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The Only Way to Cut the Pentagon Budget: Downsize the Mission

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Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

Recently, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave a major speech at the National Defense University on cutting military -- a.k.a. defense -- spending. Hagel is considered a "realist" and so when it comes to such cuts, this is undoubtedly the best we're likely to get out of Washington for a long time to come. Unfortunately, it turns out that the best is pretty poor stuff.

The speech was filled with the sort of complaints we've already grown used to hearing from the Pentagon about the "deep cuts... imposed by sequester." These, Hagel insisted, will result in "a significant reduction in military capabilities." (In fact, President Obama's just released 2014 budget calls for only a miniscule 1.6 percent cut in the Pentagon's bloated budget.) There was also the usual boilerplate stuff about the U.S. global military stance -- "America's responsibilities are as enormous as they are humbling" -- and about the "vacuum" we'd create on planet Earth if we reduced it in any way. As the Nation's Robert Dreyfuss wrote, "Nature may abhor a vacuum, but it isn't the job of the United States to go stumbling into every regional conflict, humanitarian crisis, failed state, and would-be terrorist nest that arises. Whatever those things are, they're not 'vacuum' to be filled."

Like Leon Panetta before him, Hagel, who took a voluntary sequester pay cut, managed to make it sound as if the U.S. military were teetering at the edge of some financial cliff. He spoke mournfully, for instance, of the Pentagon having "significantly less resources than the department had in the past." Well... no, as Mark Thompson of Time magazine pointed out, it just ain't so.

The facts aren't difficult to sort out, even for those of us who aren't secretaries of defense. In a world filled with the most modest of enemies, after those "sequestration" and other planned cuts in the military budget are taken into account, the country would still be spending at levels that weren't reached in the Cold War years when there were two overarmed superpowers on the planet. As the Congressional Budget Office concluded last month, "In real terms, after the reduction in 2013, DoD's base budget is about what it was in 2007, and is still 7 percent above the average funding since 1980."

Among Hagel's more accurate, if disheartening, comments was his praise for the way the U.S. military had, in the post-9/11 era, grown "more expeditionary." Back in the nineteenth century, that phrase would instantly have been recognized as code for "imperial" -- for, that is, a great power exerting its muscle by policing the far frontiers of the planet. In ending his speech, Hagel added definitively, "America does not have the luxury of retrenchment." So here's a simple budget-cutting formula for you: if you can't retrench and become less "expeditionary," then significant cuts to the military, not to speak of the full-scale national security state, including the homeland-security complex and the intelligence-security complex, simply will not happen. There's only one way to cut the national security budget in a meaningful way: downsize the mission.

With tax day looming, the National Priorities Project's Mattea Kramer put some number-crunching energy into what a people's budget might look like with genuine military cuts in a less imperial world. Her answer in "A Tax Day Plan for Righting the Republic": don't underestimate the much-ignored wisdom of the American people on where their tax dollars should (but won't) go.