By Nick Ahamed
The world today is rife with conflict. As I write, Russia’s parliament has just voted to allow President Putin to send troops into Ukraine. Less than 2,000 miles away, the Syrian Civil War trudges on, taking 130,000 individuals with it. In our hemisphere, Caracas, Venezuela is experiencing a surge of violent riots. Bangkok, Thailand has similar unrest.
Yet, where is the United States in all of this? Ten years after the release of Team America: World Police, it seems we may have shifted away from that role. Indeed, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced major cuts to the military last week.
This restructuring is best for our fiscal health and for our national security.
First, the new military budget includes reform for TRICARE. TRICARE is a military program which pays for almost all medical costs not already covered by Medicare. For that reason, as the Congressional Budget Office states, “Because the Department of Defense is a passive payer in the program – it neither manages care nor provides incentives for the cost-conscious use of services – it has virtually no means of controlling the program’s costs.” Hence the massive growth in healthcare costs for the Department of Defense.
Secretary Hagel recommended that enrollment fees for Medicare-eligible retirees should be enacted and that the minimum out-of-pocket payment increase by three percentage points. In November of last year, the CBO projected the effect of similar plans, estimating that by 2023 the former would save about $19.7 billion, while the latter would save $30.7 billion.
More controversially, the new budget involves reducing the size of the Army by about 15 percent. The primary strategic advantage of this spending cut is that it allows for troop preparedness, as measured by average funding per military unit, to stay the same. While savings will come from decreases in aggregate basic pay, they will also come from areas like healthcare, where costs have skyrocketed recently. Similarly, spending on training and equipment will decrease because there will be fewer troops to train. Yet, the military will not be a “hollow force.” Our soldiers will be just as well-trained, well-equipped and well-provided-for as they were before the reductions.
Similarly, it allows the military to focus on training the best soldiers. Love it or hate it, President Obama’s military strategy policy has relied almost entirely on decreasing troop deployments. Sec. Hagel argues we must “protect critical capabilities like Special Operations Forces and cyber resources,” which is why his plan calls for a six-percent increase for our special operations forces.
How Congress will react remains to be seen. In the recent past, Congress has refused to enact cuts that the Department of Defense itself recommends. Take the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission, for example. Not only did the 2005 round commission recommend another set of closures in 2015, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta twice called for base closures. Closures aren’t a very politically palatable decision, however, and Congress responded by prohibiting future BRAC rounds in the National Defense Authorization Act passed last December. (This is a point Sec. Hagel highlighted in his speech outlining the budget.)
Congress has likewise resisted reducing spending on benefits. DoD suggested a slowdown in pay raises so that they would rise more comparably to civilian wages – estimated by the CBO to save about $25 billion over 10 years. Congress said no.
Given this past and Senator Marco Rubio’s remarks on American foreign policy, the likelihood that Congress actually follows this budget seems slim. He remarked that it was “ironic” that “the U.S. is announcing that we may be having troop levels as low as they’ve been since before World War II.” He continued: “I think that’s a pretty startling contrast in terms of where our priorities are and what the world’s challenges look like.”
Rubio and other Republican “hawks” want to return to a time where America did police the world. They imagine U.S. forces patrolling Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia – rebuking Russia, Iran and China for their undemocratic ways.
It is incumbent upon these Representatives and Senators to remember that we are no longer in the Cold War. There is no current existential threat to the United States. As I’ve previously detailed in this column, American interventionism, even if well-meaning, has often been shown to be folly. Even though Russia has just intervened in Ukraine, our military needs not scour the worlds’ roads for speeding drivers.
A smarter model for the U.S. military is that of the fire depot. It should be agile and strong enough to respond swiftly to emergency calls when our house is on fire. Secretary Hagel’s recommendations redesign the department to fulfill that mission while still complying with the dual mandate conservatives have set him to decrease spending.
Contact Nick Ahamed at [email protected]