While the politicization of four American deaths in Libya has some of the media distracted, those of us who care about defense need to look past the hype. The “he-said, she-said” accusations on the Libyan tragedy are obscuring major differences between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on defense spending and strategy.
President Obama’s goals are pretty clear. His main focus is ensuring that we have a strong economy to maintain American strength, so he is trying to keep non-stimulus spending down. He sees our future threats lying in Asia, and wants to rebalance more resources there. And he wants to invest in new energy sources so we move away from oil, and stop being dragged into endless Middle Eastern conflicts.
That means his plan actually expands defense spending overall, which will rise with the rate of inflation. But Obama will be cutting the rate of growth we’ve been on during the post 9/11 era, taking out $487 billion in projected spending. Troop strength would go from 1.42 million to 1.32 million – while drones and other people-saving equipment would likely expand. It’s a typical no-drama Obama plan, one that focuses on the important (China, the economy) instead of the urgent (anything in the Middle East), and makes no lobbying group happy – a tough sell for a politician.
Governor Romney, meanwhile, wants to spend 4 percent of America’s GDP on the Pentagon – but he doesn’t seem to know why. The number would be the same regardless of America’s economic state or what our enemies are doing.
Meanwhile, Gordon Adams, who oversaw Pentagon budgets at the Office of Management and Budget under Clinton, has warned that spending at that level will further slow our economy by adding to the deficit.
But don’t be deceived – there’s a trick up the governor’s sleeve.
According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments Romney’s desire to match Pentagon spending to 4 percent of our GDP would cost up to $2.3 trillion over eight years. To put that in perspective: last year we invested about $58 billion across all U.S. transportation improvements. Or to compare foreign policy tools: the annual budget for the entire State Department and USAID is about $50 billion. Either cost is about 1/45th the amount Governor Romney wants to invest in the military. And that doesn’t count everything we spend on defense since nuclear weapons, for instance, are paid for by the Department of Energy, and war costs are not included in the Pentagon’s base budget.
Where would that money go? The governor has been vague, but it appears that he would add about 100,000 troops to our armed forces – though he has not said what they would be used for. Nor has he mentioned any changes to Tricare, the health care system whose costs are eating up a vast portion of the Pentagon’s budget.
Romney also wants to add more ships to our navy, building 15 a year instead of our current 9. Some naval expansion may make sense – but as usual, Romney doesn’t indicate why he’s doing it. If Russia is our main enemy, as he has said, well – their warm-water ports are pretty meager. He may be trying to inhibit China – they did just get their first aircraft carrier. But they currently lack the know-how to land planes on it.
In fact, Governor Romney’s proposal is mostly bluster. He’s actually likely to preside over the greatest post-Cold War drawdown in our nation’s defense. That’s because he hasn’t had the character to fight his own party as they threaten $500 billion in additional cuts to the Pentagon.
You heard that right. Despite the tough talk, Romney’s willingness to do whatever his party asks for in order to be elected president means he’s likely to cut fat, flesh, and bone from our nation’s defense.
You see, last year, Congress put a gun to its own head to force itself to pass a smarter budget. That gun – known as sequestration – threatened to cut $500 billion from the Pentagon if a budget compromise wasn’t reached. The threat was supposed to force action – no one wanted it to happen.
Instead, congressional Republicans are refusing to budge on the budget until it enshrines tax cuts for millionaires.
Sequestration is stupid in every possible strategic universe. But right now, Republican no-tax ideologues are beating Republican hawks politically, and they are holding the military hostage for tax cuts to the wealthy. So despite his desire to look tough on defense, Romney could well preside over $500 billion in defense cuts.
Strategy starts by looking at our threats and opportunities, then matches spending to our global ambitions. Pulling numbers out of a hat – whether to chop the Pentagon or raise the base budget – is no way to make these judgment calls. But conservative hawks and small-government aficionados are playing chicken with the Pentagon budget. And chicken-hawk Romney is not the man to call them on it.