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Libyan Operation Chills Talk of Defense Cuts

The only problem I have with Carrie Budoff Brown’s thesis is that it assumes defense cuts were at a much more advanced stage pre-Libya than I saw them. Sure, you had a few wayward Republicans grumble about defense cuts, but Republicans say things all the time they’re not prepared to implement – witness Don Young coming out against the Afghanistan war a week after voting to maintain it. Moreover, the players on the Republican side who were talking about defense cuts are not leadership figures, but more marginalized pols. The idea that the Tea Party has a preference for defense cuts doesn’t hold up to the evidence on what few votes their acolytes have taken.

But if you cut Brown some slack on calling the coalition for defense cuts “broad,” I think she makes an important point:

Just as the debt debate ramps up on Capitol Hill, the lead role the United States is playing in the military action against Libya threatens to scramble an emerging consensus over the need to trim defense to reduce the deficit. Despite the broad coalition targeting the Pentagon budget, cuts were always going to be a tough sell at a time of two wars — let alone as the military intervenes in a third country.

“It is just plain vanilla that it will make it harder to cut defense in the near term,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economist with close ties to congressional Republicans. “We’re going to have to fund more of this than you realize.”

The airstrikes are already being used by some in the Republican establishment to blunt momentum in favor of the cuts, long considered heretical in a town in which defense contractors constitute a formidable lobby and members of Congress view the Pentagon budget as a jobs program and fear being tagged as unpatriotic.

I think the proof that this is a bit oversold comes in the fact that establishment Republicans were leading the charge on ensuring that the military-industrial complex gets their weaponry. Still, it certainly helps their cause to test-drive the weapons and “prove” their necessity. The fact that whatever opposition there was on the right to the sprawling defense budget has stood down after one 10-day operation shows you how that opposition was kind of a mile wide and an inch deep, however.

As Matt Yglesias notes this is another consequence of the action in Libya that needs to be factored in:

This is one reason why I think left-of-center hawks have been way to blithe about dismissing the fiscal concerns surrounding this mission. It’s true that nothing about claiming that you’re going to establish a no-fly zone in Libya and then instead offering tactical air support to rebel groups forces you to slash spending on global public health. But the mission in Libya is a shot in the arm for the politics of wasteful defense spending, and unduly high equilibrium levels of defense spending encourage further cost-ineffective “humanitarian” military adventures.

The Administration likes to describe this mission as limited. But aside from how that’s not true in a pure tactical sense, once you add up the costs of a bloated defense budget and the constraints on foreign humanitarian aid and domestic concerns, it doesn’t look very limited at all. And that’s just one level of costs.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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