By Miriam Pemberton, research fellow, Institute for Policy Studies
The Obama administration’s budget included a promissory note. It will take them a few more weeks to tell us what they plan to spend next year on the Afghan War. Their intention to bring that war to an end, though, is clear.
Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and his Harvard colleague Linda Bilmes are predicting that this will produce “little in the way of a peace dividend for the U.S. economy once the fighting stops.” They base this bleak assessment on the kinds of meticulous calculations that anchored their 2008 book The Three Trillion Dollar War: on the huge sums we will and must be spending to care for wounded veterans, for example, and the money squandered when war support functions were massively and unnecessarily shifted to private contractors.
They are surely and unfortunately right that what we will save by ending these wars has already been “spent” on the future, baked-in costs of misguided decisions made during those wars. But that doesn’t mean that the prospect of a “peace dividend” is gone.
That’s because the ending of the wars is coinciding with a broader defense downsizing, propelled by the battle over the budget deficit. And the effects of automatic budget cuts known as “sequestration” on the Pentagon budget will actually produce a smaller downsizing than any of the previous postwar periods: smaller than after the Cold War, or the Vietnam War, or the Korean War.
There is more downsizing to do, therefore, on a military budget that, adjusted for inflation, climbed higher during the post-9-11 period than any budget since World War II. During this period the idea of making choices among military priorities was simply shelved. And this budget grew on top of the separate budget that has funded the post-9-11 wars. With an economy starved from lack of public investment, we need that peace dividend. Will we get one? You wouldn’t think so, from the looks of the administration’s Pentagon budget request this year, which fails even to stay within the limits set by sequestration.
But there’s better news in what the new Defense secretary has been saying. Chuck Hagel’s first major speech April 3 at the National Defense University referred to the “inevitable downturn in defense budgets.” He criticized past weapons spending programs that produced “systems that are vastly more expensive and technologically risky than what was promised or budgeted for.” Hagel has committed to a serious reexamination of his Department’s spending practices, a “Strategic Choices and Management Review,” that will actually tie our national security strategy to the budget available to pay for it.
It will identify actual priorities from among the long list of missions the Pentagon has claimed for itself in recent years. The last major Pentagon reorganization, he noted, came during the height of the Cold War, when “[c]ost and efficiency were not major considerations.” He promises that the new review will take seriously the proposition that “DoD is incentivized to ask for more and do more,” and work to change this budget-busting combination.
Will he succeed? No telling, as yet. The first Obama administration (and last Bush administration) Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, had some of the same intentions, most of them unrealized. But the post-sequester world is different. In this world we know it really is possible to shrink the Pentagon’s budget, despite the best efforts of the defense industry, its congressional allies, and much of the Pentagon staff itself to keep it climbing ever higher.
To get to a Pentagon budget that is sized for our new postwar world, the downsizing momentum needs to keep going. While the war budget declines, we need to make sure that the “regular” Pentagon budget comes down with it. This is where a peace dividend can be found. We can’t give up on that goal so easily.
Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author, with Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, of the Unified Security Budget for the United States.