I’ve been reading a lot about the Pentagon’s possible budget hit, with analysis all over the map. What this proves conclusively is that no one knows what will happen. That’s the real rub in Obama’s debt ceiling debacle. No one can possibly know the specifics in outlying years. There are too many unknown unknowables, to paraphrase big spender Rummy, which is proven by reading the myriad of opinions on what might manifest.

William Hartung, Director, Arms Security Project, Center for International Policy*:

“In the short-term, the budget deal crafted by the president and the congressional leadership gives the Pentagon virtually a free ride. It reduces projected Pentagon spending by less than one percent. These proposed reductions are further diluted by the fact that they will be counted against a broad “˜security’ category that will include the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies beyond the Pentagon proper. These miniscule reductions are unacceptable. Real cuts in Pentagon expenditures can be imposed without reducing our security. Any longer-term deal should reflect this reality.”

Andrew Bacevich, Professor, Boston University:

“The prospect of defense cuts ought to concentrate some minds in Washington. To avoid reductions that are arbitrary and capricious requires clarity of strategic purpose. The really big question is not how many billions should come out of the Pentagon’s bloated budget. No, the big question is this one: given our straitened economic circumstances and in light of the monumental catastrophes of the past decade, what is America’s proper role in the world? Simply reciting cliches about “˜global leadership’ won’t cut it. The time to make hard choices is at hand.”

Winslow Wheeler, head of the Strauss Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, via Josh Rogin:

…said that the whole notion of the cuts is misleading anyway, because the numbers are being compared projections that were inaccurate in the first place.

“There will be reductions … but the actual figure is also masked by the fact that the debt deal is compared to a ten year CBO “˜baseline,’ which is [the fiscal] 2011 spending levels adjusted according to arcane rules and inflated by a highly unreliable projection of long term future inflation,” he said.

“The debt deal kicks the defense budget can down the road for this and future Congresses. People should not read precision and certainty into a political deal specifically designed to be uncertain and indistinct.”

From McClatchy:

Rather than cutting $400 billion in defense spending through 2023, as President Barack Obama had proposed in April, the current debt proposal trims $350 billion through 2024, effectively giving the Pentagon $50 billion more than it had been expecting over the next decade.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, experts said, the overall change in defense spending practices could be minimal: Instead of cuts, the Pentagon merely could face slower growth.

“This is a good deal for defense when you probe under the numbers,” said Lawrence Korb, a defense expert at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research center. “It’s better than what the Defense Department was expecting.”

[...] But the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform ““ known as the Bowles-Simpson proposal, for its two chairmen ““ proposed far deeper reductions last fall, saying the military could still maintain its power.

Korb, who studies defense budgets, said Congress could cut the defense baseline budget by $100 billion annually over the next decade and still spend more than it did during the height of the Cold War, adjusted for inflation. He noted that the baseline defense budget has climbed every year for 13 years, a record increase.

Anthony H. Cordesman from CSIS on the debt ceiling deal:

There is good reason why anyone who cares about the current legislation on the budget deficit should care about its near-term impact on national security:

  • The entire debate reflected a total disregard of the need for the State Department and other civil departments to play a major role in consolidating our victory in Iraq, supporting a transition to Afghan control in 2014, and preparing for the United States to play a major role in supporting democracy and political change in the Middle East.
  • This pressure comes at a time when the Defense Department has had years of growth in real spending, does little or no realistic long-term force planning, cannot control its manpower and procurement costs, and was already seeking cuts in programs between $78 billion and $400 billion. Even before the president added the goal of cutting the budget by $400 million over the next 12 years (long before the present debate), the Defense Department had planned to eliminate all real growth in defense spending after FY2013″“which would reduce the total defense budget from $708 billion in FY2011 to $661 billion in FY2016″“even if one assumes that the United States will still be spending $50 billion a year on its wars.
  • Not one word of the debate addressed the rise in the total interagency homeland defense budget to over $70 billion a year, a massive new effort that has grown with minimal efficiency and without adult supervision.
  • The new legislation layers a whole new set of cuts over the existing cuts forced on the defense secretary in preparing the FY2012 budget submission, which means massive new short-term pressure to find cuts”“any cuts”“in defense spending.
  • The debate that led up to the legislation produced a totally dishonest proposal for cuts in wartime spending amounting to $1 trillion dollars. This was matched by an equally dishonest Future Year Defense Program submission for FY2012 from the Defense Department, which claimed that the total cost of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the global war on terrorism would suddenly drop from $159 billion in FY2011 and $118 billion in FY2012 to a constant level of $50 billion in FY2013″”2016. The real cost of our wars has to be over $75 billion in FY2013, and no one knows the out-year costs. As for the $1 trillion in savings, it would take 20 years to achieve a $1-trillion savings at a rate of $50 billion a year, and that would mean two decades in which the United States could not spend a dime on any overseas contingency.

But, the legislation is not going to survive in ways that have any real mid- or long-term impact. This becomes clear the moment anyone examines the real-world nature of the supposed longer-term plans for defense cuts in the legislation.

First, there is no way to usefully assess what the numbers involved actually mean or to regard them as politically credible. We are talking about making cuts to nonexistent plans and budget baselines some 12 years into the future.

Second, these cuts are to be made in undefined dollars, where no one can yet define current or constant dollars for the time period involved or estimate the extent to which the cost of defense rises faster than the average rate of future inflation.

Third, the cuts are purely political numbers that do not reflect any analysis of national security needs, where the cuts would come from, or the risk involved. They make no allowance for new contingency requirements. They are to be carried out over more than a decade without regard to future developments in the U.S. economy and competing needs for federal spending.

Fourth, the cuts are not based on any serious examination of the priority of national security spending relative to other discretionary spending and entitlements programs and sources of revenue. They do not look at the fact that national security”“which everyone agrees is a legitimate priority for federal activity”“costs less than 5 percent of a $14 trillion dollar economy even though we are still involved in two wars. They totally ignore the fact that it is the rising cost of medical treatment (rising from 5 to 6 percent of GDP in the past toward 19 percent) and the needs of an aging population (rising from 12 to 20 percent of the total) that is the key area that has pushed up our debt and deficit and where we need sound national programs”“not simply budget cuts.

Fifth, the deadlines that could trigger the massive additional cuts are absurd. There is no credible way that the Special Joint Committee can really address the cuts that should be made in our national security efforts by November 23, 2011, or that the Congress as whole could properly evaluate the result for an up-or-down vote by December 23, 2011.

Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; former Assistant Secretary of Defense*:

 “The proposed deal does not go far enough in reining in a military budget which in real terms is higher than at any time since World War II. In fact, the total reductions over the next decade are likely to be less than the $400 billion proposed by President Obama.”

Heather Hurlburt, Executive Director, National Security Network*:

“If a congressional commission includes a serious, bipartisan review of defense strategy and expenditures, and abides by its recommendations, this is an opportunity for all sides to show they’re serious about constructing an American defense strategy that is effective and affordable for our times.”

ABC News:

On first blush it appears the $2.1 billion debt ceiling compromise hits the Pentagon’s budget pretty hard in the next decade, but the reality is that in the short term the $350 billion in defense cuts is smaller than what Pentagon officials had been preparing for. However, the deal also holds out the possibility that in the long term there could be even deeper cuts in defense spending if a bipartisan committee is unable to come up with an additional $1.2 trillion in savings by the end of this year.

…and just in case you haven’t been paying attention, which plays into Pres. Obama’s hands on national security, as well as obliterates the line between Democrats and Republicans, secrecy still rules (n/t Noah Shachtman of Danger Room).

The Senate Intelligence Committee rejected an amendment that would have required the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence to confront the problem of “secret law,” by which government agencies rely on legal authorities that are unknown or misunderstood by the public.

The amendment, proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall, was rejected on a voice vote, according to the new Committee report on the FY2012 Intelligence Authorization Act.

“We remain very concerned that the U.S. government’s official interpretation of the Patriot Act is inconsistent with the public’s understanding of the law,” Senators Wyden and Udall wrote. “We believe that most members of the American public would be very surprised to learn how federal surveillance law is being interpreted in secret.”

Finally, Adm. Dennis Blair, former United States Director of National Intelligence in the Obama administration, for all you wonks (substance starts at 3 min. in). Blair starts with a terrific quote from John Cleese, which is pretty perfect considering the absurdity we’ve all had to endure the last weeks.

*TM Note: Attribution on this quote has been changed.