Last week, Barack Obama announced that he wants to cut $400 billion in military spending and said he would work Sec. of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs on a "fundamental review" of US "military missions, capabilities and our role in a changing world" before making a decision.
Spokesman Geoff Morrell responded by hinting that Gates was displeased with having to cut that much from his spending plan. Gates "has been clear that further significant defense cuts cannot be accomplished without future cuts in force structure and military capability," said Morrell, who volunteered that the secretary had not been informed about the Obama decision until the day before.
But it is difficult to believe that open display of tension between Obama and Gates was not scripted. In the background of those moves is a larger political maneuver, on which the two of them have been collaborating since last year, in which they gave the Pentagon a huge increase in funding for the next decade and then started to take credit for small or nonexistent reductions from that increase.
The original Obama-Gates base military spending plan - spending excluding the costs of the current wars - for fiscal year 2011 through 2020 called for spending $5.8 trillion, or $580 billion annually, as former Pentagon official Lawrence Korb noted last January. That would have represented a 25 percent real increase over the average annual level of military spending, excluding war costs, by the George W. Bush administration.
Even more dramatic, the Obama-Gates plan was 45 percent higher than the annual average of military spending level in the 1992-2001 decade, as reflected in official Department of Defense (DoD) data.
The Obama fiscal year 2012 budget submission reduced the total increase only slightly - by $162 billion over the four years from 2017 to 2020, according to the careful research of the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA). That left an annual average base military spending level of $564 billion - 23 percent higher than Bush's annual average and 40 percent above the level of the 1990's.
Central to last week's chapter in the larger game was Obama's assertion that Gates had already saved $400 billion in his administration. "Over the last two years," he said, "Secretary Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending. I believe we can do that again."
The $400 billion figure is based primarily on the $330 billion Gates claimed he had saved by stopping, reducing or otherwise changing plans for 31 weapons programs. But contrary to the impression left by Obama, that figure does not reflect any cut in projected DoD spending. All of it was used to increase spending on operations and investment in the military budget.
The figure was concocted, moreover, by using tricky accounting methods verging on chicanery. It was based on arbitrary assumptions about how much all 31 programs would have cost over their entire lifetimes, stretching decades into the future, assuming they would all reach completion. That methodology offered endless possibilities for inflated claims of savings.
The PDA points out that yet another $100 billion that Gates announced in January as cost-cutting by the military services was also used to increase spending on operations and new weapons programs that the services wanted. That leaves another $78 billion in cuts over five years, also announced by Gates in January, but most of that may have been added to the military budget for "overseas contingency operations" rather than contributed to deficit reduction, according to the PDA.
Even if the $400 billion in ostensible cuts that Obama is seeking were genuine, the Pentagon would still be sitting on a total projected increase of 14 percent above the profligate level of military spending of the Bush administration. Last week's White House fact sheet on deficit reduction acknowledged that Obama has the "goal of holding the growth in base security spending below inflation."
The "fundamental review" that Obama says will be carried out with the Pentagon and military bureaucracies will be yet another chapter in this larger maneuver. It's a safe bet that, in the end, Gates will reach into his bag of accounting tricks again for most of the desired total.
Despite the inherently deceptive character of Obama's call for the review, it has a positive side: it gives critics of the national security state an opportunity to point out that such a review should be carried out by a panel of independent military budget analysts who have no financial stake in the outcome - unlike the officials of the national security state.
Such an independent panel could come up with a list of all the military missions and capabilities that don't make the American people more secure or even make them less secure, as well as those for which funding should be reduced substantially because of technological and other changes. It could also estimate how much overall projected military spending should be reduced, without regard to what would be acceptable to the Pentagon or a majority in Congress.
The panel would not require White House or Congressional approval. It could be convened by a private organization or, better yet, by a group of concerned members of Congress. They could use its data and conclusions as the basis for creating a legislative alternative to existing US national security policy, perhaps in the form of a joint resolution. That would give millions of Americans, who now feel that nothing can be done about endless US wars and the national security state's grip on budgetary resources, something to rally behind.
Three convergent political forces are contributing to the eventual weakening of the national security state: the growing popular opposition to a failed war, public support for shifting spending priorities from the national security sector to the domestic economy, and pressure for deficit and debt reduction. But in the absence of concerted citizen action, it could take several years to see decisive results. Seizing the opportunity for an independent review of military missions and spending would certainly speed up that process.