Capitol Hill Democrats want to target the Pentagon.
Barney Frank will not soon be named secretary of defense or, insha'Allah, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. So there's really no reason to fear that his recent call to cut defense spending by 25% is a harbinger of what to expect in an Obama administration.
Then again, maybe there is.
When it comes to defense, there are two Barack Obamas in this race. There is the candidate who insists, as he did last year in an article in Foreign Affairs, that "a strong military is, more than anything, necessary to sustain peace"; pledges to increase the size of our ground forces by 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines while providing them with "first-rate equipment, armor, incentives and training"; and seems to be as gung-ho for a surge in Afghanistan as he was opposed to the one in Iraq.
And then there is the candidate who early this year recorded an ad for Caucus for Priorities, a far-left outfit that wants to cut 15% of the Pentagon's budget in favor of "education, healthcare, job training, alternative energy development, world hunger [and] deficit reduction."
"Thanks so much for the Caucus for Priorities for the great work you've been doing," says Mr. Obama in the ad, before promising to "cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful spending . . . slow our development of future combat systems . . . not develop new nuclear weapons."
Joe Biden also cut an ad for the group that was even more emphatic: "I'll tell you what we cannot afford . . . a trillion-dollar commitment to 'Star Wars,' new nuclear weapons, a thousand-ship Navy, the F-22 Raptor."
Mr. Biden is right that we can't afford a thousand-ship Navy, not that anyone has proposed it. Current levels of funding don't quite suffice to operate 300 ships, or about half the number the U.S. had at the end of the Reagan arms buildup. The Navy would be satisfied with 313.
Current funding is also just adequate to purchase about 65 new planes for the Air Force each year, even as the average age of each plane creeps upward to nearly 24 years. Last year, the entire fleet of F-15Cs -- the Air Force's mainstay fighter -- was grounded after one of the planes came apart in midair. Spending on maintenance alone is up more than 80% from a decade ago. Is that another defense item Mr. Biden thinks we can't afford?
(As for nuclear weapons, the U.S. hasn't built a new warhead in decades. Its mainstay, the W76, is widely suspected of being unreliable, yet Congress has resisted funding the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead.)
Maybe it seems odd that the Pentagon, whose budget for 2009 runs to well over $500 billion -- not including the supplemental $165 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan -- should struggle to afford the equipment it needs.
But it's not odd. We've been fighting two wars, straining people and equipment. Weapons have generally become more complex and expensive. President Clinton's "procurement holiday" punted the modernization problems to the present. And even after the Bush buildup, defense spending amounts to just 4% of gross domestic product. By contrast, at the nadir of Cold War defense spending under Jimmy Carter, the figure was 4.7%.
All this should argue for at least a modest recapitalization effort by an Obama administration, assuming it really believes a strong military is "necessary to sustain peace." A study by the Heritage Foundation makes the case that defense spending should rise to close to $800 billion over the next four years in order to stick to the 4% GDP benchmark. That's unrealistic in light of the financial crisis. But holding the line at current levels is doable -- and necessary.
But what if a President Obama doesn't actually believe in the importance of a strong military to keep the peace? Or has an attenuated idea of what qualifies as a "strong" military? Or considers military strength a luxury at a moment of financial crisis? Or thinks now is the moment to smash the Pentagon piggy bank to fund a second Great Society?
Does anyone really know where Mr. Obama's instincts lie? During the third debate, he cited former Marine Gen. James Jones as a member of his wise man's circle -- which was reassuring but odd, given that the general made a point of appearing at a McCain campaign event simply to distance himself from the Democratic candidate.
The Obama campaign has also produced a lengthy defense blueprint on its Web site. It reads more like a social manifesto, promising to "improve transition services," "make mental health a priority," and end "don't-ask, don't-tell." All very well, except the document is notably vague on naming the kinds of weapons systems Mr. Obama would actually support.
And so the question remains: If elected, which Obama do we get? The nuanced centrist or the man from Ben and Jerry's?
Some voters may like answers sometime before next Tuesday. Alternatively, they can click the button called "I'm Feeling Lucky."
Global View - WSJ.com