The Wailing Cassandras Return

The defense budget crisis that isn’t

by , February 28, 2014

WASHINGTON – "The budget is an announcement of American retreat."

Thus begins the rending of clothing and the gnashing of teeth that one would generally expect from the editors of National Review, who typically only weigh in (quite clumsily) on foreign policy/military issues when it concerns defending a war or proposing one. A preview of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s defense budget this week drew no different response from the boys on The Corner, whose underdeveloped polemics and style take them as far away as one can get from founder William F. Buckley without being a carbon copy of the children’s favorite, Highlights magazine.

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If you hadn’t heard already, the Defense Department plans to formally unveil a $496 billion 2015 budget next week that is ostensibly in line with federal spending caps, calling for an overall reduction in the military, particularly the Army force size, along with some moderate cutbacks in benefits, ships and planes.

On cue, as though she popped out of the same Boohbah pod as her NRO compatriots, Jennifer Rubin showed us what she was made of, rhetorically and cognitively:

"By cutting down to the quick he (Obama) signals we are in retreat and incapable of projecting US power. He should abandon that tact and instead enlist General David Petraeus to go through the budget, formulate reforms and use savings to repair readiness and avoid painful cuts that will affect our troops and their families."

There is so much wrong with this paragraph that it even seems perverse that her Washington Post column is called "Right Turn." Let’s start with "cutting to the quick." Most dictionaries define this idiom as cutting through flesh to the bone, or hurting someone quite emotionally. Hagel’s proposed cuts may be helping Sen. Marco Rubio R-Fla., who Rubin quotes elaborately, put on a Fainting Mabel act, but they are far from making anyone cry (unless of course, someone actually throws the entire 1,000-page budget at someone’s head). My staunch A-10 defender friends might also drop a tear or two, but buck up guys, you have another year to lobby the Hill, if last year’s budget, which was just passed in January, is any indication.

But to invoke Petraeus is not only showing how thin, but sophomoric Rubin’s arguments are. Petraeus may be able to save wars from humiliating defeat, reclaim runaway bureaucracies, out chin-up college co-eds, and leap-over sexual misconduct investigations in a single bound, but he is in no way more experienced in federal budget-making than Chuck Hagel was when he took the job. The only difference is Hagel hasn’t left his post after a year or in the middle of a war.

But the Hill warhawks and neoconservatives are in a rut over Obama’s foreign policy and their chicken little gears are on autopilot. The Pentagon is responding to federal budget caps imposed by congress like it was supposed to. It endured sequestration cuts, and a federal government shutdown imposed by congress just in the last year. "Drawdown," as it were, is a natural contraction of budget projections to prewar levels. This was expected by not only the Pentagon, which has been planning for this since Bob Gates was secretary, but by the defense industry, the White House and by any member of Congress who was bothering to show up for work everyday.

So why are the wailing Cassandras acting as though they expected differently? To score political points for the next election? To take yet another jab at the "defeatist" Obama Administration?

Whatever it is, it’s making them look fairly Peter and the Wolfish. But the media did their best to help bring on the palpitations by repeating the headline, "cuts bring military down to pre-World War II levels" a million times in almost every mainstream news outlet – television and radio too – for two days. As Conor Friedersdorf pointed out in The Atlantic on Tuesday, they were all played. And so were news consumers who obviously reacted to the dramatic headlines.

For one, these headlines were comparing the proposed number of Army cuts (down to 440,000 to 450,000, compared to a wartime peak of 570,000) to the entire military, all branches, circa 1940, which was 458,355 strong (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines) and about to kick some Nazi and Japanese butt.

So what is the point of the headline, other than confusing us all? As good-guy Noah Millman over at The American Conservative points out, "My base-case assumption is that ‘lowest levels since 1940’ is just a lot more dramatic than ‘below the levels of 2000’or ‘largest reductions since 1992.’" But that is exactly where the proposed levels are. Sorry guys, we can’t all be ramped up like we’re about to launch a major land war every single fiscal year of our lives. It’s unsustainable, wasteful and silly. And guess what, the majority of Americans would probably agree, since they’re more worried about their jobs and paying for healthcare than anything else right now.

But that hasn’t stopped the dogs of war from nipping at Hagel’s ankles. They never liked him anyway, so this just gives them some more ink for the caricature. Let’s be clear, Hagel is more than a just a disappointment to the 101st Fighting Keyboarders (a.k.a. 101st Chairborne) – he hasn’t impressed the pants off the realists and non-interventionists who supported him during those ugly nomination hearings either. But there’s just no excuse for the stupid remarks coming out of the media and Capitol Hill on the budget this week.

For example, here’s old time favorite Gen. Barry McCaffrey, drug czar and message force multiplier, on MSNBC this week:

"It looks like to me, an attempt to solve the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid problem with a tiny defense budget," he charged, noting that the Iranian nuclear program, the Pakistani "problem" and China is enough to keep the military at Iraq and Afghanistan War levels (one NEVER notes that the US, the top defense spender, has spent more money on its military in recent years than the next 13 nations combined – including China).

Next, the Hansel and Gretel of Capitol Hill storytelling, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the former "angrily" putting a hold on two non-controversial Pentagon nominees on Wednesday, could not miss a chance to make magic from this fistful of plain beans.

"We live in an every increasingly dangerous world and this budget is out of touch with reality," Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., said, according to The Hill.

"We are going to kill it. Not let it happen," said Sen. Graham, R-S.C., adding that Hagel’s proposal was "ill-conceived, ill-designed, bad defense policy, detached from reality: I am running out of adjectives."

And I am running out of fairy tale clichés.

Then comes Sen. Mark Warner, Democrat from Virginia, one of the biggest military states in the union by far. He appears flummoxed, as though Hagel’s proposed cuts to military services and benefits came out of the blue, when much of it has been talked to death and debated for years.

The reported proposal apparently attempts to save money on health care by consolidating the extremely generous TRICARE coverage system into a single insurance plan and increase new out-of-pocket costs to retirees and family members of active duty service members. It also wants to scale back tax-free housing allowances that now cover 100 percent of service-members’ housing costs down to 95 percent.

Hagel’s proposal also calls for cuts that would reduce consumer savings at the military commissaries to about 10 percent, down from 30 percent. Hardly a crisis. But Warner said he would have rather waited unto yet another blue ribbon study could come up with the same darn recommendations.

"I’m worried that our military and veterans are being asked to have commissaries and benefits to take a hit now when – to my mind, we still ought to be looking at a broader-based grand bargain of retirement reform and tax reform," he said. 

Sure, whatever that means. Even milquetoast Bob Gates, whose penchant for neutral language only shifted when it was time to sell a book, once said "health-care costs are eating the Defense Department alive." That was nearly four years ago, when according to him, costs rose to $50 billion from $19 billion a decade earlier. It doesn’t sound like we need to waste any more time.

But while the naysayers are all carrying on with the usual funeral dirge, it’s clear that like Sleeping Beauty, the bloated budget we have all come to know and love is not ready to die so easily.

First, according to Defense News, while keeping into account the federal caps for 2015, the formal proposal will blow off the caps for the three years after that by asking for an additional $115 billion over what is it allowed under the 2011 Budget Control Act.

The budget proposal also takes into account $26 billion expected to be designated for defense spending in the administration’s "Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative." This slush fund, so far not detailed, is White House-initiated, and is supposed to be funded by a combination of "spending and tax reforms." According to Defense News, the Pentagon plans to use it for "readiness and other base budget type stuff." It is also off the Pentagon’s base budget books. Some say it is just more shell-gaming, kind of like the convenient $80 billion Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account attached to the recently passed 2014 budget. In it, a larder full of stuff that couldn’t fit in the ostensibly "trimmed" base budget.

"This (OCO) represented $5 billion more than the administration had asked for and included $10 billion in operational funding (some of which is readiness-related) that the appropriators slid over from the base budget so they could make room for things the Pentagon did not want and did not ask for – but were definitely congressional pet rocks," defense budget guru Gordon Adams wrote in a column Feb. 14.

Pot-stirrers like McCain and Rubin and the guys on The Corner, must think we have rocks in our heads not to recognize this game for what it is. As Adams says, the budgets are now representing a drawdown, albeit a slow one – but it was inevitable. To call it a "dangerous retreat" or "detached from reality," well, that’s just crying wolf.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.

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