Obama's Defense Budget Cut: A Step in the Right Direction

As President Obama prepares to give a speech to Congress on February 24 about the underlying goals for his first budget, a White House source has told this writer that the speech marks the point where the Pentagon is expected to meet recession. While the Obama administration is likely to allocate about 535 billion dollars for Pentagon (which does not show a major decrease), the Pentagon is likely to need an additional 70 billion dollars to carry the war in Iraq through the end of September. Since the spending cut cannot come out of the spending for the Iraq War, private defense contractors are the most likely segment of the military industrial complex to have to bear the cuts.

There is still a certain level of uncertainty about the intentions of the administration, but if it is true, this decision can be not only an important component in addressing the economic recession, but also a great first step to fundamentally change America's approach in addressing terrorism.

Many of the opponents of Obama's stimulus package have been making the point that we cannot spend our way out of this recession. Of course, just about every economist in the country disagrees with that notion; when the country is in the middle of a recession that is being exacerbated because of the lack of adequate spending, government spending is exactly what is going to lead to job creation. However, what conservatives have failed to understand in the past is that what we cannot do is to militarize our way to national security.

In the twenty-first century, threats to American national security do not come from the prospects of conventional or nuclear warfare with other states as it was the case throughout the Cold War, but the spread of terrorism against civilians or American interests abroad, often carried out by individuals or foreign non-governmental organizations.

The Bush administration failed in a number of ways when it came to dealing with the new security challenges. First, George Bush launched a "war on terror" before making an effort to understand terror. The administration framed terrorists as people who were inherently evil and were targeting America because "they hate our freedoms," without attempting to understand their motives or reasoning.

Secondly, the Bush administration failed to acknowledge that unlike its claim, there were not a fixed number of terrorists who could be eliminated through conventional warfare. But rather, America's willingness to take the low ground in many ways to address what it saw as threats to its security -- such as the war in Iraq, torture of inmates at Abu Gharib prison in Iraq, Guantanamo and secret CIA prisons throughout the world, and the practice of abduction and rendition -- made it a lot easier for organizations like Al Qaeda to recruit more terrorists.

Signing the executive order to close Guantanamo and secret CIA prisons throughout the world, banning torture, largely abandoning phrases like the "war on terror" or "Islamo-fascism," and giving the first post-inauguration interview to Al-Arabiya have all been refreshing signs that show that Obama understands the impact of Bush's flawed policies on America's image and is taking the right steps to address them. Cutting the bloated American military spending can be yet another sign of Obama's understanding of the contemporary security challenges.

In 2008, the United States spent $651 billion dollars on the military, a figure that does not include many military-related items that are outside of the Defense Department, such as nuclear weapons research and production (the funding for which is requested under the Department of Energy), Veterans Affairs, interest on debt from past wars and current ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. After taking all of these numbers into account, the United States government has been spending about $1 trillion dollars per year on defense. In 2005, the U.S. military spending almost added up to that of the rest of the world's defense spending combined and eight times that of China.

The main components of the American defense spending include operations and maintenance, procurement, military personnel, family housing and research, development, testing and evaluation. The problem with these spending priorities is that all of them are designed to address the symptoms (challenges to American security) rather than the causes for those threats.

The United States can strengthen its security much more effectively by reallocating billions of dollars of defense spending towards other initiatives. Take Afghanistan. President Obama has consistently expressed the belief that there is a need for an increase in American military presence in Afghanistan. To some extent, a renewed commitment to militarily weakening the Taliban in Afghanistan may be the right step to take. But this action has to be a part of a comprehensive and long-term strategy because military action alone will not bring long-term security to Afghanistan or root out terrorism in the region. The reason is that for millions of Afghans in the Pashtun areas, terrorism is not an expression of deeply-held ideological beliefs, but the only viable method of maintaining livelihood. Now imagine the U.S. government were to reallocate some of the military spending toward education of opium farmers and creation of incentives for them to begin growing crops that can be used to produce ethanol. In just a few years, Afghanistan can have a vibrant clean energy agricultural industry that can supply the entire East and South East Asia with clean energy fuel, enriching Afghanistan and offering a real alternative for its citizens to reject professional terrorism and drug trade, addressing global warming and saving the United States billions of dollars in defense spending.

This is just one example of how some of the defense spending can be channeled toward more intelligent ways of fighting terrorism by focusing on its real causes. As I have previously argued, America has not only the right, but responsibility to protect its security and even promote democracy in other countries. But the notion that it can promote its values and strengthen its long-term security militarily alone is one that President Obama must reject.

But now that we are talking about preserving America's image and getting military spending under control, let's cut off funding for Black Water and other private defense contractors that do not follow Pentagon's codes of conduct and end renditions as a counter-terrorism tool; and how about following through on campaign promises and not selecting recent defense lobbyists to key positions at the Pentagon?