Fact Checking President Barack Obama’s Defense Claims

Under President Barack Obama, the looming budget crisis will endanger the future of U.S. national defense.

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Robert Zarate is policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.

In recent weeks, President Barack Obama has repeatedly—and incorrectly—claimed that Mitt Romney's plans for defense will increase Pentagon spending by $2 trillion more than military leaders actually prefer over the next decade. As the Foreign Policy Initiative has explained, Obama's claim is wildly misleading, and obscures the looming budgetary crisis that will endanger the future of U.S. national defense if not averted.

First, military leaders did not ask for the magnitude of long-term cuts in President Obama's current defense budget. In April 2011, the president publicly stated his desire to cut at least another $400 billion from long-term Pentagon spending. And in August 2011, he and his advisers negotiated a controversial debt-limit deal with Congress that yielded an immediate $487 billion cut to defense over 10 years.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

This drastic cut forced the civilian-controlled military to draft a new strategy for national defense that altered decades of U.S. policy—for example, by dropping the longstanding Pentagon goal of being able to fight two major wars at the same time. However, military leaders have repeatedly warned that even this far-less-ambitious defense strategy is just barely achievable under President Obama's current budget trajectory. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned 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."

Second, military leaders neither asked for nor prefer sequestration—the looming $500 billion in automatic cuts to the military that President Obama signed into law. Obama's own Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has repeatedly warned that sequestration would be "devastating" to the military, and General Dempsey has cautioned it would be "very high risk" to national security. Despite these warnings, the president has not yet formally introduced a plan to reverse sequestration.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Cuts Be Made to Domestic Social Programs to Protect the Defense Budget?]

Contrary to Obama's claims, Romney's most immediate plan for the Pentagon is simply to stop the $500 billion in sequestration cuts that start in January 2013. Next, he seeks to reverse the president's current round of $487 billion in defense cuts—which, in effect, would mean supporting the plan for future military spending that Obama previously supported in February 2011, and abandoned one year later. Romney has identified the "aspirational" goal of eventually spending 4 percent of gross domestic product on the Pentagon's regular annual budget, but that is a long-term goal.

Third, it is important to remember that President Obama's most senior military advisers from 2009 to 2011 had established a long record of supporting the same aspirational goal of 4 percent of GDP for regular defense spending that Romney now supports. For example, Obama's previous secretary of defense, Robert Gates, said in late 2008 he prefers that 4 percent of GDP eventually "be a floor" for the Pentagon's regular annual budget. And Admiral Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in late 2008 that "about 4 percent … should be a floor, given the challenges that we have that I can see from a national security perspective."

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

These three points illustrate clear differences between the two presidential candidates. Moreover, the real-world ramifications of these deep defense cuts span far beyond just political talking-points. The fact is that Obama's current defense budget will increasingly strain the military as it works to protect the U.S. homeland, territories, and allies, to ensure the safe passage of trade and goods on the high seas, and to maintain peace and stability throughout critical areas of the world. 

America's economic and security interests do not stop at the border or shoreline. The next president will immediately face a wide array of international challenges. Iran is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons-making capability, the Arab Spring risks being hijacked by radical Islamists, al Qaeda and its regional affiliates are planning terror attacks against U.S. and allied interests, and China is expanding its military power and economic reach across the Asia-Pacific region. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Amid this unpredictable global environment, Washington needs to fully resource the men and women of the U.S. military so they can protect America's economic and national security interests. Yet President Obama's statements about defense spending have obscured the truth of how his decisions have moved the military increasingly closer to becoming a hollow force. 

At stake is more than just America's military budget, but rather the role this nation plays around the globe to ensure our way of life is protected, our wars are fought abroad, and our economy remains strong. Yet to date, the current commander in chief has failed to articulate these consequences to the American people. In order to avoid a catastrophe for the force, whoever wins the White House in November must work with Congress to reverse these devastating defense cuts—quickly.

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