Michael Tomasky: Politico Assists Pentagon Scaremongering

Michael Tomasky asks why did a recent Politico story vastly overstated the impact of pending defense cuts.

David McNew, AFP / Getty Images

I was mighty alarmed last weekend when I was reading this Politico report on the consequences of supercommittee failure and tripped across this sentence: “Even though the cuts in the trigger don’t go into effect until 2013, the Pentagon has to start cutting. The Defense Department says they’ll have to cut 200,000 troops in 2012.” What? Two hundred thousand troops? We only have about 1.4 million men and women under arms for the whole country. I’m not exactly a defense hawk, but cutting nearly 15 percent of our armed troops struck even me as extreme; something tantamount to surrender, one could argue. It also struck me as absurd and likely to be untrue. And guess what? It is.

Reread the Politico sentence. “The Defense Department says.” Not specific human-being X of the Defense Department. Just “the Defense Department.” And no explanation or backup. Just a blunt assertion. I smelled a rat. That was, I think, Saturday. Then on Monday, Mike Allen picked up the sentence for his Playbook, his morning email blast that every member of Washington’s political elite reads. So now this assertion had heft. Alarming!

But think about it. The United States has roughly 570,000 soldiers in the Army, 333,000 naval personnel, 323,000 Air Force personnel, 202,000 Marines, and maybe 30,000 in the Coast Guard. (In case you’re curious, there are another 800,000-plus in the Reserves, but they are not part of this conversation). A cut of 64,000 personnel, taken from the Army and the Marine Corps, was long planned for 2012, as part of the troop drawdown as the wars wind to their ... well, their conclusions or whatever you want to call them. So that was always in the cards. But 200,000—one in seven fighting personnel? In one year?

“This is nonsense,” says Lawrence Korb, the former Reagan administration Pentagon official who is now a widely respected defense analyst at the Center for American Progress. “It’s just these exaggerations trying to scare people.” A second defense-budget analyst I spoke with agreed that the Politico sentence also caused quite a kerfuffle and told me that the figure seemed wildly off the mark, saying, “No one seems to know where this figure comes from.”

Ah, not quite no one. Enter Nora Bensahel, military strategist and expert for the Center for a New American Security. She knew where it came from—a House Armed Services Committee report released on Sept. 22 assessing the impact on the Pentagon of budget cuts. You can see it for yourself here. On page three, there is a dramatic and beefy chart with three categories: force levels today for the Army and the Marine Corps; force levels expected under current funding; and force levels “if super-committee fails.” The last category is colored an appropriately eye-catching red. If you do the math, sure enough, this graph asserts that 200,000 troops will be cut, 144,000 from the Army, and 56,000 from the USMC.

But the report has no supporting material—nothing, not a sentence—explaining how this 200,000 is arrived at. “That report doesn’t show any analyses for any of the numbers that are in it,” Bensahel says.

Looking for such an analysis, I called the House Armed Services Committee, where a staffer quickly pointed out another fact that’s very interesting: the committee’s report doesn’t say anything about 2012. And sure enough, it does not. “We didn’t pin a year down to it,” this staffer says. “We did not say any number about in-strength reductions in 2012."

This staffer did make some interesting points. The fiscal-year 2012 Pentagon budget request calls for 46,000 (rather than 64,000, which was the number Bensahel reported) troop reductions. But even though those are in the 2012 budget request, the reductions would not actually begin until 2014. On the other hand, though, the staffer said that the Pentagon does face serious pressure to cut troop levels, and more saliently, that when the Pentagon does its budgeting, it has to take into account the “sequestration” law, the one that created the supercommittee and that imposes mandatory defense cuts. It has to budget for worst-case scenarios. It has to draw up its 2013 budget next February, and it has to assume that sequestration will kick in. And, obviously, greater savings are achieved if troops are “separated,” to use the committee’s lingo, sooner rather than later.

The bottom line is that 200,000 is a kind of nightmare scenario—but one that extends out over at least a few years, not one year, and one that in any case seems to me extremely hypothetical. Approximately zero Republicans, and probably not even close to a majority of Democrats, would sit still for reducing the number of U.S. troops by that astounding amount in a single year. And the House Armed Services Committee—a Republican-controlled group, remember—never said that anyway. But now, in the present climate, the number is handy for the Pentagon to flog around town, so there it is. (A Pentagon spokesman did not reply to a detailed email seeking comment.)

More broadly, since we’re going to be hearing lots of keening about Pentagon cuts, let’s put some things in perspective. We need a strong defense. We are the global security umbrella. Someday it might be good if this changed and the burden were spread more equitably, but it’s not going to happen any time soon. Even those who support the president’s position that defense should not be spared should care that cuts be undertaken judiciously, especially with regard to troop strength, which, after all, involves human beings who’ve served their country and will be trying to enter a job market at a pretty rough time.

But it’s also a fact that the Pentagon budget has grown for 11 years in a row, which is a modern record. The fiscal-year 2013 budget, says Korb, is slated to be about $478 billion. He notes drily that during the entire time we were fighting the Cold War, the budget was never more than $450 billion in constant dollars. “The problem at the Pentagon isn’t a money problem,” he says. “It’s a management problem.”

He’s the expert on that, not me. I’ll take his word for it. What I do know a little about is how media outlets are used by leakers, and how when there isn’t an actual name behind an eye-popping assertion, it’s time to start asking a couple of questions. But how do you put a cat back in a bag?