Earlier this week an editorial in the Boston Globe reminded us of the cyclical nature of the deficit reduction vs. defense spending debate. The Globe highlighted a 1992 interaction between then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and now Secretary of Defense (then House Budget Committee Chairman) Leon Panetta:
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney complained to him that cuts to the Pentagon’s budget “would end up destroying the finest military force this nation has ever fielded.’’
Panetta replied, “I think the most dangerous threat to our national security right now is debt, very heavy debt.” Panetta said he had no problem with America policing the world. “My problem is how the hell are we going to pay for it.’’
Sound familiar? Nearly two decades later, top defense and budget officials are engaged in the same debate. As BFAD pointed out a few months ago, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, almost immediately distanced himself from his predecessor Admiral Mike Mullen, repudiating Mullen’s argument that the debt crisis is the single biggest threat to American national security.
The debt vs. defense debate is perennial, but today’s question seems to be: How will the 21st Century Panetta respond to the 20th Century Panetta’s question of “how are we going to pay for it?”