Democratic chairman ‘unconvinced’ by arguments to slash defense budget, but open to debate

Greg Nash

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday he is “unconvinced” that the defense budget can support deep cuts, but left the door open to the possibility should Democrats win in November.

“I am unconvinced that our national security policy would be what it needs to be if we cut the defense budget by 10 or 20 percent,” Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “But I am wide open to the conversation and the debate and discussion. I do not presume that I know everything and am absolutely right about this.”

Smith’s latest comments expand on recent remarks where he predicted a fight among Democrats over the defense budget if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidency and the party wins control of the Senate.

In his previous comments, Smith argued a 20 percent budget cut is too large, but acknowledged the likelihood of an intraparty fight on the issue if Democrats control the executive and legislative branches next year.

The comments stoked some ire from progressives, who have been pushing Biden to slash the defense budget if he wins.

Biden told military newspaper Stars and Stripes last month he does not foresee making major defense cuts. If anything, he added, the defense budget could increase in certain areas, such as cyber capabilities and unmanned aircraft.

On Wednesday, Smith said he envisions a relatively flat defense budget of $720 billion to $740 billion going forward. The lower end of that range would be a $20 billion cut from this year, but, as Smith noted, “a $20 billion cut out of $740 billion isn’t 20 percent, it isn’t even 10 percent.”

Smith said he rejects arguments that the defense budget should be cut “because the U.S. military is a malign actor in the world and must be constrained.”

But, he added, he is open to debate about how to adjust U.S. national security strategy to support further cuts.

“You have to explain to me that, OK, are we not going to have as many troops in Asia to deter North Korea from invading South Korea and China from invading Taiwan? Are we going to reduce even further our footprint in Africa and then cede that area more to China and to Russian mercenaries? Well, what are the implications there? Is there an argument for that?” Smith said. “I want to have that debate, and I want to have that discussion.”

In that vein, Smith said he had a “productive” conversation with progressive group Win Without War on Tuesday where they talked about adjusting national security strategy to enable defense cuts.

“I do agree with the idea that we can have a national security policy that has a lower defense budget than we currently have,” Smith said. “It’s just you got to get there in a rational, responsible way.”

Win Without War similarly described the conversation as “productive.”

“We had a productive conversation with Chairman Smith, wherein we reiterated our hope for a long-overdue rethinking of runaway spending at the Pentagon,” Stephen Miles, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement. “As our, and the world’s, experience these past several months with COVID have devastatingly shown, the true security challenges of the 21st century require reinvesting in real human needs, not more battleships and bombs.”

Updated at 2:46 p.m.

Tags Adam Smith Joe Biden

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