David R. Francis

Defense budget: After Afghanistan and Iraq withdrawal, a peace dividend?

An Afghanistan and Iraq withdrawal could trim billions of dollars from the US defense budget.

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    Afghans cheer after rising a colorful banner at the shrine of Imam Ali during celebrations of the Afghan New Year at the Imam Ali's shrine in Mazar-I-Sharif, Balkh province north of Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday. Afghanistan's hard-line vice president expressed hope that an upcoming national conference will lay the foundation for peace with insurgents. An Afghanistan and Iraq withdrawal of US troops could shave billions of dollars from the US defense budget.
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With the withdrawal of its military forces in Iraq already under way and increasing talk of winding down operations in Afghanistan, the United States is poised to reap a "peace dividend."

But it won't rival the one after the end of the cold war – a 40 percent drop in real defense spending during most of the 1990s, saving hundreds of billions of dollars. It won't even be as big as the Obama administration expects, defense budget experts say.

The two wars are budgeted to cost $159 billion in fiscal 2011, which starts next October. That's down a tad from 2010. From fiscal 2012 to 2015, the administration pegs the cost at $50 billion a year. But the US won't really save $100 billion a year.

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"That's not realistic … not likely to happen even if everything goes as well as planned," says Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. The $50 billion is a "placeholder," a number neither the Defense Department nor outsiders can estimate given the uncertainties of war and political stabilization.

Nevertheless, the election in Iraq has raised hopes that the US can shrink its military presence there to 50,000 noncombat troops by September. On March 10, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly also raised the possibility that some of the 33,000 troops involved in the recent buildup in Afghanistan could leave before July 2011, the date set by President Obama for beginning withdrawal.

If and when these wars wind down, the US may receive an even bigger peace dividend in the form of overall defense cuts. Huge federal budget deficits will force them.

Right now, neither Republicans nor Democrats in Congress are inclined to make serious cuts for fear of being called weak on defense. Without a war, however, members of Congress, particularly Democrats, may begin asking hard questions about weapons programs.

There's much to cut, says Christopher Hellman of the National Priorities Project in Northampton, Mass. He calls the defense budget "bloated."

The Obama budget set 2011 defense spending at $739 billion. This amounts to 19 percent of total federal outlays. Carl Conetta, director of the Project on Defense Alternatives in Cambridge, Mass., suspects defense spending could be cut as low as $650 billion without seriously damaging American security needs. To trim the deficit, Mr. Obama called for a freeze in discretionary spending but exempted defense.

The US defense budget adds up, at the very least, to 47 percent of total worldwide defense spending. That reflects the US role as the sole superpower, the various US interests abroad, and the relatively high costs of the US military.

During the Vietnam War, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson raised defense spending almost 50 percent in constant dollars. President Reagan, with his ambition to financially clobber the Soviet Union, raised defense outlays by more than 50 percent.

By contrast, US defense budgets have risen close to 100 percent since the low reached in 1998 after the end of the cold war, notes Mr. Conetta. Indeed, the Obama budget plans to spend more on the Pentagon over eight years than any administration has since World War II.

Measured in 2010 dollars, the Korean War cost $393,000 per person involved per year. The cost in Vietnam was $256,000, reckons Conetta. Today's two wars cost $792,000 per person/year – and more than $1 trillion overall so far.

David R. Francis writes a weekly column.

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