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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 01/25/2011

Cutting the defense budget

By Glenn Kessler

"When the Cold War ended 20 years ago, when I was Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs] and Mr. [Richard] Cheney was Secretary of Defense, we cut the defense budget by 25 percent, and we reduced the force by 500,000 active duty soldiers."
--Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, January 23, 2011

At a time when the United States is facing a fiscal crisis and a mountain of debt, the former Secretary of State offered this history lesson on CNN Sunday to rebut claims that the defense budget is "sacrosanct and it can't be touched." By today's standards, the numbers seem mind-boggling. Was the defense budget really cut by 25 percent in one four-year presidential term?

The Facts

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought forth demands for a "peace dividend," especially from members of Congress. Even before then, military leaders such as Powell recognized that Reagan era defense spending could not sustained, so they sought ways to stay ahead of the congressional demands.

Powell, in a May 1990 interview with The Washington Post, revealed that he thought "the deepest cuts the military could withstand in dollars and troops was 20 to 25 percent." That was significantly higher that a two-percent-cut-a-year plan that Cheney advocated--and the article earned Powell a chewing out by Defense Secretary--but President George H.W. Bush ultimately embraced the idea. By curious coincidence, Bush announced the goal to draw down U.S. forces by 25 percent on August 2, 1990--the day Saddam Hussein's troops invaded Kuwait.

Because of the time lag in crafting and implementing federal budgets--and because the fiscal year begins on Sept. 1-- it makes the most sense to assign the budget years 1990 through 1993 to Bush's single term. By that standard, defense budget authority went from $293 billion in 1990 to $267 billion in 1993, for a decline of almost nine percent.

Experts say that active duty forces should be measured from 1989, since that is the number of troops Bush inherited. The number of active duty forces went from 2.2 million in 1989 to just under 1.8 million in 1993, for a total cut of more than 400,000. Cheney's official biography on the Defense Department website measures the decline for both the budget and troops the same way, using slightly different figures.

However, the budget numbers have not been adjusted for inflation, which is the most accurate way to compare budgets over a period of time. When the budgets are adjusted to 2011 dollars, the decline from 1990 to 1993 is much more dramatic: about 15 to 16 percent. Powell stayed on as Joint Chiefs chairman in the first year of the Clinton administration, when the budget was cut even further, resulting in a total cut of about 22 to 23 percent from the 1990 levels. That's getting pretty close to 25 percent.

Meanwhile, troop levels continued to fall, to 1.7 million, for a 500,000 reduction by 1994. (By the end of Clinton's term, active duty forces stood at just under 1.4 million.)

"Our goal was to reduce to a Base Force level with a cut of 500,000 active duty and an overall reduction of 25 percent of the budget," Powell said in an email. "The new level may not have been reached while Mr. Cheney was still there or before I left, but the reductions were in train." He noted, "President Clinton cut it even more."

Gordon Adams, an international relations professor at American University who at the time was the Office of Management and Budget official responsible for the DOD budget, said more credit for the 1994 reductions should go to the OMB and then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin but Powell "might take credit for them."

The process that started in 1990 under George H.W. Bush was ultimately reversed under the presidency of his son, George W. Bush, with the defense budget soaring to today's levels. When budget numbers are adjusted for inflation, the United States is now spending more on defense than at the height of the Reagan years, according to Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.


The Pinocchio Test

In raw numbers, Powell's claims hold up for active duty troops. His assertion for the defense budget comes pretty close in inflation-adjusted dollars, especially if you give him credit for the full period he served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Certainly, the 25 percent goal was embraced and announced by President George H.W. Bush--and the military reached that target.

Powell earns the prized Geppetto Checkmark.

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By Glenn Kessler  | January 25, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Geppetto's Checkmark, Other Foreign Policy, War on Terror  
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