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If the United States is serious about cutting the federal budget, then it must get serious about cutting defense spending.

The United States spends about $750 billion a year in military expenditures, on top of more than $1 trillion spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This huge number dwarfs the amount spent on defense by any other country, and it represents a significant portion of our federal budget. There is no responsible way to slash the federal budget without a serious review of defense spending.

Some defense cuts are already in the works; if the deficit reduction super-committee is unable to agree to a deal to cut $1.2 trillion from the budget, then automatic spending cuts would kick in and hit the defense budget hard: About $600 billion would be slashed from defense spending, on top of $450 billion in cuts that have already been promised. It seems that nobody really wants these cuts to take effect, however; the threat of serious defense cuts was supposed to be an incentive for both parties to come to an agreement.

Military leaders pushed back against these proposed cuts Wednesday morning, telling a House panel that a significant reduction in defense spending could be devastating to America’s national security and global influence.

“Cuts of this magnitude would be catastrophic to the military, and in the case of the Army would significantly reduce our capability and capacity to assure our partners abroad, respond to crises and deter our potential adversaries, while threatening readiness and potentially the all-volunteer force,” [Army chief of staff Ray Odierno] said.

The Navy’s chief, Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, said defense cuts of as much as $1 trillion would cause “irreversible” damage to the military.

The facts don’t appear to support Odierno and Greenert’s claims, however. International relations experts such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell have long questioned how harmful cuts to America’s defense budget would actually be.

“When the Cold War ended 20 years ago, when I was chairman and [Dick] Cheney was Secretary of Defense, we cut the defense budget by 25 percent. And we reduced the force by 500,000 active duty soldiers, so it can be done. Now, how fast you can do it and what you have to cut out remains to be seen, but I don’t think the defense budget can be made sacrosanct and it can’t be touched.”

Former Clinton administration budget official Gordon Adams agrees, pointing out, “Were defense budgets to decline by $465 billion from the current DoD projections, it would be the most moderate and shallow build down we have ever experienced since the end of the Korean War.” This hardly sounds like the recipe for disaster that Odierno warns of.

Even if the United States cut a massive 30 percent from its defense budget, it would still be spending roughly $400 billion per year on military expenditures. That number is six times larger than China’s defense budget, 10 times larger than Russia’s, and 40 times larger than Iran’s. There is no country on Earth that could challenge the U.S. militarily, even after huge defense cuts.

Drastic defense cuts would not stop the United States from maintaining a significant presence in the Middle East and Central Asia, while also continuing our smaller-scale humanitarian missions across the globe. Yet politicians from both sides of the aisle are terrified to make such cuts, instead preferring to reduce the deficit by squeezing Medicare recipients or public employees such as teachers and firefighters.

Apologists for our defense budget also like to claim that cuts would kill jobs. This argument is flawed as well. Although defense spending has skyrocketed in the past few decades, the industry has rapidly shed jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the defense industry employed less than 1.4 million Americans in 2010, and defense industry employment has shrunk by 42% from its Cold War peak in the 1980s.

Why should Congress protect defense jobs over all others? As Adams points out,

The consequence, of course, of cutting non-defense discretionary and entitlement spending is that public sector workers — fire-fighters, police, teachers, health workers — will lose their jobs.

So, hypocrisy abounds in this jobs argument. It is not about defense, it is about defending the defense budget.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems to recognize the importance of reconsidering our military spending. As she told the Economic Club of New York on Oct. 14:

“Today, our foreign and economic relations remain indivisible. Only now, our great challenge is not deterring any single military foe, but advancing our global leadership at a time when power is more often measured and exercised in economic terms.”

Clinton is right when she says that, in an era where large-scale military conflicts between global powers are almost extinct, economic power has surpassed military power in importance. Yet the United States’ economic power is waning, in large part because of the fact that we spend nearly a trillion dollars a year on defense, and refuse to cut it in any significant ways.

The time has come for Congress to take a stand and make smart but significant cuts to our defense budget. It wouldn’t have the disastrous effect on global security that many fear, and it would be an easy way to improve our economy at home, which would help us continue to lead the way abroad.


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