"We will also ensure that we have the strategy -- and resources -- to succeed against al Qaeda and the Taliban," Obama told a news conference. "And going forward, we will continue to make the investments necessary to strengthen our military and increase our ground forces to defeat the threats of the 21st century."
Since we are still in the transition phase rather than the governing phase, there are two ways to read this statement, each of which are frustratingly inconclusive:
Obama agrees with proposed defense spending increases: The Pentagon, under Gates, has proposed a massive increase in defense spending over the next five years. This increase is so large that it would prevent any reduction in defense spending even with a total withdrawal from Iraq. Effectively, it makes the Iraq supplemental spending bills permanent. Obama's statement, combined with keeping Gates on as Secretary of Defense, could be read as a support of this proposal.
Pre-emptive self-defense against defense spending cuts: Leading national Democrats, as we all know, seem to fear being portrayed as "hurting the troops" more than they fear anything else. In this context, Obama's statement could easily be read as pre-emptive self-defense against charges that he is harming "the troops" by cutting defense spending.
Keeping Gates on as Secretary of Defense is obviously a bad sign for the coming defense spending fight. Further, many will point out that Obama campaigned on increasing the number of uniformed military personnel, thus suggesting that he always intended to expand military spending. However, increasing the number of uniformed military personnel does not necessarily mean an increase in defense spending. Further, there are five promising signs that Obama will actually cut, and usefully redirect, defense spending.
Here are some good reasons to believe that military spending will go down under President Obama:
Withdrawal from Iraq: Obama repeatedly campaigned on cutting defense spending by withdrawing from Iraq. This was a consistent, prominent line in his stump speeches since at least mid-July. Obama has since reiterated his promise to remove all combat brigades from Iraq in 16 months, and the status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government means that all American military will be out of the country be the end of 2011. This will save a lot of money.
"Waste": Obama promised to cut "tens of billions of dollars in wasteful spending" from the military budget. While this could be typical campaign rhetoric to make unidentified cuts in "waste" that everyone believes exist but no one believes applies to them, it could also be a real promise.
Contractors: Jan Schakowsky, one of Obama's biggest supporters, and one of his most likely successor in the Senate, is leading a serious fight to phase out the use of military contractors. Given the extensive use of military contractors, not to mention that mercenaries cost far more--even three times more--than uniformed personnel, such a fight, if successful, would probably have twin results of the expansion of uniformed military and a reduction in defense spending. There is good reason to believe that Obama himself supports this effort.
The shift would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the incoming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states. However, it is unclear whether the financing would be shifted from the Pentagon; Mr. Obama has also committed to increasing the number of American combat troops. Whether they can make the change - one that Mr. Obama started talking about in the summer of 2007, when his candidacy was a long shot at best - "will be the great foreign policy experiment of the Obama presidency," one of his senior advisers said recently.
The adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the three have all embraced "a rebalancing of America's national security portfolio" after a huge investment in new combat capabilities during the Bush years.
Combine all of this with an increasing willingness in Congress to reduce defense spending (see here and here), and yes, there is good reason to believe that an Obama administration will signficiantly curtail and re-direct defense spending.
This is a winnable fight, and one worthy of engagement. I can already tell that this is where my interests will be, so expect a lot more blogging about it in the coming days and months. Best of all, now that we have the trifecta, even a relatively lowly progressive activist like myself should have at least limited media access to all of the key players in this fight.
I will be on Hardball to discuss this and other matters at 5:10 p.m. eastern, today.