FPI Fact Sheet: Setting the Record Straight on President Obama’s False Defense Spending Claims

November 2, 2012

In recent weeks, Americans have heard the claim that Governor Romney’s defense plan would increase defense spending by two trillion dollars more than the military "wants" over the next decade.  Former President Clinton made this claim at the Democratic National Convention in August 2012, President Obama repeated it in the presidential debates, and Vice President Biden alluded to it in his debate with Congressman Ryan.  But is this claim factually correct?  We believe the claim is false based on the following facts.

FACT:  Military leaders did not ask for or "want" President Obama’s current defense budget, which cuts $487 billion in the next decade.
 
No one disputes that the U.S. Armed Forces oppose “sequestration,” the automatic spending reductions that, beginning in January 2013, will indiscriminately cleave $500 billion from national defense over the next decade.  General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has cautioned that sequestration will pose “very high risk” to national security.  As General Dempsey later elaborated:  “In my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime right now, and I think sequestration would be completely oblivious to that, and counterproductive.”
 
More important, military leaders did not ask that President Obama’s pre-sequestration budget for fiscal year (FY) 2013 slash $487 billion from defense in the next ten years.  Rather, the country’s civilian leadership—which is to say, the Obama administration's most senior officials—instructed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to accommodate and absorb long-term cuts of that magnitude.  In response, the military—which, after all, is civilian-controlled—complied.  Pursuant to President Obama’s guidance, the Pentagon issued a new strategy for national defense in January 2012 that abandoned the traditional concept of sizing the military to be capable of fighting two wars at the same time, and replaced it with a one-war sizing concept.  However, military leaders have warned that Obama’s pre-sequestration budget is barely adequate to fund even this less-ambitious defense strategy.  As General Dempsey told congressional lawmakers in February 2012, “Anything beyond this [$487 billion in defense cuts], we have to go back to the drawing board on the strategy.”
 
FACT:  Military leaders preferred much higher levels of long-term spending in prior years.
 
The public record shows that the U.S. military did prefer higher levels of long-term funding for defense in previous years.  In February 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed to a defense budget proposal for FY 2012 that would have spent $487 billion more over a 10-year period than President Obama’s current FY2013 defense budget proposal.  And in February 2010, Gates and the military agreed to a defense budget proposal for FY2011 that would have spent nearly $300 billion more over a 10-year period than the defense budget proposal for FY2012.
 
FACT:  Romney’s defense plan seeks to halt sequestration, reverse pre-sequestration spending cuts, and eventually spend 4% of GDP on the Pentagon’s regular annual budget.
 
Some politicians and analysts falsely claim that Governor Romney’s near-term plan for the Pentagon would spend $2 trillion more than President Obama’s current defense budget over the next decade.  At the heart of this false claim is the incorrect assumption that Romney, if he is elected, will immediately and consistently spend 4% of America’s gross domestic product (GDP) on the Department of Defense’s regular annual budget in the next 10 years.
 
In fact, Romney’s defense plan describes the goal of spending 4% of GDP on the Pentagon’s core budget as an aspiration.  (The United States currently spends roughly 3.5% of GDP on the Pentagon’s core budget, and 4.1% of GDP on the Pentagon’s total budget with war funding.)  In the near term, the Governor’s plan seeks (1) to stop the $500 billion in across-the-board sequestration cuts to national defense, and then (2) to reverse the $487 billion in pre-sequestration reductions to the military.
 
FACT:  President Obama’s most senior Pentagon advisers during 2009 to 2011—namely, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen—had established a clear and strong record of supporting the same aspirational goal of 4% of GDP for regular annual defense spending that Governor Romney now supports.

  • Secretary Gates, Remarks to the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, March 3, 2007:  “Consider that, at about four percent of America’s gross domestic product, the amount of money the United States expects to spend on defense this year is actually slightly a smaller percentage of GDP than when I left the government 14 years ago, following the end of the Cold War—and a significantly smaller percentage of GDP than during previous times of war, such as Vietnam and Korea.”
  • Admiral Mullen, Interview with The New York Times, October 22, 2007: “… we’re hovering I think right now at just under 4 percent of gross national product, of G.N.P., as the defense budget.  And I would see that in the future as an absolute floor....  And I’m not arguing that it be as high as it was in Vietnam or as high as it was in World War II, but [so] that we can meet the challenges that we see, that I see, in the future [defense spending] at under 4 percent doesn’t make any sense to me.”
  • Secretary Gates, News Briefing at the Pentagon, December 21, 2007: “I actually think that we had a very thoughtful conversation in the House Armed Services Committee earlier in the year on what the percentage of GDP devoted to defense and securing the nation should be.  And I got the impression from both sides of the aisle that there was a sense that that probably ought to be about 4 percent.  The question is whether you make a transition to that after, whether you can make a transition to that after principal combat costs in the war are behind us, whether that remains an aspiration, or whether we try and do something in the near term about that.”
  • Admiral Mullen, Defense Daily, February 1, 2008:  “I worry a great deal about coming down significantly from the overall budget levels we are [at] now.  I use four percent as the floor.  I am convinced that that floor is about right.”
  • Admiral Mullen, News Briefing at the Pentagon, February 1, 2008:  “I believe that we need to have a broad public discussion about what we should spend on defense.  I've been very clear about my belief that a 4 percent floor, a 4 percent of GDP floor is really that, and I am concerned and I—this comes from my evolution as a service chief, where we worked very hard to efficiently and effectively invest for the future, and in that development, I've gotten to a point where I think—I really do believe—this 4 percent floor is important. And it's—and it's really important, given the world we're living in, given the threats that we see out there, the risks that are, in fact, global, not just in the Middle East, and that we as a nation need to be very careful about how we're going to invest in defense in order to handle these kinds of challenges which are going to—while will persist for the foreseeable future.”
  • Admiral Mullen, Remarks at the Heritage Foundation, April 15, 2008:  “I’ve talked about having at least 4% of our GDP go for defense… it is less the exact number than it is a marker to say, ‘We need to have, I believe, in our country, a national debate about how much we want to spend on our security in these very dangerous times.’”
  • Secretary Gates, Q-&-A Session at National Defense University, September 29, 2008:  “… we had a very interesting hearing in the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year. And there was a good discussion on both sides of the aisle in terms of whether we ought to mark 4 percent of GDP as kind of a floor for the Defense budget.  And I think as long as you consider it a floor and not a ceiling, that's not a bad benchmark.  But as I say, I'd want it to be a floor.”
  • Admiral Mullen, News Briefing at the Pentagon, November 17, 2008:  “… as I look back historically, it seemed to me that about 4 percent—including the cost of the war right now, I think we're at about 4.3 percent or so—that that should, that should be a floor, given the challenges that we have that I can see from a national security perspective.”
  • Secretary Gates, Interview with CNN, April 29, 2009:  “… as I say, we have global interests, and that defense budget is still less than 4 percent of our gross domestic product.  During the Korean War, it was as high as 9 percent; much higher, obviously, during World War II.  It was 7 (percent) or 8 percent during Vietnam.  So I think, first of all, that the size of the military we have is not a burden on our economy, compared historically to where we've been.”
  • Admiral Mullen, Prepared Statement before Congress, February 16, 2011:  “At about 4.5% of GDP [including supplemental war-funding], the return on U.S. defense spending has been immense and historic… if we are to continue to execute the missions set out by our strategy, we must recognize that returning from war and resetting the force is costly and will require several years of continued investment.  Congressional support is required for our forces, their families, their equipment and training, and our military infrastructure to ensure the success of our ongoing efforts and for us to be ready to respond to new and emerging security challenges.”

Conclusion
 
As Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler notes, President Obama was wrong to claim “[t]he sequester is not something that I've proposed; it is something that Congress has proposed.”  Citing passages from Bob Woodward’s latest book The Price of Politics, Kessler says “virtually every mention shows [sequestration] was a White House gambit.”  Woodward added, “After reviewing all the interviews and the extensive material I have on this issue, it looks like President Obama told a whopper.”

President Obama’s recent statements on defense spending have been misleading, and obscure the truth that,  due to successive reductions to the Pentagon's long-term budget, the military risks moving closer to the precipice of becoming a hollow force.  To avoid this worrisome outcome, whoever wins the White House in November 2012 must work with Congress quickly to reverse these deep and devastating defense cuts.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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