick Cheney?
ADAMSThe Powell-Cheney administration brought down the defense budget 25 percent under George Herbert Walker Bush, took 500,000 people out of the force structure at the end of the Cold War. So we've done build-downs before. We can do build-downs again. And the argument that the Democrats are somehow against defense and the Republicans are for defense, I think, is in part belied by what Tom Donnelly just said about the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. There are a lot of Republicans who are looking for fiscal discipline.
ADAMSAnd so what is hitting defense, along with everything else in the federal budget right now, is the deficit, the debt, the major security problems we face, the end of the wars, which means this issue is less salient and the recognition that the Pentagon is an extremely inefficient organism. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked about doubling the defense budget over the last 10 years. And what he said was -- and I'm quoting him -- "We've lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades." That's what now has to be done.
DONNELLYA couple of things. What's different now is that the wars aren't really over. We are choosing to diminish our role in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the budget, even before these last cuts, sort of already booked those savings, predicting that history would behave the way that we would like it to or that our budget programmers would like to. I do want to return to one point that James made about the all-volunteer force. First of all, you wouldn't necessarily want to fight an extended set of regular wars with a conscript force. Think about the mistakes that Rusty Calley made at My Lai and what conscript forces tend to do under these kind of pressures. So having a volunteer force has saved our bacon, just on the battlefield.
DONNELLYAnd the question is, as a social compact, do we want to undo what has been successful? Very few Americans put their lives at risk in military service now. Less than -- if you just count the active force, less than a half a percent of American citizens wear the uniform. That's a pretty good bargain, at least, socially speaking. And the question is, what are we -- as we try to cut cost, how will that affect the way the people in uniform perceive the bargain or the deal they're getting from the rest of us?
REHMSo, Tom Donnelly, just to be clear, you feel that rather -- that, perhaps, this is not a good time to be cutting back drastically on military spending, but instead to look to entitlement programs for budget cutting and not to the military?
DONNELLYAs Gordon quoted Secretary Gates, you just can't get there money-wise. The cost of our overspending is so great, and the government now spends three times -- almost four times in entitlements what it spends on the core defense budget. So I would just say, as a political matter, all these things have to be in the mix. I think that's just the case. It's a question of what we choose to do and how we prioritize what the government should do.
REHMSo the president, James Kitfield, has called for this comprehensive review.
REHMWhat's that going to involve? Is it going to put entitlement spending into the mix with defense spending...
REHM...or to keep it all separate?
KITFIELDNo. It's a Pentagon review looking just at defense spending. But what it will do -- we've been through this exercise before -- it will look at roles in missions. It will say, okay, we have, you know, a naval air wing, we have a Marine air wing, we have an Air Force. Do we really need three air forces? It'll look at things like the mix between ground forces, the Navy and the Air Force.
KITFIELDAnd, I think, we'll probably come to the conclusion that, as you wind down Iraq this year, hopefully, Afghanistan in the next two to three, you can reshuffle -- you can shift from the size of the ground forces that exist today and put more money into a Navy and the Air Force that are going to (unintelligible) .
REHMIs there any indication which aspect of the military seems most wasteful?
KITFIELDI wouldn't say wasteful. They all have their role. But, you know, the wars we're fighting now -- right now are being fought by the Army and the Marine Corps, with a little help from the air wing. I mean, these are counterinsurgency wars. They're not, you know, very reliant on air power as such. There's some but not a lot. But if you're looking on the future and look at a peer competitor -- which has always been the preface to past wars, i.e., Germany coming in Europe in the early part of the last century -- you have to consider China. China has got a lot of money, spending a lot more money on defense, and it's got capabilities that really play to the strengths of our Navy and the Air Force. So that's one of the decisions that have to be made.
KITFIELDCan I just say something about the politics? And I don't disagree to anything Tom just said. There have been two independent bipartisan commissions so far -- one that Gordon worked on, the Rivlin-Domenici committee and one, the president's own deficit reduction committee -- both of which said defense should be cut roughly $900 billion to a trillion over the next 10 years. That's double what President Obama himself came out with and called for in his $400 billion. So that gives you a sense of the politics. When smart people on both sides of the aisle get together here, you're looking at some pretty serious cuts for defense.
REHMJames Kitfield, senior correspondent for National Journal magazine. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Indianapolis. Good morning, Pierce. You're on the air. Pierce, are you there?
PIERCEYes. My first point is just to what one of your guests said earlier about the fact that America has underwritten global security across the world. I'd just like to point out that millions of people under U.S.-backed dictators in countries around the world probably don't feel the same way. And the second point that I'd like the guests to address is just -- I'm very skeptical of even the fact of decreasing military spending by any means because of the powerful countervailing interests by companies, like Lockheed Martin and Halliburton, that the U.S. government contracts with and, you know, relies on for a huge chunk of GDP and defense.
PIERCEAnd so, how is it -- how are those -- you know, by decreasing military spending at all, those companies are likely to take a huge hit. So, obviously, their interest is not in cutting any sort of spending.
KITFIELDWell, he's absolutely right, and it's not a foregone conclusion. This is going to be a bloody fight because the Republican Party, for all of its Tea Party wing, traditionally sees itself as the defender of robust defense spending. We saw that in the Paul Ryan cut. He basically just pocketed Gates' cuts and went no further. So we're going to see a battle royal here, I think. And -- but, again, you know, we've been talking about, so far in the show, the trends are such that it's going to be very hard to do a seriously -- you know, a serious take on trying to reduce our deficit without leaving defense on the table.
ADAMSLet me come at this from a slightly different direction. I think it's careful -- we need to be careful at this point not to use words like drastic in describing what's going on. If you look at what President Obama has proposed, it's actually about a third of what was proposed by the president's own Simpson-Bowles debt commission. It's about a third of what the Rivlin-Domenici panel that I worked on provided. They're not really drastic. In fact, we've calculated it at thewillandthewallet.org, that you can, in fact, reach those $400 billion worth of cuts simply by increasing defense budgets starting now at the rate of inflation, which means they wouldn't lose any of their buying power. Choices would have to be made, but you would not, in fact, have a drastic cut.
ADAMSAnd you would, in fact, at the end of that time, end up with a dominant global military force. So if you wanted to play the global cop role, they probably still could. If you wanted to set new choices and priorities, you could do that as well.
DONNELLYWell, because Gordon used to work at the Office of Management and Budget as well, I have to call him out on budget geek stuff. The rate of inflation in the Defense Department, for all variety of reason, because it's not really an economic metric but it includes things like the actions that Congress takes to increase pay and benefits and things like that, is traditionally, habitually, for generations, different from and usually almost always greater than the civilian rate of inflation. So the purchasing power of the Pentagon, even if the budgets are held flat, will decrease. And that's...
ADAMSI have to join that one because I am a budget geek. And the reality is Secretary Gates put himself in an embarrassing position this year because he managed to claim $4 billion worth of defense savings by accepting OMB's deflator rate. So, basically, DOD has conceded the turf to the OMB deflator.
REHMThis does get into a little budget geek for me.
REHMSo I think we'll take a break here. And when we come back, we'll take a caller who is joining us from Turkey, another from Auburn, N.Y., and Sanford, N.C. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We'll go now to Sanford, N.C. Good morning, David.
DAVIDGood morning, Diane. I'm retired Army and with an accounting background. And maybe the panel can correct me, but from the research I found on the Internet, the actual figures for defense spending is usually a lot more. You factor in other departments and accounting with -- such as the Veterans Affairs Department, the military pensions and civilian pensions for people that worked for the DOD. I heard there's a supplement that we give the Energy Department.
DAVIDI will just take the...
ADAMSYou know, that's -- it's a very good point. We really budget for our national security and foreign policy much more broadly than the Defense Department. And if you took all the numbers -- let's say Defense, including the war cost, is about $700 billion this year. You can get up to a trillion dollars pretty easily because you can rope in, as the administration does, Homeland Security, diplomacy, foreign assistance, nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy, the Veterans Affairs Department. All of those together, setting aside anybody's contribution to the interest we pay on the national debt as a result of past deficits, you're over a trillion dollars in the national security-foreign policy arena.
REHMSo is it possible that military pay and military benefits could be cut as a result of cutting defense spending, James?
KITFIELDI think that that you will see some of that...
KITFIELD...and we've already starting to see some of that. They're asking for a larger contribution, for instance, on the military health care system, for soldiers to make a larger contribution to that, you know, to -- much like a lot of people in the civilian world have gone through. However, I will say that, in time of war, when these -- so much of this burden that we've talked about has been put on less than 1 percent of the population. There is not a large appetite in Congress -- and, I think, rightfully so -- to do anything Draconian that would be perceived by the military as kind of hurting them. So it's very difficult to cut these personnel costs, which goes to my point of finding a -- you know, a decade-plus period of wars with an all-volunteer force is a very expensive enterprise.
REHMAll right. To...
ADAMSThis is political third rail.
REHM...Yalikavak, Turkey. Good morning, Rodney.
RODNEYHi, Diane. I wanted to tell you how much people of the world value your common sense and moral sense. And I have a question about the function of the nuclear missile, nuclear submarine (word?). What feasible target could they have since the end of the Cold War?
DONNELLYWell, they have, alas and alack, more targets than ever. And because of the cuts in nuclear force structure and the changing nature of the weapons themselves, ballistic missile submarines are more important, arguably, than they've ever been. One of the things that's happened in the last 10 or 15 years, as everybody knows, is the widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons. So it's not just the Soviet arsenal, which, thankfully, is getting smaller because it's rotting more than anything else.
DONNELLYSo even as we get improvements in the nuclear balance with the Soviet Union, we have China modernizing, expanding its arsenal, India, Pakistan, Iran on the verge. And who knows what that would spark throughout the greater Middle East? So the nuclear issue is becoming, even at lower numbers, I think, to me, more frightening and more dangerous.
REHMHmm. Dan in Cincinnati says, "Please ask your guests how veterans fit into the defense budget. Many more vets are coming home with life-long injuries that require a lifetime of support. Where does this funding come from?" Gordon.
ADAMSThe Department of Veterans Affairs has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 10 years, and large part is the consequence of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. So we're now well over $100 billion dollars a year in the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that's a long-term price, Diane. That is going to go on for 10, 20, 30, 40 years.
ADAMSBecause we owe it to the people who fought in those wars and received those wounds, injuries and psychic damage to deal with them. And so the price of that -- well, Linda Bilmes and Joe Stiglitz estimate that that may well cost us $2 or $3 trillion over the next 30 years, just in terms of providing those kinds of benefits and counseling service and treatment and the like. So it is a huge legacy of engaging in those two forms of combat.
REHMI must say, I take a deep intake of breath when I hear these figures for both the short term and the long term. It's as though, you know, it's just this never-ending hole of money that gets poured into.
DONNELLYWell, Stiglitz's numbers are always -- I don't want to, you know, go through all the mathematics, but they're always on the high side. And what he's describing is the lifetime care for both...
REHMA lot of folks.
DONNELLYWell, you know, you got to think of this in budgetary terms. So it's relatively small. There have been tens of thousands of people whose wounds that we don't fully understand. So...
DONNELLY…we'll have to care for them from the time that they're in their 20s through the rest of their life. That's a national obligation that we must fulfill. But compared to the obligations to the World War II generation or the Korean War generation or even the Vietnam War generation, dollar-wise, it won't be that much. And it's spread over many, many decades. Diane, if you really want number shock, you just should look at the rest of the budget. The entitlement costs, as all of the deficit commissions project, are just many, many times and many -- it used to be that entitlements were less than defense. About 25 years ago, they passed the threshold of costing more than defense. They're now four times the relative cost of defense and will soon become five, six, seven times the cost of defense.
REHMWell, and, I think, there is no one out there who would argue with you that some correction must be made. But as we look at defense spending, I mean -- here is a caller in Chicago, Ill., who's got a question. Jeff, you're on the air.
JEFFYes. Good morning. You know, I understand the value of protecting our own shores. But the value of projecting power throughout the world, that's always seem somewhat amorphous to me. So, I mean, you've touched on this already, but I know, politically, this wouldn't be possible. But let's say you cut the defense budget by three-quarters or, you know, to really pull back. I know that that's not a possibility, but just a thought experiment. Other than those who work for Lockheed Martin, what would be the downside -- I can see what the upside is in blood and treasure -- but what will be the downside just 10, 20, 25 years down the road of that kind of reduction in military extension?
ADAMSThat's -- this is, for some people, a seriously scary proposition. As a thought experiment, I think it's -- comes down to what we mean by a mission review. What is the role of the Navy being able to steam the globe? And is that an important role that we ought to underwrite? What is the role of the United States being prepared for a conventional war, massive, troop formation-type war that we're less and less likely to have to fight? What is the place of our relationship with China? And what instruments, military and civilian and economic, do we use in our relationship with China? What is the role of the United States in counterinsurgency?
ADAMSRight now, you have a cottage industry in Washington, D.C. -- overwhelming in the Pentagon -- that we ought to be fighting insurgents everywhere we find them around the world, and we ought to be prepared and trained and armed to carry out this mission. It's based on a misreading of Iraq and Afghanistan, where we went in basically to take down regimes and inherited insurgencies that we then had to fight. But there aren't a lot of massive insurgencies of that kind going on anywhere else in the world that we're likely to want to intervene in and are doing so is contra-indicated to our own security because of the enmity it creates in the world.
KITFIELDI think you take a risk -- if I contemplate that -- you take a risk that certain areas of the world become much less stable. Peer competitors assert their, you know, like China, for instance -- and we've seen already signs of it. We wouldn't be able to have the alliances we have now with Korea and Japan 'cause we couldn't fulfill those alliances at that level. So if China decides to flex its muscles and reclaim all the islands in the South China Sea or basically instill its own economic sort of trade model in Asia, we'll be powerless to stop it. It would be powerless to stop instability in the Middle East that cut off the flow of oil.
KITFIELDWe're the only people who basically guarantee that. So you'd have to, you know, in an earlier era, you would be unable to handle instability in Europe. We kind of collected these responsibilities throughout the Cold War. After World War II, we became the leader of the Western world, and we never have relinquished that mantle. Now, if the Western world doesn't have a leader, it becomes weaker, you know. Is that necessarily catastrophic? No. There are scenarios where you could, you know, think that's a pretty benign world.
REHMIf the Western world -- if the United States can no longer afford to be the military savior of the world, what happens then?
KITFIELDWell, I mean, I think that's a choice we have to confront. So I think that you have to do this in a prudent way, where you don't throw away these alliances, but you also ask -- and I think you've seen President Obama start to do that. You ask more of your allies. And sometimes those allies are going to not come through in a way you would like and you will have more instability -- we're seeing again in Libya. You're going to have cases where we don't lead and no one else leads adequately, and there'll be some outcomes that we don't like. Now, the outcome of bankrupting ourselves is also something that we don't like. So we're -- I keep going back to we're facing some pretty strategically tough choices.
REHMAll right. To Cocoa Beach, Fla. Good morning, Steven.
STEVENYes. Over the years -- I'm about 57 years old. When my dad was alive, we --he paid taxes, not just Social Security and med, but he paid withholding taxes. I earn a fairly decent living. I own a company. I pay no withholding tax. It comes back to me every year, every penny I put in. And I've spoken to a lot of people about it. All my friends, they said, you know, we started -- we have to start paying our share. We have no income coming into our government, or not as much as we need. They took out all the estate tax, which I was always told in graduate school was one of the greatest sums of income tax we have. We've knocked out all our withholding. I think it's time for the American people to chip in a little bit.
REHMIsn't that the contradiction, Tom Donnelly, that you've got a certain sector of the political establishment that wants to see taxes lowered, and at the same time, you've got a certain sector of the political establishment that wants to keep the United States' defense and military establishment strong?
DONNELLYActually, I think I'm the only person in the United States, or darn close to it, who'd be willing to pay more taxes if the money were spent to maintain a strong military. The political problem is the Republicans want to constrain taxes and thereby constrain the social welfare programs. The Democrats, by contrast, want to raise taxes, not to save defense but to save social entitlements. So, in some ways, defense is not really a part -- although it is on the table, it's not a part of the serious conversation. It's not an...
REHMIt's going to be on the table, though.
DONNELLYAgreed, but it's not a salient political objective for either party. Republicans want to hold taxes lower and constrain entitlements. Democrats, I think, want to save as much as they can of entitlements and were willing to raise taxes and have defense be a larger bill payer. It's not the more -- it's all at the margins, I agree. But if you look at the prime objectives of both parties, neither party is really a strong defense party.
REHMTom Donnelly, he's a defense and security policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. He's also -- let's see. He's co-author with Frederick Kagan of "Lessons for a Long War: How America Can Win on New Battlefields." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know, this question about defense lobbyists was one that nobody really completely addressed. As the Congress, as the president moves forward with these ideas to reduce defense spending, how possible is it with these lobbyists at work?
KITFIELDWell, it's going to be very tough. I mean, we have a perfect example of that. You know, Secretary Gates wanted to stop the second engine of the new Joint Strike Fighter, which is, you know -- everyone says having two engine makers over time saves you money 'cause it's competition. But sometimes when you're in a real tight budget squeeze, just some things you just have to forego. And that one seemed like a pretty small one. And Congress has fought him tooth and nail in that because it's jobs and districts. And there's a lot of lobbying going on obviously from the second manufacturer.
KITFIELDSo that's just one small slice that shows you that when you start, you know, taking on these big, expensive weapons programs, there's a constituency. You know, Eisenhower's militarily industrial complex is alive and well, and they're very, very hard to cut because they mean home state jobs.
ADAMSI'm the author, Diane, of a book called "The Iron Triangle," which is almost as old as I am at this point. But the iron triangle is well -- is alive and well and doing -- and kicking. Congress is constitutionally and institutionally challenged and politically challenged when it comes to making sensible choices about defense. What to bring down is going to be influenced by those politics. This is why it really is incumbent on the executive branch to take the lead here and to lay out a reasonable approach to choices and alternatives to tackle this question of mission, to really drive on the efficiencies, to make the hard choices.
ADAMSAnd I give Bob Gates credit for making some hard weapons system choices and pushing them through. It's extremely difficult to do. But the priorities can't be set by the Congress. It's just too institutionally challenged to do it.
REHMAnd, finally, to Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Roy. Roy, are you there?
ROYGood morning. I have a question.
REHMVery quickly, sir.
ROYThere was a book written in 1986 by Paul Kennedy called "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." He speculated that overspending on military expenditures is what brings down empires. I'd like a comment on that thesis.
DONNELLYHe's exactly right. When I was doing my story late last year, talking to a lot of historians, they definitely drew parallels between the Roman empire and the late British empire of a country that was overstretched, does not have the wherewithal to really sort of keep the military force that it has out there and basically starts to bankrupt itself.
ADAMSExcept numbers don't add up. It doesn't describe the United States. Even with all the war costs today, we spend less than a nickel out of our GDP dollar on defense, and we spend almost 20 cents now on debt and social entitlements. So if we decline, it will because of our consumption, not because of our war fighting.
KITFIELDTom is going to just about fall off his chair when I say this. This is the only place in the last hour that I've actually agreed with something Tom said. At 4 percent of GDP, defense is not what is bankrupting the nation. That doesn't mean we should spend 4 percent of GDP on defense. It just says as an economic cost, it's not terribly significant compared to some other things.
KITFIELDWhat we want in capabilities is another issue.
REHMGordon Adams, he's professor in the School of International Service at American University. Tom Donnelly is at the American Enterprise Institute. James Kitfield, senior correspondent for National Journal magazine. To be continued. Thank you so much. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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