Jun
04
2012

NYT: How Can We Be No. 1 if Pentagon Budget Is Cut by 1/12th?

Part of the 2011 Congressional debt reduction deal called for automatic cuts to social spending and military budgets over the next 10 years. The idea was that a deal to avoid these cuts would be struck, because Republicans wouldn't want to cut the Pentagon, and Democrats would try to protect safety net programs.

That didn't happen, so these so-called "sequestration" cuts are prompting some alarm bells in the corporate media–ringing loudly at the mere thought of cutting the military budget.

The New York Times (6/4/12) sounded the alarm today in a piece by Jonathan Weisman that framed things like this:

On January 2, national security is set to receive a heavy blow if Congress fails to intervene. That is when a 10-year, $600 billion, across-the-board spending cut is to hit the Pentagon, equal to roughly 8 percent of its current budget.

Wow, this isn't even about the military budget–it's the very security of our nation.

The piece is, as the  headline suggests ("Some Lawmakers Look for Way Out as Defense Cuts Near"), written from the point of view of lawmakers who can't stomach the idea of military cuts. The most important is Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. But, the Times explains, he's not the only one:

The dire warnings are not coming from Mr. Graham alone. They are coming at least as loudly from Leon E. Panetta, the secretary of defense.

So not only hawkish Republicans are worried about Pentagon cuts. So is, you know, the head of the Pentagon.

Weisman tries to give some sense of Graham's strategy for putting off the military cuts:

Mr. Graham's intention is to separate defense from the larger deficit issue by aiming his arguments high and low. The high argument is about American greatness.

"The debate on the debt is an opportunity to send the world a signal that we are going to remain the strongest military force in the world," he said. "We're saying, 'We're going to keep it, and we're going to make it the No. 1 priority of a broke nation.'"

That might be the "high" argument, but it's worth mentioning that, even with the cuts we're talking about, the U.S. will be spending more on its military than anyone else. Enormously more. As in: more than the next 11 countries combined.

Pieces like this one often fail to include any budget context at all. This one actually does include such a perspective–but only so the reporter can try to rebut it himself:

On its face, the automatic cuts do not sound that bad. If they are put into effect, military spending would decline to its 2007 level, said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. But really it is worse than that. The law exempts war costs and allows the administration to wall off personnel levels and military pay, about a third of the Pentagon budget. That means everything else–operations and maintenance, research and development, procurement, fuel, military construction–would face immediate cuts as deep as 13 percent, Mr. Harrison said.

Follow that: The cuts would actually bring the Pentagon to 2007 funding levels, but it's worse than that… because the cuts would be distributed unevenly. What?

I wrote a piece about this for Extra!, and this part of it includes all the information one needs to rebut this sky-is-falling reporting:

The proposed "draconian" cuts would force the Pentagon to make do with a budget equivalent to what it spent in 2007 (Project on Defense Alternatives, 10/11/11). Military analyst Winslow Wheeler (Center for Defense Information, 8/24/11) points out an annual base budget of this size–$472 billion–is $70 billion more than was spent in 2000, and would still constitute "more than twice the defense spending of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Cuba and any other potential adversary–combined.”

And the proposed cuts are often reported as raw numbers–$800 billion or $1 trillion in total cuts over the next decade. As economist Dean Baker has noted (CEPR, 8/4/11), coverage should explain that over this period the military is scheduled to spend close to $8 trillion.

Claims of catastrophic consequences from military cuts might also have been tempered by reminders that the Pentagon budget declined by close to 25 percent from 1989 to 1994–a historical context missing from most reports.

In other words, the cuts are real, but should be appreciated in the context of massive increases in military spending over the previous decade.

The other point of that Extra! piece: Stories worrying about supposedly debilitating cuts to military spending are a dime a dozen, and usually consist of getting Leon Panetta to complain about them publicly. But good luck finding many stories about what's going to happen thanks to $600 billion in social spending cuts. Reporters don't seem all that interested in that.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.