Over the Horizon: The Defense Budget Revolution Won’t Be Televised

Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama released a new strategic document intended to provide guidance for cuts in the growth rate of the defense budget (.pdf). Though the planned leveling off of the defense budget had already been announced in principle, the strategic priorities laid out in the document make it official: There’s going to be a knife fight at the Pentagon. Unfortunately, the American public won’t be watching.

As I've argued before in this space, the process of cutting the defense budget is inherently messy. Defense policy is best understood as the outcome of a massive scrum between different elements of the defense-industrial complex, including the uniformed services, the defense industry, the civilians in the Pentagon and the administration. Obama's speech and the document that accompanied it are best seen as the initial salvo in this fight, an effort to set the strategic terms on which the battle will be fought.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the white paper is the official recognition that the size of the defense budget itself represents a threat to U.S. national security. In theory, this should not be such a remarkable insight; one common narrative explaining the end of the Cold War is that the United States drove the Soviet Union to economic ruin by forcing it to maintain an unsustainable military budget. As Bernard Finel suggests, the United States has now committed itself to a degree of dominance over potential rivals that may be unsustainable in the long run, and that in and of itself poses risks.

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