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Military Hawks Upset with Debt Deal

Proposed defense cuts in the deal to raise the debt ceiling have caused neoconservatives to lambast the agreement.

Inter Press Service

As both houses of Congress debated the 11th-hour debt limit deal hashed out Sunday night by senior lawmakers and the White House, neo-conservatives and other national security hawks complained bitterly on August 1 that the final package may force major cuts in defence spending in the coming years.

"If this deal governs policy for the next decade, it will be hard for the U.S. to remain a sole superpower," warned Weekly Standard editor and leading neo-conservative ideologue William Kristol.

"This is the best day the Chinese have ever had," he went on. "This deal embodies a vision of America in decline," he added.

Former Acting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton – whose analysis bounced all around the right-wing blogosphere August 1 – was no less hyperbolic, calling the possible military implications of the deal no less than "catastrophic".

"Make no mistake, this deal, by risking massive defense cutbacks, potentially points a dagger at the heart of our national security," Bolton, who now sits at the American Enterprise Institute, warned.

More-dovish military analysts, on the other hand, also expressed disappointment with the package, albeit for entirely different reasons.

"The proposed deal does not go far enough in reining in a military budget which in real terms is higher than at any time since World War II," noted Lawrence Korb, a senior Pentagon official under Ronald Reagan and currently with the Center for American Progress (CAP).

"In the short term, the budget deal crafted by the president and the congressional leadership gives the Pentagon virtually a free ride," complained William Hartung, director of the Arms Security Project at the Center for International Policy. He noted that military spending will be reduced by less than one percent at most over the next two years, according to the deal and that bigger cuts would only take effect in 2013.

The package, which was passed by both houses and signed by President Barack Obama on August 2 lifts Washington's current debt ceiling of 14.3 trillion dollars and require cuts in projected federal spending by some 2.4 trillion dollars over the next decade.

Of those cuts, between 900 million dollars and one trillion dollars will be taken from discretionary programmes over the ten years and cannot be made up through tax increases or other forms of revenue "enhancements".

Of that total, up to 350 billion dollars may be taken from the Pentagon, or 50 billion dollars less than what Obama had already told his military leadership to plan for.

The remaining 1.4-1.5 trillion dollars in savings – which, unlike the first tranche, could be achieved by reforming the tax code, as well as by programme cuts – will be determined by a new, 12-member Congressional committee divided equally between Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

It has a deadline of late November – in time for the Thanksgiving holiday – to formulate a package. It, in turn, must be approved by Congress by the Christmas holiday, in late December.

If, however, the committee fails to agree on a package, or either house of Congress fails to approve it, then across-the-board cuts totalling 1.2 billion dollars would automatically take effect.

Half of those cuts would be applied to the government's Medicare programme and other discretionary domestic spending. The other half, however, would be applied to "security" spending, including the Pentagon.

It's that possibility that alarms the hawks, who have been railing against the 400 billion dollars in cuts over the next 12 years already ordered by Obama and endorsed – albeit without much enthusiasm – by the former Pentagon chief Robert Gates and the military chiefs in April.

"It's hard to see what incentive there is for the committee to recommend anything very different from the default 50-50 split now enshrined in the sequestration – in which case the defence budget is going to have eat another 500-600B (dollars)," Kristol wrote on the Standard's blog.

The Pentagon's current base annual budget, however, stands at about 550 billion dollars, or more than the military budgets of the 20 next-biggest militaries combined. When the costs of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are added, the total budget will exceed 700 billion dollars in 2011, or almost twice what the Pentagon was spending before the 9/11 attacks.

In addition to its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the budget is based on the post-Cold War notion that Washington should be able to fight and win two major conventional wars at the same time, a strategy whose relevance has come under increasing question given the degree to which the country has found itself engaged in entirely different kinds of combat over the last decade.

As the deficit issue has loomed ever larger on the political horizon here, particularly after eruption of the Sep 2008 financial crisis, a great debate over the defence budget's future has been building steadily.

Most Democrats have called for deep cuts, while Republicans have been split between military hawks, like Kristol and Bolton, who argue Washington must maintain its global dominance at all costs, and deficit hawks, who say defence should not be exempt from the overriding need to cut the deficit.

In the last year, two bipartisan commissions, one headed by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and Bill Clinton's chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, and the other, by Clinton's budget director, Alice Rivlin and former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Dominici, called for one-trillion-dollar cuts in defence spending over ten years.

But Pentagon and independent hawks have argued that such cuts would require major changes in U.S. defence strategy that these commissions have not taken into consideration. And the White House has declined to endorse the commissions' recommendations.

"To avoid reductions that are arbitrary and capricious requires clarity of strategic purpose," noted Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel at Boston University who has published a number of books critical of U.S. Cold-War and post-Cold War strategy.

"The big question is not how many billions should come out of the Pentagon's bloated budget," he said. "No, the big question is: given our straitened economic circumstances and in light of the monumental catastrophes of the past decade, what is America's proper role in the world? Simply reciting clichés about 'global leadership' won't cut it. The time to make hard choices is at hand," he said.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org).

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