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A warning on budget 'elitism'

Your correspondent was off last week, but in case you might also have missed it, take a look at this explosive column by defense gadfly Winslow Wheeler, about the doom-and-gloomism surrounding potential DoD budget cuts.

All this rhetoric about a weakened, helpless U.S. reviving the draft and being doomed to another Desert One is just a bunch of hogwash, he writes -- dangerous hogwash:

The stench of elitism is permeating Washington, just as it did a decade ago when everyone of consequence bought the proposition that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction -- and even if there was room for doubt, he was a threat and "had to go." Today, the subject matter is different, but the methods are the same: say things that are demonstrably false but use enough extreme rhetoric from four star admirals, cabinet secretaries and congressional chairmen to establish a middle ground that eliminates opposition. Those who fear being labeled out of the mainstream, especially the major media, are buying it just as mindlessly as they did before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

This time the subject matter is the defense budget. Cutting it is the target of rhetorical gibberish, just as President George Bush warned of a "mushroom cloud" over America if we didn't invade Iraq. Nonetheless, it is politically potent and intimidating to opponents who might otherwise speak up.

By crying as loud as possible over the worst imaginable consequences, defense advocates are suppressing skeptics and trying to scare outsiders on the dangers of further spending reductions, Wheeler argues. But it's a cynical game, given the pornographic amounts of money the Pentagon already wastes and the historic highs of spending that Wheeler argues would still be in effect after the cuts under consideration:
If the worst of the worst happens under the debt deal President Obama made with the Republicans last August and the so-called "doomsday mechanism" is triggered to cut Pentagon spending, it might go down as low as $472 billion, the same level as in 2007.

If returned to that 2007 level, the base DOD budget would be $73 billion higher than it was in 2000, the year before the various wars started. If spending were to be continued at the $472 billion level for the next 10 years, base Defense Department spending would be three quarters of a trillion dollars above the levels extant in 2000. And, not a penny of the additional monies to be spent on the wars would be eliminated.

At the 2007 level, US military spending would be almost three times that of China. And yet, [House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck] McKeon, his staff, and his diverse bobble-heads would have you believe that we cannot maintain "our ability to deter a rising China from challenging other allies."

Actually, it is more than three times larger; if we calculate "military-related" spending for the US, I come to a total -- including additional spending for the wars, nuclear weapons, defense commodity stockpiles, homeland security, veterans' care, military and economic aid and some other military related accounts -- over $800 billion.

Few observers other than Wheeler calculate expenditures this way, given that the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs, for example, have their own budgets and oversight in Congress -- you could argue he is pumping up the numbers to make his case. But Wheeler would probably argue that Washington's conventional wisdom is what's wrong, that it's myopic to focus only on DoD's acquisitions accounts for weapons and "services" -- that you have to step back and get the full picture. Plus it ignores the efficiency and management of the Pentagon, which as we know, pays the same or more after ten years for a smaller, less effective force.

So will the military-industrial-Congressional complex be shocked into a sensible new mode of rational discussion? No: Everyone in it has an interest in keeping up the volume as loud as possible, at least until it's clear the super committee will avert Doomsday. Until then, everyone in the game has an interest in keeping on the pressure to keep as much money flowing as possible -- and that means the volume will stay at 11.

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