Target: military budget

Where will Obama find the money for his ambitious programs? Look no further than the bloated Department of Defense

November 26, 2008|By Erica Etelson

We hear every day that the crises President-elect Barack Obama will inherit are even worse than we knew. During his news conference Monday to present his new economic team, Mr. Obama spoke of the need for "meaningful cuts and sacrifices" in the federal budget. But where will a nation almost $10 trillion in debt find the cash to save the banking system, invest in "green collar" jobs, insure every American, keep our bridges from collapsing and make certain that - this time, really - no child is left behind?

Mr. Obama and Congress should look no further than the military. Of the $873 billion in discretionary spending last fiscal year, more than half was on national defense. And that doesn't count the nearly $800 billion we've spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor does it include the Department of Veterans' Affairs' $37 billion annual budget, the legacy of the senseless military occupations of the past 40 years.

Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense for Ronald Reagan and a fellow at the Center for American Progress, says we can save $55 billion a year simply by getting rid of a handful of Cold War-era weapons we don't need anymore. Take, for example, our F/A-22 fighter jet program, designed in the 1980s to fight a conventional ground war in Europe: We're in the process of expanding that fleet to 183 jets to the tune of $65 billion, when we should be scrapping it. Or how about the $12 billion National Missile Defense program (Ronald Reagan's infamous Star Wars fantasy reincarnated)? Given its track record for failure, Mr. Korb suggests shaving $8 billion from it. His report is endorsed by a panel of big guns, including former CIA director Adm. Stansfield Turner and Ambassador Ralph Earle II, former director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.Mr. Obama has inspired millions with eloquent rhetoric about the politics of the possible. But during his seemingly endless campaign against Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain, he did not so much as hint that the military would feel the edge of the budget ax. True, military cuts would not be politically popular. But neither would deep cuts in social spending.

The fact is, if Mr. Obama is not willing to confront one of the root causes behind our nation's flirtation with bankruptcy, his social-justice aspirations will be impossible to attain. And if he is truly committed to the fantasy of a permanent U.S. victory in Afghanistan, it's time to start stashing cash under our mattresses.

The president-elect is very smart, but he's not a magician. He cannot conjure from thin air the trillions it will take to fix our broken systems. Mr. Obama promised to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans as a way of funding his ambitious programs; now it appears he intends to delay those increases. The most sensible way to raise revenue without raising taxes is to make substantial cuts in defense spending, starting with an immediate withdrawal of forces from Iraq.

Not one U.S. president has heeded President Dwight Eisenhower's warning against the rise of the military-industrial complex. On the contrary, every administration has allowed the Pentagon and the defense industry to amass just the degree of "unwarranted influence" Mr. Eisenhower dreaded. And it just keeps getting worse; since 2001, defense spending has doubled, and President Bush has requested a record $711 billion in defense spending for 2009.

The day of reckoning has come: Our nation's infrastructure is literally crumbling underfoot, the economy is headed down the drain, and our social fabric is in danger of disintegrating. If we do not quickly transfer our nation's wealth from the bloated military to social, economic, agricultural and environmental programs, we will soon be on a ruinous path.

Remember the "peace dividend" George H.W. Bush promised in 1991 after the end of the Cold War? It's time to pay it out. Better late than never.

Erica Etelson is a writer based in Berkeley, Calif.

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