“It seems ironic — but actually it’s perfectly logical — that it was President Dwight Eisenhower, a former five-star general, who cautioned Americans about the “military-industrial complex” and mandated the deepest military cuts in postwar history, lopping 31 percent off the defense budget in his first two years in office.
Indeed, a series of charts in “A Return to Responsibility,” a report by the Center for American Progress, shows that it is Republican presidents, not Democrats, who have mandated significant cuts in defense spending. Eisenhower cut 27 percent overall, Nixon 29 percent, and President Bush H.W. Bush, who served only one term, 17 percent. Even Ronald Reagan, who lavished money on the Pentagon with the express purpose of bankrupting the Soviets, cut the budget by 10 percent during his second term. The great exception to the rule is George W. Bush, who increased spending by an astonishing 70 percent during his tenure. If we include the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States now spends $700 billion a year on defense, a figure that, translated into constant dollars, was last reached in World War II.
Of course, the 9/11 attacks constituted a new threat to which the United States had to respond with new military capacities; but so did World War II, the Korea War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, generally. And it has been nearly 10 years since 9/11. Americans shun a Prussian culture of permanent militarism, and as each threat has waned, each president — each Republican president — has reduced both military forces and spending. None of them operated under the desperate fiscal situation we find ourselves in today. They pared back the Pentagon because, unlike the current generation of Republican leaders, they believed deeply in the state’s capacity and obligation to provide citizens the foundation of a good life. Eisenhower wanted to build a national highway system; Nixon wanted to provide national health care. Every dollar spent on defense was a dollar lost to national well-being.
Defense spending now absorbs roughly a quarter of the national budget, and over half of discretionary spending. The current debt-ceiling deal reached by Congress and the White House would essentially eliminate increases over the next two years in a broad category that includes defense as well as homeland security, diplomacy, and foreign aid, and would then limit growth thereafter to 2 percent. If Congress chooses to apportion future cuts equally between security and non-security accounts, reductions in the former would amount to $420 billion — the figure the Obama administration uses to demonstrate the depth of its commitment to reducing defense spending. But the deal permits Congress to find cuts anywhere it chooses beyond the next two years, passing over the Pentagon and going after anything from the State Department to student loans. The $420 billion may be a chimera.” - James Traub
Can Obama Be Just Like Ike?