The debt default showdown in the U.S. is reaching new heights as the latest negotiating session yesterday evening ended in heightened tension. Meanwhile Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned yesterday of a “huge financial calamity” if the debt ceiling is not increased. And the Moody’s rating agency’s threat of a credit downgrade highlights the real consequences of failing to pay America’s bills. This is not only an economic issue. Republicans and Democrats, Bernanke, and America's credit rating agencies have all warned about the dire consequences of defaulting on our nation's debt. America’s power and role in the world is based off of its economic strength. Further, these dangerous games hardly serve as a good advertisement for the American model of democracy and effective governance as many countries around the world reconsider their models. We should not be playing games with American power.
Intense efforts are underway to avoid defaulting on the nation’s debt. The talks are now focused on the largest single element of discretionary spending, one which has nearly doubled in the last decade: the defense budget. According to the Washington Post, an increasing number of conservatives agree with the president that reforms to defense spending must be part of the overall solution to reducing the national debt. This shift comes as the public questions how America’s military commitments abroad are paying off—something President Obama acknowledged in his speech last week when he announced the withdrawal of the surge troops in Afghanistan. “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” he said.
Leon Panetta will soon take over as secretary of defense amid a review of roles and missions, requiring that as we rethink budgets and spending, we also rethink the strategy that determines how and where America uses its military. Panetta will also be forced to deal with a Congress that says it wants to reduce spending, but still funds unwanted programs that several defense secretaries before him have tried to weed out.
Responsible leaders from both parties recognize that defense cuts must be part of a deficit reduction package. As Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn explained yesterday, "The defense budget alone cannot solve our deficit crisis. But it's hard to envision an overall solution - either economically or politically - that does not include some contribution from the 20 percent of government spending that goes toward defense." Yesterday the lack of coherent House leadership on the issue again came to the fore. While the House Appropriations Committee passed a budget including modest Pentagon cuts, the House Armed Services Committee was busy adding back programs the Pentagon doesn't want and relitigating policy issues - from "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to nuclear reductions to the scope of the military response to terrorism - which are ideological distractions from the pragmatic business of building a lean, effective military and getting our economy moving again.
Standard and Poor's decision to downgrade the U.S. long-term credit outlook highlights how much is at stake in the budget debate. Bipartisan experts agree that no effort to tackle the debt is serious unless it includes defense spending, which is at a high in real terms since the end of the Cold War. A serious review includes not just "efficiency" savings but also a review of strategy, roles and missions - recognizing that, as defense expert Gordon Adams notes, "Money has always driven strategy and strategy has always influenced money."
As a potential government shutdown looms, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee, yesterday released a budget proposal for the 2012 fiscal year. Ryan's proposal fails to recognize that America's ability to project power and advance our security is derived from our economic well-being and that the cuts being proposed to key investments in America, as well as to our development and diplomatic assets, will undercut our strength. While bipartisan experts agree that cuts to the defense budget should go further, ironically, when it comes to the Pentagon, Ryan's proposal essentially endorses the president's budget request. This has caused deep division among conservatives by pitting those who have called for arbitrary increases in defense spending against Ryan, meaning that conservative infighting will continue to rage over these proposals. While the broader budget debate will be intense, it is clear that the president's coherent vision for defense spending has opened up a debate among his conservative critics, demonstrating that they do not have such coherence.
Today sees both the announcement of the 2012 defense budget as well as Defense Secretary Robert Gates' attempt to lay down a line on what he wants - and what he doesn't want - in the 2011 defense budget still being debated by Congress. Given the depth of concern expressed by bipartisan political, military and national security leaders about the nation's fiscal health - from current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen and past chair Colin Powell, to House Majority Leader Cantor (R-VA) and Minority Whip Hoyer (D-MD) - the 2012 budget leaves much room for further cuts. On top of this, the GOP's latest proposal for the 2011 Continuing Resolution leaves Defense almost untouched. Experts from both sides of the aisle agree that if Congress is serious about reigning in spending, everything must be on the table, including defense spending. But the Tea Party and establishment conservatives have yet to agree on a vision of U.S. security policy that matches up to sensible funding cuts, punting on the difficult decisions that the country is facing.
Last night in his State of the Union address President Obama said "the only way to tackle our deficit is to cut excessive spending wherever we find it - in domestic spending, defense spending, health care spending, and spending through tax breaks and loopholes." He went on to note that, "The Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without." In short, this is no time for "sacred cows." Bipartisan political and military leaders - led by former Secretary of State Colin Powell - agree that making smart cuts to defense spending are essential for ensuring American national security. Smart cuts take into account strategy and what Secretary Gates calls the "critical role" of civilian agencies, whether stabilizing Pakistan, training police in Afghanistan or supporting civil society in Tunisia.