Issue #27, Winter 2013

The New Mandate on Defense

No, it’s not to spend more—it’s to spend less, and liberals should not flinch from that position.

The second rhetorical example of the Administration’s inability to break entirely from a Cold War view of America as necessary for preserving freedom in all of the world comes from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Panetta is one of the outstanding people with whom I have served in government. He was an extremely valuable member of Congress, with strong progressive values and a commitment to implementing them. He did an excellent job, first as Clinton’s budget director and then as his chief of staff, in advancing those values, and he was a very good head of the CIA when he returned to service for Obama.

But upon becoming secretary of defense, he lost the sensible perspective that he once had. In one of his earliest speeches in the new post, he lamented the fact that America had “hollowed out” our military after every war, and he pledged not to do so again after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were brought to an end. Hollowing out the military appears to mean, to some people in the defense sphere, reducing military expenditures when you are no longer fighting a war rather than keeping spending levels at the capacity to devastate a fully armed Soviet Union, wage thermonuclear war, and maintain a significant troop presence in Europe long after there is a need to protect our allies against Stalin and his troops.

The hollowing-out argument is particularly odd coming from Panetta because, in the first iteration of this lament, he included the Cold War as one of the wars whose end brought on a shrinking of the military. The problem is that the Cold War ended just as the Clinton Administration was beginning. And the budget director in the Clinton Administration at the time was Leon Panetta. In other words, when Leon Panetta, secretary of defense in 2011, complains that the Clinton Administration hollowed out our military after the Cold War, he is blaming Leon Panetta, budget director in 1993. As it happens, Budget Director Panetta wins this argument against Defense Secretary Panetta. Proof of that victory lies in what happened next—despite the supposed hollowing out of the military, the Clinton Administration was able to achieve a significant military success in southern Yugoslavia, and the Bush Administration, inheriting the same military from Clinton, had the force to dominate Iraq in a fairly short period of time.

Still the World’s Strongest Military

To be clear, this is not an argument against America continuing to be the strongest nation in the world. I want us to maintain that status. To some of my liberal friends, this may seem xenophobic. But as I look at the other potential candidates for the role, I’m glad that it is our country that holds the title. (If Denmark had the military resources to do it, I would be perfectly content, but choosing among Russia, China, Indonesia, and us, I choose us.)

That said, being the strongest nation in the world can be achieved much less expensively than at current levels. Obama deserves a great deal of credit for ending the war in Iraq, for committing to ending the war in Afghanistan, and for successfully withstanding Republican pressure to spend more on the military. But I believe he underestimates the extent to which the public is willing to support even further reductions, and I believe that he may appear to be overly influenced by being told that as President, he has the duty to continue to lead the indispensable nation.

The United States was indispensable in 1945 and for many years thereafter, given the weakness of other nations, including our closest allies, and the strength of the Soviet Union. But things have changed. We can no longer afford to be the indispensable nation extending a military umbrella over many allies on whom it is not raining—and who can well afford their own protective gear if it does. Fortunately, there is no longer any need for us to play that role, and that in turn is fortunate because, for a number of reasons, we cannot succeed at the job when we try.

This all means that a major political task going forward for liberals is pushing for further reductions in military spending, an objective that we now know is not only socially and economically necessary but also politically achievable.


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Issue #27, Winter 2013
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sabine atwell:

How about a scrub? From top to bottom? Why do we need over 700 military bases around the world? Why do we have multiple intelligence agencies at the undisclosed cost of undosclosed to watch over " the terrorists". We should learn from the lesson of Rome that at least lasted 500 years? We have waged many useless and costly wars after the one good one that ended in 1945. It is time to reexamine our situation in the present world...If we don't get our economy under control, dea with urban poverty and massive inequality, we will not be able to compete in the world anyway...

Dec 10, 2012, 1:23 PM
Joe Beckmann:

There are two key aspects of the military budget that - accidentally, on purpose, or accidentally on purpose - Barney does not address. Patronage and infrastructure.

The "Eisenhower precedent" of a highway system funded as a defense measure is plenty on which to base the infrastructure investment critical to both short and long term employment. Universal fiber optic has a real value in both national defense, environmental protection, and employment, particularly if, once built, like the interstate highway system it remains publicly owned and available.

And the flexibility the President has in investing in such defenses ought to be plenty to force Republican (or Democratic Recalcitrants) to comply and "work well with others." Why, for example, there are ANY defense contracts in Bachman's district, or how the President justifies even a post office in Boehner's goes against basic politics today, just as it did in the days of Lincoln (or, at least, Lincoln: the movie). Politics is not all money, but most money is, in fact, political.

Dec 10, 2012, 2:15 PM

Beyond agreeing with Barney's analysis and proposal, I have question: How much does the Navy spend on guarding the sea lanes for oil tankers bringing oil to the US? Should this be paid by the oil companies as part of the cost of doing business. Moreover, as we are moving to an oil-exporting country, do we need the Navy to perform such a task? About a decade ago, I heard an estimate that the Navy spent about $47 billion dollars on protection for the oil companies. I dont know if that was accurate or what the figure is now. But it would be interesting to find out.

Dec 10, 2012, 10:59 PM
DeLayne Hudspeth:

Does anyone know of some edict that prohibits the press from including the military in discussion of budget downsizing. The total lack of including the military is the natter of budget reduction is more than chance. Who is controlling the press and how on the issue of reduced military budget?

Dec 11, 2012, 10:54 AM

As far as jobs go, defense is relatively inefficient compared to other ways the government could spend money ( In particular, not only would shifting money from defense to education double the effectiveness in job creation, it would also increase future military preparedness. The key is not how large is our standing military, but how quickly can we increase the size of the military to meed an unforeseen demand. To the extent that these days both being a soldier and a defense contractor are high-skill labor, increasing the skill level of our workforce is probably more important than how many aircraft carriers we currently have deployed.

Dec 11, 2012, 11:30 AM
Evil Overlord:

Good article, if too carefully polite to President Obama. It's frustrating that most conversation about defense "cuts" is really about smaller increases in spending. While I'd like to see commenter Sabine Atwell's top-to-bottom scrub, that seems unrealistic if today's rah-rah "patriotic" environment. So, kudos to Barney Frank for publicly making the suggestion that's been privately obvious for so long.

Dec 17, 2012, 10:05 AM
Robert Abbott:

The core of the progressive argument on defense spending is that they don't like US policy on military affairs. I don't say they a priori dislike the military, but they are gut level anti-war. That is why Congressman Frank's article is so valuable. He's explaining the strategic reasons for our military spending. He's giving us a basis for an argument that gets at why we spend on the military. Knee jerk anti-war sentiment has done nothing to inhibit defense spending because it ignores the real reasons for it. Take Mr. Lakoff's observation for example. The Navy protects our oil supply, not for the exclusive benefit of oil companies, but because our whole way of life that each of us enjoys absolutely depends on cheap energy!! Force oil companies to pay for the Navy and listen to people howl about high gas prices. No, Mr. Frank's article gives us a chance to change policy based on why we actually have a big defense budget. That is a step forward in my opinion.

Dec 20, 2012, 1:45 PM

Ron Paul makes Frank look like an idiot for not addresing the first pus filled bag of military spending,565 bases spread around the world, and 500 navy ships patrollig every stretch of ocean. I would add serious cuts for the rogue NATO,CIA, state department, and FBI, and why does the White House need a $500,000 a year restaurant?

Dec 23, 2012, 4:53 AM
Dave Thomas:

Tell me Congressman Frank, do Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae still look totally healthy to you like they did in 2003 when you helped cause the financial meltdown by blocking reform of the two institutions?

You have the blood of the financial meltdown on your hands sir, and that has destroyed your credibility and driven you from Congress to the great benefit of the nation.

Good riddance!

Dec 24, 2012, 12:18 PM
Mary Floyd:

Your wisdom will be missed in Congress, Mr. Frank. Please continue to write articles like this one.

Jan 12, 2013, 10:26 PM
Elizabeth Skinner:

Rogue NATO? Are you serious? I worked in NATO planning and policy, and there is no one there who doesn't understand where NATO's power comes from. Hint: It's not Estonia. The United States has become so closely defined by its military power, that we seem to have forgotten that there are other ways to have influence in the world. The Defense Department should not be deciding foreign policy.

Feb 17, 2013, 2:04 PM
Forrest Buckley:

As long as there exists a Military/Industrial Complex spending on the military will be far to excessive!

Feb 18, 2013, 11:21 AM

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