Catfood Commission Provides Opening for Defense Cuts to Go Mainstream

Exceeding the expectations of many arms control advocates, the deficit panel commissioned by President Obama earlier this year has actually proposed $100 billion in cuts to the Pentagon budget (do consult Miriam Pemberton’s brief treatment of its pros and cons). The cuts come primarily from unnecessary weapons procurements, overseas basing, and health care benefits for military families.

It is rather stunning to see a bipartisan, mainstream group of advisors concoct such an attack on the Pentagon sacred cow. Such a recommendation departs even from the stated position of President Obama, who likely only commissioned the panel in an effort to co-opt the deficit hysteria that was threatening his ambitious domestic agenda. This should be a credit to the efforts of Barney Frank’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, who lobbied hard to let the Pentagon contract its share of austerity fever.

The cuts are somewhat modest (though proportional to cuts sought in other areas of the federal budget), and the recommendations don’t necessarily connect all the dots from various program cuts to that $100 billion figure. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether they will receive the endorsement of the full panel, not to mention of Congress. But for the first time in recent memory, there exists a mainstream substrate on which to catalyze opposition to defense spending. You want those weapons contracts for your district? Fine, vote against the recommendations of the bipartisan deficit panel.

Predictably, and if you can pardon the expression, industry groups are up in arms. Marion Blakey, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association, has exclaimed that cuts to new weapons systems would “undercut the capability of the nation’s defense industrial base to design, build, and support complex cutting-edge defense systems.” Of course, this is a thinly veiled admission that such programs have little to do with defense and everything to do with that “industrial base,” the military-industrial complex that has its tentacles in virtually every congressional district.

As Miriam Pemberton and John Feffer have shown, there is tremendous unrealized potential in that industrial base that doesn’t require a steady stream of Pentagon funds for exorbitantly expensive war toys. But just in case major arms contractors aren’t ready to convert their capabilities into less destructive enterprises, there is always the international market. Already anticipating potential cuts in the Pentagon’s procurement budget, the Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon behemoths announced last month their plans for a $60 billion sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. This would be the largest arms transfer in American history. And arms exports next year already expected to surge.

Nonetheless, the commission’s interim proposal allows for defense cuts to make a welcome (and much belated) ingress into the political mainstream. The panel has taken a few real political risks that are likely to ruffle some feathers. In addition to the weapons cuts, the panel also suggests cuts to Social Security and – gasp – recommends against repealing health care reform.

This, of course, is not tantamount to world peace. But if the panel is willing to take an ax (or at least a scalpel) to the Pentagon and Social Security third rails, and if it is even amenable to jumping on the health care reform landmine only two months before the Tea Party comes to town, why not go after that other massive drain on spending? Ending the war in Afghanistan, which already costs upwards of $6 billion per month by the most conservative estimates, would go leaps and bounds toward reducing expenditures on every aspect of the defense budget already slated for cuts: weapons procurement, basing, and medical care. With the summer drawdown already looking increasingly farcical, perhaps President Obama needs a bipartisan panel to tell him that this war is too expensive (since “wrong,” or at least “wrongheaded,” has gotten less traction). Like the defense cuts already proposed, when this idea appears in otherwise bland bipartisan circles, we will know it’s finally gotten somewhere.