Barack Obama’s Secret Plan: Cut Defense Spending

In the debate about the reform of health care in the US, the central issue is how it is going to be paid for. The numbers mentioned are dazzling, and certainly to most US voters, who – according to polls – are getting a little nervous about how any health care reform is to be paid. Representatives, Senators and the President are locked in a political battle about the price tag(s). But on spending, there is one huge elephant in the room about whom nobody dares talk: defense spending, and cutting it to help finance health care reform.

The defense budget has mushroomed under the presidency of George W. Bush, making even his dad blush.  And so far, the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress have kept mum on what they actually want to do with the defense budget in the long run. Do they want to cut it, once US forces start leaving Iraq proper starting in 2011?

The Democrats and even some Republicans were willing to cut $1.75 billion initially slated for the F-22 Raptor advanced fighter program. This willingness to make such cuts could very well be a prelude to making deeper cuts at the behest of some of Obama’s ambitious reform plans, such as for health care.

And there is probably good reason for it. During the Clinton presidency of the late 1990s, the US military proved it was quite capable of carrying out its duties with a lot less money.

US Defense budget 2006-2010 (projected), in $ bln
US Defense budget 2006-2010 (projected), in $ bln

Take 1998 and 1999, for instance. Defense spending had dropped to  $296.7 and $298.4 billion respectively. During the Bush presidency, defense spending ballooned to $536 billion in 2006 – and that is excluding the costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008, the last year of Bush’s presidency, the defense budget went to a record $762 billion, including war expenditure. For 2009, the budget was set at $745 billion, and president Obama raised it again to $762 billion, to deal with the continued deployment in Iraq and the expansion of operations in Afghanistan.

From $298.4 billion to $762 billion ten years later – quite a difference. And what will happen to the budget once the US forces start moving out of Iraq? Unless a war breaks out somewhere else, logic would have it that the defense budget will be cut.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already cut several expensive, yet conventional warfare projects, of which some at its core still hailed from the drawing tables from the last years of the Cold War. It stands to reason more of such programs will be cut in the near future, with more money shifting to ‘irregular’ technologies, such as space surveillance, missile defence, intelligence gathering, and counter-terrorism operations.

But a lot of money will simply be cut from the defense budget altogether, and moved to other federal programs, such as health care. If Obama is able to move even 25% of the projected 2010 defense budget to health care in 2011 or 2012, it could help him and the Democrats in Congress to ease the financing problem that has started to worry so many Americans.

Of course, there’s a snag. Proposing deep cuts in the defense budget while US forces are deployed in a war zone – which will still be Afghanistan – is highly unpopular among voters. And like it or not, 2010 will see mid-term elections for Congress. This is probably the reason why Obama and the Democratic leadership have kept mum on the defense cuts option.

But this is a safe bet: come very soon, Obama will propose cuts to the defense budget – a budget that is not holy, and should not be holy.