What the Debt Ceiling Deal Means for Foreign Policy

afghan warThe debate about raising the debt ceiling is mercifully over, though few people seem happy with the final outcome. Much of the debate about the deal has focused on domestic spending and entitlements, but the initial spending cuts and the plan to be developed by the new “super Congress” will also have major impacts for US foreign policy.

Depending on whom you ask, the Pentagon either got a free ride or the deal decimates the military budget. Given the leverage that Republicans had in this debate, it’s not surprising that the Pentagon got off easy in the first round of cuts.

First of all, military and civilian spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (the budget category known as Overseas Contingency Operations) is off the table in the first round of cuts.  This is a disappointing move given the enormous cost of the failed military strategy that could be reallocated to domestic programs thereby revitalizing the economy and creating jobs.

You’ll hear some people talk about the Pentagon making $350 billion in cuts over the next ten years, but the leadership found a way to dilute this so they could bring more Republicans along. The deal imposes a spending cap on “security spending,” which lumps Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the international affairs budget in with the Pentagon. Even this is incredibly vague, as even Armed Services Committee leaders Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain have no idea what the deal actual means for the Pentagon.

To meet the spending cap for 2012, the House will need to cut an additional $10 billion from these budgets beyond what they already slashed. That could easily be made up by cutting into the $17 billion increase the House gave the Pentagon, but given how hawks have pitched a fit about even modest military budget cuts, they are likely to go after these other security areas to make up the difference.

That could be devastating to key diplomacy and development programs. As I wrote earlier this week, the House already made massive cuts to the international affairs budget, and it is ludicrous to expect this chronically underfunded area to bear the brunt of further budget cuts when there is much waste to be found in the Pentagon budget.

In the short term, the Senate is our best bet for shifting this imbalance, as they have not marked up their version of the 2012 budget yet. The next few weeks will be crucial in pushing senators to put forward a budget that reflects a more balanced approach to security and take a hard negotiating stance with Republicans in developing a final product.

Rebecca GriffinAs for the years ahead, the fate of these budgets will lie with the “super Congress” made up of 12 lawmakers appointed by House and Senate leadership. They will be tasked with finding another $1.5 trillion in cuts or revenue. If Congress cannot pass their recommendations, it will trigger an automatic $1.2 trillion in cuts, including $600 billion from Pentagon spending. This trigger mechanism is meant to serve as an incentive to pass an alternative plan. This process will provide us an opportunity to push for serious cuts to wasteful Pentagon and nuclear weapons spending, and make sure the international affairs budget doesn’t get the short end of the stick.

Rebecca Griffin
Peace Action West


  1. pigdog67 says

    When the USSR went bankrupt they dramatically cut war spending. Now that the USA is bankrupt they should do the same and cut war spending by 80%. Otherwise they face ‘moral’ bankruptcy. Financial bankruptcy is something that one can recover from if they are not ‘morally’ bankrupt. If one is both morally bankrupt and financially bankrupt then it is worse. So balance the budgets and bring the troops home and beat swords in plowshares. Get back to making steel and growing corn. Be honest working men and women again.

  2. in_awe says

    Well, the DoD has already seen actual cuts totaling $435B, and the Obama budget has defense representing less than 15% of the budget in 2017 and beyond. In the 1950’s and 1960’s defense was more than 50% of the budget. At 15% of the budget it would be the lowest level since the 1930’s when our military was still flying biplanes while the Axis nations were all flying monoplanes that were 100mph faster and more heavily armed, and our soldiers drilled using broomsticks instead of rifles and wooden wagons were used to train our tank crews. Ah, the good old days! How did that work out in a few short years? Hmmm?

    1990 Today
    Army brigades 76 45
    Navy ships 546 288 smallest navy since 1916
    USAF fighter squadrons 82 39
    Strategic bombers 360 154

    Average age of air tankers is 42 years old. The B-52 bombers which are still the backbone of our strategic bomber force came off an assembly line that shut down in 1959.
    Source: Congressman Buck McKeon, Chairman House Armed Services Committee, July 26, 2011

    Shall we look at entitlement spending and its unbridled growth over the decades since the Great Society spendathon kicked off? But why should we? The Dems have taken it off the table completely – despite the rating agencies all saying that entitlement spending must be restrained. All that did was get a lowered debt rating. Way to go Dems! Be sure to hold the line in November and see our fiscal a$$ get kicked (again) when we are downgraded (again).

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