Though the U.S. budget process has been going through the motions in 2012, the real action will take place at the end of the year, when several budget overhaul strategies will converge. Around town, the train wreck metaphor is getting the most use to describe what will happen. But whatever does happen, it is certain that large cuts are coming.
Those cuts come as three wars — Afghanistan, Iraq and the global war on terror — are driving national security spending to levels not seen since World War II. Since these wars have been paid for by borrowing, they have contributed mightily to our budget deficit and diverted resources from other investments in our domestic strength.
It is time for a responsible build-down of the post-9/11 build-up. But an extraordinary feature of the dysfunctional politics of Washington is the strenuous expenditure of time and money devoted to ensuring this doesn’t happen. Most of this intensity has focused on exempting the military budget from the coming sequestration of funds mandated by current law. This is unwise, because the military — or better said, the national security account — can and should contribute to our getting our fiscal house in order. In fact, we could cut our national security budget by a trillion dollars over the next decade without jeopardizing our security. Moreover, we could rebalance that budget as we cut and actually enhance our security.
The national security budget includes the Intelligence, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security agencies, as well as bureaus dealing with international affairs and nuclear weapons issues (mostly in the Department of Energy) and, of course, the Pentagon. Last year the total was about $1.2 trillion. The huge component in that budget is the Pentagon, at more than 50 percent of the total spending. So that is where everyone concentrates what he or she wants to cut, keep or increase. That’s where most of the rhetoric is expended, too.
But this view is myopic.
National security is composed as much of good intelligence and competent diplomacy as it is of bombs, bullets and bayonets; indeed, one hopes more so. Thus, looking at the national security budget as a whole, with all its components, demonstrates clearly that it is out of balance. Too much money is going to the iron and steel part of the budget and too little to the velvet glove.
That’s the first problem that needs correcting, the balance. The second is the Pentagon. As the largest item by far in the discretionary budget, not to mention in the security budget, Pentagon spending has the largest influence over the reducing/rebalancing equation.
The United States began the new millennium with a string of military budget increases, paid for by borrowing, that swelled the deficit while bringing us to the highest levels of Pentagon spending since World War II. Our current military expenditures account for more than half of the world’s total. We spend as much as the next 17 countries put together, most of them our allies. And we spend more in real terms now than we did on average when we did have a formidable adversary — the Soviet Union — that was spending about as much as we were and arguably constituted an existential threat to America. No such threat exists today, nor can we see a comparable one in the future, China’s rise notwithstanding.
Guaranteeing perfect security is impossible. But U.S. dominance in every dimension of military power is clear. In recent years we have been building “strategic depth” into this dominance without regard to its costs — to our treasury and to our other priorities. A responsible rollback of our military budget is achievable with no sacrifice to our security.
The specifics of this judicious rollback are contained in the Unified Security Budget (USB) published by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for American Progress, a budget I helped compile. Not only does this USB cut a trillion dollars over 10 years, it rebalances the budget so that the steel and the glove are in better proportions.
It is time for wise men and women to put partisanship aside, ignore the siren calls of defense contractors, stop taking counsel of their fears and get down to business with the national security budget. No aspect of the federal budget should be exempt from helping the nation get its fiscal act together. This soldier of 31 years knows that national security — including the Pentagon — can join this effort with no danger to the republic.
Wilkerson served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002-2005, as well as special assistant to Powell when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.