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Military Budget Marks A Major Shift — Why This, Why Now?

Mar 5, 2014
Originally published on March 5, 2014 6:42 pm



Secretary Hagel has taken a lot of heat lately for those recommended budget cuts. We're going to focus more now on these cuts and what they would mean for the U.S. military. Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University and worked on national security and foreign policy budget issues for four years in the Clinton White House. He says the cuts signal an important philosophical shift for the Pentagon.

GORDON ADAMS: Well, the one big change that actually started in January of 2012 when Secretary Panetta put out his strategic document was to say we're not going to do any more long term sustained stabilization operations. These are the Iraq-like operations that demand 100,000, 200,000 troops rotating through a country for a long period of time. And Secretary Hagel plans to bring down the size of the army precisely because he and before him Secretary Panetta have ruled out those kinds of operations for the American military.

CORNISH: Now, let's consider Syria. The U.S. has largely refused to get involved there up to this point. Is this the kind of conflict where this new vision of the U.S. military makes sense?

ADAMS: Yes. I think one element of this, it's very clear, and this is, I think, as much from the White House as it is from the Defense Department, is the United States is simply not going to be trigger happy. It's not going to deploy forces everywhere where there is some kind of a security crisis. We've seen that in Syria where the president stepped back from what was going to be a relatively harsh but limited strike.

We certainly see it in Ukraine, where there's no expectation that the American military is going to be involved directly in any way, shape or form. There is a more, if you will, balanced view of the statecraft of the United States in this administration that is saying we will use diplomacy, we will use economic power, sanctions and things of that kind. We will have adequate force and we certainly will have it.

We have the only global military that exists in the world today, but we'll use it sparingly and appropriately in a balanced approach to our statecraft.

CORNISH: Well, what do you say to critics who look at Russia or China and see them committing more resources to their military?

ADAMS: Well, first thing, I think, to keep in mind is that the United States has a military that is the only global force. We're the only force that can deploy everywhere in the world, fly everywhere in the world, sail everywhere in the world. It is a dominant global military. China is probably 30 or 40 years away from that. The Russians aren't even trying to get there.

So looking at how much they're increasing their defense budget, in the Chinese case it's still, you know, probably a seventh or sixth of what the American military budget is, is not telling us much about capabilities. And for my money, the most capable and technologically advanced and global force in the world is the American military, even in an era of budget control act limits on spending.

CORNISH: Given that we've had these draw downs in the past, can you talk about ones that worked, ones that you think really made smart choices?

ADAMS: Well, almost every draw down that we've done has left us with a military that is still the most globally capable military, but they've had variations. Eisenhower made a strategic adjustment. He went to massive retaliation and a smaller ground force. After Vietnam, we had probably the most turbulence we've had in a draw down, mostly because we were transitioning from a conscript military to a volunteer military.

But for my money, the best secretary of Defense in a draw down, if you will, was probably Dick Cheney after the end of the Cold War, somebody who stepped right out, made some very tough calls, brought 500,000 people out of the active duty force, lowered the defense budget 25 percent in constant dollars and left behind the kind of force that was capable of doing Gulf War I and in the end Gulf War II.

CORNISH: That's Professor Gordon Adams of American University. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ADAMS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.