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The defense budget should be frozen

Spencer Ackerman explains the insanity of exempting the defense budget from the spending freeze.

Everyone in Washington who studies the Pentagon budget quickly finds gobs and gobs of wasteful spending. Not some people. Not dirty hippies. Every. Single. Defense. Analyst. If I was so inclined, I could spend my days doing nothing but attending conferences on the latest defense jeremiad or policy paper about how to cut it. I already spend too much of my time reading this stuff on defense-community email listservs.

For the Obama administration to exempt defense spending from its kinda-sorta-spending-freeze is a position that makes no sense from a policy perspective. None at all. From a political perspective, it only begins to make sense because a brain-dead media would amplify the braying ignorance blasted from a GOP congressional megaphone about Defense Spending Cuts OMG. And even then it doesn’t make sense. A holdover Republican Defense Secretary is now the biggest advocate of an even slightly sensible defense budget in the Obama administration.

The explanation that I got from a "senior administration official" was that we need to remember we're at war (which we're not paying for, natch). And so we do. But the whole point of this freeze is that it allows for internal variation. So we could increase funding for war-related activities and decrease funding for, say, weapons systems that are meant to protect us against China.

Moreover, we're drawing down our most expensive war and ramping up a less expensive war. Both those things happen in the 2011 budget. So freezing spending after that should actually be fine: The reduction in costs related to the war in Iraq would actually make the freeze easier on the defense budget than on other sectors, as their 2011 level is artificially high.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 27, 2010; 3:46 PM ET
Categories:  Budget  
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I could be Dem cowardice - unwilling to be branded as weak on defense, soft on terrorists.

Could also just be basic not wanting to shut factories, bases, etc in 'vulnerable' districts.

Either way, it doesn't feel much like leadership.

Posted by: RalfW | January 27, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

This is where there the only difference between dems and repiglicans is that repiglicans demonize anyone who would suggest cutting the war budget (I can't in good conscience call it defense) and dems cower in fear and continue to fund the war machine. It is the single most spineless, cowardly, and deficit producing thing that dems do, and there is a lot of competition for this distinction.

Posted by: srw3 | January 27, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Homeland Security is also, I have read, full of waste and fraud. To exempt those two agencies just out of the box suggests that they idea of a "spending freeze" is completely unserious.

Freezing both budgets with a caveat that special funding bills could be passed to pay for specific, documented needs would seem to be the way to go.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 27, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Its perfectly rational not to freeze defense spending, so long as u totally remember that this is a transparent political gimmick, which can easily be trumped by every Democrat president's nightmare....being called "weak".

Once upon a time, Barack Obama used to mock silly gimmicks like this, such as the summer of 2008 gas tax on big oil companies. What happened to that guy? I voted for him!

Posted by: zeppelin003 | January 27, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

i'm absolutely fine with this. Freeze it all. At some point you've got to cave to the side of fiscal conservatism or Republican"ism". I'll side with the fiscal conservatives. If defense needs more money then get out of Iraq quicker to fund whatever they need just like democratic priorities would be shifted from agriculture to social programs. What's good for the goose is good for the gander and in turn they're both good for the country.

Posted by: visionbrkr | January 27, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

That's what I hate about this "freeze." The whole rolling out felt insincere and gimiky.

Last year it seemed like the Obama team wanted defense spending on the table for cuts. We were at war then too. Now, they don't. Why?

Posted by: ideallydc | January 27, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

It's also possible that the WH thought that the internal variation in the spending freeze might work against them if they included the defense budget in freeze as well. After all, it's one of the more difficult things to cut, so if Congress does decide to adhere to the topline freeze but ignores the programmatic detail of the president's budget, they might still boost defense spending but then be forced to cut more non-defense programs. It's counterintuitive, but perhaps defense was excluded from the freeze to save non-defense programs. Just a thought.

Posted by: ethanpollack | January 27, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Why do you hate America, you commie?

It's times like these, you realize just how *little* leadership the Obama Administration is providing. After all, they could be out front of this, selling the idea. But it's much easier to diaper yourself with Old Glory, and stick it to WIC.

Posted by: antontuffnell | January 27, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I remind you that this is a liberal administration who have reviewed the facts as they have them and have decided that a freeze on defense appropriations is not a good path at this time in America's battle against Islamic extremism. That tells me something. It is possible they are seeing things that bloggers and other gadflys don't see. Defense is important and it must be outside of a spending freeze.

Posted by: lancediverson | January 27, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Freeze the defense budget? You are adorable!

Posted by: eRobin1 | January 27, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

Lance, we don't need a $700-$800 billion/yr to fight the Islamists. We just need to spend the money more effectively. How do I know this? We're spending billions of dollars per year to develop the F-35 stealth strike fighter, an aircraft that will cost in the ballpark of $100 million per copy. I know that Al-Qaeda is stocking up on sophisticated S300 SAMs and has fleets of Su-30MKIs that we need to take out, but we might be overdoing it a little. Meanwhile, we didn't bother paying to encrypt transmissions for our UAVs and have had their video feeds hijacked. We're planning on buying something like 2,400-2,500 F-35s. We could cut that number to 2,000 F-35s, and buy more (of the much cheaper) RQ-9 UAVs that would provide greater combat ability for our forces while also slashing total defense spending by tens of billions.

In other news, sending 30,000 - 40,000 additional U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan is going to cost $30 - $40 billion per year. The annual GDP of Afghanistan is in the neighborhood of $10 billion. Is spending $1 million per American soldier really the only way to do this? There isn't any way to bribe the Afghans /supply them to manage their own affairs with a portion of that incremental? I mean sure bribing them might not work but the Afghan surge might not work either. I don't think that its out of the realm of possibility that $1-2 billion in supplies plus $1-2 billion/yr in cash to several of the least unsavory warlords would produce some results - it would be a good incentive stay on our good side, at the least. Or we could just declare victory and leave, and say something along the lines of us coming back if we have another attack.

While I think an arbitrary slashing of the defense budget to something like $450 billion/yr, while probably leaving the U.S. military somewhat less effective, would have us see hundreds of cost saving strategies come out of the woodwork, and we'd largely be able to accomplish all of our important objectives.

Posted by: justin84 | January 27, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, like most liberal the only part of the federal budget you think deserves to be cut is defense. I'll go along. Let's freeze defense spending. But I won't support just freezing defense spending. Everything in the federal budget should be frozen. I'm sure there's plenty of waste and fraud in your favorite social welfare program so that a freeze won't be a problem.

Posted by: RobT1 | January 28, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse


I see you know more about defense than the commander-in-chief and the secretary of defense.

Some would call your assertions hubris.

Posted by: lancediverson | January 28, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse


You know what, you're right. It would be sheer hubris to suggest that those in power might ever end up doing something boneheaded. After all, they have access to more information and are typically brilliant people. If the American people had challenged the commander in chief, the secretary of defense and secretary of state back in 2002/2003, we might have made the mistake of not getting involved in Iraq. What a disaster that would have been!

To be more charitable to SecDef/CIC, they do have other concerns to worry about (I'd guess the F-35 buy is mainly about China fears), and Obama/Gates would probably want a smaller defense budget if it were politically realistic. However, recall that your comment was in regards to our battle against Islamic Extremism. We're spending about as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, for the purpose of defeating disparate bands of angry, stateless Islamists. Worse still, we're not exactly on the brink of victory. And you're telling me the problem is that we're not spending ENOUGH money? Reagan didn't even need this much to prepare for fighting the Soviets!

Let's not pretend that carving defense spending out of the freeze was about level headed policy analysis (see Ezra's original post) - it was entirely about avoiding the political backlash from the right.

I hope you're in complete alignment with everything the government does from here on out - if you're opposed, remember that you know less more about the situation than the government does, and any assertions you make in opposition would be mere hubris.

Posted by: justin84 | January 28, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse


You're right, everyone can criticize the government for whatever reason they may have. I really wasn't trying to suggest otherwise.

What I am suggesting is that I have heard for years how liberals talk about cutting the defense budget and ending wars. Then, they get to power, and they realize this is really hard to do given the intellegence reports they get concerning the threats from around the world.

I am just sick of hearing it! We have a liberal administration who I firmly believe wanted to change course on defense spending/contracting and war management. What they found when they took office was that it simply wasn't easy or maybe even possible. We have been down this road before. I am sick of the righteous ingidnation of liberals concerning defense spending when they are on the outside of power looking in only to have them realize when they gain power that there are reasons our defense establishment is what it is to meet our responsibilities in the world.

Posted by: lancediverson | January 28, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

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