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Drones, Asia and Cyber War: Pentagon Shifts Priorities in New Review; Budget Still Exceeds Bush Era

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During the Republican presidential debates this weekend, candidates took aim at the military strategy President Obama unveiled late last week, which vows cuts in military spending and a stepped-up focus on the Asia-Pacific region, as well as increased use of drone strikes that have targeted militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and throughout Horn of Africa. We speak with William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, about Obama’s new strategy, which leaves spending at levels equal to the Bush administration, and examine alternatives presented by the GOP front-runner in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney. “His plan would be sort of laughable, if it wasn’t so obscene,” Hartung says. “He’s talking about, let’s keep the military budget at 4 percent of gross domestic product, as if it was some sort of entitlement program for the Pentagon… He would spend something like $6.5 trillion over 10 years, which would be about a trillion-and-a-half more than the Obama plan… If he’s not going to raise taxes, it’s going to come straight out of domestic programs, which are already being hit quite substantially.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In the lead-up to Tuesday’s primary vote in New Hampshire, Republican candidates participated in two televised debates in less than 24 hours. Several candidates directed their criticism at former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who leads the race.

The Republican presidential candidates also took aim at President Obama, including for the new military strategy he unveiled late last week. In its strategy blueprint, titled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” the United States vows a stepped-up focus on the Asia-Pacific region, as well as increased use of drone strikes that have targeted militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Romney said over the weekend this was not the time for the U.S. to reduce its military.

MITT ROMNEY: We’re facing a very dangerous world, and we have a president now who, unbelievably, has decided to shrink the size of the military, who, unbelievably, has said, for the first time since FDR, we’re going to no longer have the capacity to fight two wars at a time. This president must be replaced.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, speaking at Saturday night’s debate in New Hampshire this weekend ahead of the primaries. Obama’s plan touts a reduction in military spending, but only when compared to previous increases. Unveiling the plan at the Pentagon, President Obama said military spending would exceed its levels at the end of President George W. Bush’s second term.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region. We’re going to continue investing in our critical partnerships and alliances, including NATO, which has demonstrated time and again, most recently in Libya, that it’s a force multiplier. We will stay vigilant, especially in the Middle East. I think it’s important for all Americans to remember, over the past 10 years, since 9/11, our defense budget grew at an extraordinary pace. Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: it will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership. In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: But during Saturday’s Republican presidential debate, Texas Governor Rick Perry warned Obama’s cuts to military spending threaten the freedom and security of the United States.

GOV. RICK PERRY: What this president is doing with our military budget is going to put our country’s freedom in jeopardy. You cannot cut $1 trillion from the Department of Defense budget and expect that America’s freedoms are not going to be jeopardized. That, to me, is the biggest problem that America faces, is a president that doesn’t understand the military and a president who is allowing the reduction of the DOD budget so that he can spend money in other places. And it will put America’s freedom in jeopardy.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, speaking Sunday on Face the Nation, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. would still have the most powerful military in the world and would respond to threats wherever they emerge.

DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: I think the primary message to the world is that the United States is going to remain the strongest military power in the world. This strategy is going to give us the flexibility to continue to remain the strongest military power in the world. Yes, we have to prioritize, in terms of the Pacific and the Middle East. Yes, we have to have a presence elsewhere in the world. Yes, we have to develop and invest in new technologies and new capabilities. But the bottom line is, when we face an aggressor any place in this world, we’re going to be able to respond and defeat them.

AMY GOODMAN: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Sunday’s Face the Nation.

To talk more about the military budget and the responses from the Republican field of candidates, we’re joined by Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project for the Center for International Policy. His latest book, Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, President Obama unveils this plan, or a eight-month review, of military, of the Pentagon, and the Republican hopefuls say he’s endangering national security. What is your assessment of what has taken place, what has been laid out, and if the Republicans are actually putting forward something different?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, the Obama strategy is more of a PR campaign. He wants to make it look like he’s being responsible in this new world that we face. They’ve said things like, you know, we’re not going to fight more large ground wars like in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that’s not where the United States has been moving anyway. The public’s not going to stand still for that. They’ve been moving towards drone strikes, use of Special Forces, big arms sales. You know, so there will be an interventionary capability; it’ll just be done in a different way.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain that, and this issue of moving toward drone wars, when you have a situation where the United States will not feel the pain of war, where a bombing of a village can be accomplished by someone on a computer keyboard with one keystroke.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think, you know, even now, a lot of people act as if we’re not at war. They sort of put Iraq and Afghanistan out of their minds. But with drone wars, basically, people can pretend it’s not happening. I mean, not only is there no risk to the person who’s controlling the drone, but there’s a lot of support for this in Democratic and Republican circles. The notion is, if we’re not putting troops at risk, all is OK, even if it violates the sovereignty of countries, even if civilians are killed, even if there’s human rights problems. And I think, most importantly, it lowers the bar for going to war. So I don’t view it as progress in any sense.

AMY GOODMAN: So what actually will change, Bill Hartung?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, they’re going to cut troops, maybe 100,000, which will leave them with 1.3 million, which is a huge force. They might slow down some things like the F-35 combat aircraft, the Lockheed Martin system which has had cost overruns, is not performing properly. They would probably have to slow that down under any circumstances. And really they’ve been pretty cagey about what else is going to happen. They said, well, wait ’til the budget is released in a few weeks. And pretty much every question that they were asked, that was sort of their boilerplate answer.

AMY GOODMAN: Compare President Obama’s budget to President George W. Bush.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, we’re going to stay pretty much at Bush levels. You know, we’re at the highest level since World War II. We’ve been there for a while. The Pentagon budget has gone up 12 years in a row, which has never happened before, not after World War II, not Vietnam. So, we’ve had this unprecedented buildup. Basically, Obama is saying, well, maybe we’ll level it off. Maybe with inflation, it will go down, you know, ever so slightly. So it’s really not a significant change. The only thing that, you know, really you could say is that it’s better than what the Republicans would do.

AMY GOODMAN: Mitt Romney is way ahead in the polls in New Hampshire. What is his military plan or his plans for the Pentagon?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, his plan would be sort of laughable, if it wasn’t so obscene. You know, he’s talking about, let’s keep the military budget at 4 percent of gross domestic product, as if it was some sort of entitlement program for the Pentagon. I mean, it should be based on what’s happening in the world, not on some fixed figure. And he would spend something like $6.5 trillion over 10 years, which would be about a trillion-and-a-half more than the Obama plan. And he’s not saying how would you pay for it. And obviously, if he’s not going to raise taxes, it’s going to come straight out of domestic programs, which are already being hit quite substantially.

AMY GOODMAN: During the Republican presidential debates this weekend in New Hampshire, Texas Congressman Ron Paul defended his military record, criticized those who avoided military service. He also expressed regret at the way American military veterans are treated.

REP. RON PAUL: I’m trying to stop the wars, but at least, you know, I went when they called me up. But, you know, the veterans—the veterans problem is a big one. We have hundreds of thousands coming back from these wars, that were undeclared, they were unnecessary, they haven’t been won, they’re unwinnable. And we have hundreds of thousands looking for care. And we have this epidemic of suicide coming back. It’s so many have—I mean, if you add up all the contractors in all the wars going on, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, we’ve lost 8,500 Americans. And severe injuries, over 40,000. And these are undeclared war. So, Rick keeps saying we—you don’t want this Libertarian stuff, but what I’m talking about, I don’t bring up the word. You do. But I talk about the Constitution. The Constitution has rules. And I don’t like it when we send our kids off to fight these wars, and when those individuals didn’t go themselves, and then come up, and when they’re asked, they say, “Oh, I don’t think I could—one person could have made a difference.” I have a pet peeve that annoys me to a great deal, because when I see these young men coming back, my heart weeps for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Ron Paul. Bill Hartung, your response?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, you know, he’s got a lot of other issues, his domestic positions, but I think his foreign policy positions are right on. You know, we never really got public consent for these wars. Not only does it hurt our veterans, but it’s caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in the countries that have been occupied and attacked. And there doesn’t seem to be any sense, among the other Republicans, among the Obama administration, that war should not be sort of the leading edge of our foreign policy. Obama has shifted to things like bombing in Libya, sending Special Forces into Africa, stepping up drone strikes. But he certainly has not had a less bellicose foreign policy across the board compared to George W. Bush.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the shift to Asia, the emphasis on Asia?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, part of that is a way to keep the budget high. I mean, basically, if you have a new threat, you can say, “Well, we can’t cut back, because, you know, the Chinese threat.” But in fact, we’re spending four to six times what China’s spending. They have a few hundred nuclear weapons; we have thousands. We’ve already got allies surrounding them. Basically, you know, the complaint is, well, they have some ships that can leave their ports and, you know, patrol the region, which, given that they’re a regional power, is not surprising. So, I think you’re going to see more and more, you know, China as the new kind of demon that will be used to keep the Pentagon budget as high as possible, especially the Navy and the Air Force.

AMY GOODMAN: And military contractors?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, there’s no clear sense that they’re going to go down. I mean, they’ve talked about it, but I think they’re talking about more bureaucratic things than things like people carrying guns. So, you know, in a place like Africa, for example, they’re saying, “Well, we’re tilting away from Africa,” but they’ve still got military assistance. There’s still—got—you can use contractors, you can use CIA personnel, you can use drones, you can have coalition approaches like NATO against Libya. So they’re going to have as much of an intervention capacity in Africa as they had prior to this strategy review.

AMY GOODMAN: And the number of bases in the world?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, you know, some people say 700, some say over a thousand. Of course, the Pentagon is not coming clean, but it certainly—you know, it dwarfs what any other country has. And it’s based on this notion that you have to be—intervene anywhere at anytime, which I think is a huge, you know, insult to democracy. That shouldn’t be the way our country is perceived in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Hartung, before you go, I wanted to ask you about the largest weapons deal in history, and that was just worked out between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Explain the significance of this.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, first of all, at $60 billion, it’s, you know, a huge gift to the weapons industry. They’re going to sell, you know, over 70 Boeing F-15s. They’re going to sell Apache helicopters. They’re going to refurbish the Saudi air force. There’s not a deal that’s ever come close to this. And this is at a time when the Saudis are helping put down democracy in Bahrain, when they’ve been involved around their borders in places like Yemen, when of course they’re one of the most undemocratic regimes in the world. So, if you talk about Arab democracy, Arab Spring, this is the worst possible symbol the United States could be sending to the region, in terms of, you know, where they stand on the issue of democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: And actually, a lot of these weapons, old—they’re not the newest weapon systems, when you talk about a bailout of the U.S. military industry.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, they’re sort of current generation, which means they’ll keep open some production lines which otherwise would have closed. So we have a company like Boeing. They’ll be building F-15s. They’ll also have a piece of things like the F-35, the next generation. So, and in some cases, it’s sort of an arms race against ourselves. You sell F-15s to Saudi Arabia; you give F-35s to Israel. And so, in that sense, it just ratchets up the arms in the region and makes things, you know, more dangerous, not less.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it’s significant that this is an election year, a way of the Obama administration giving support to the military contractors in this country?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: I think that’s a significant piece of it. I mean, they talked about Iran as a target, but Iran has a very, you know, almost useful conventional force. If they got nuclear weapons, if they had long-range missiles, that might be something to worry about. But they don’t have a significant air force. It doesn’t really make sense, in terms of the strategic, you know, alignment of the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Although, of course, many would debate you on this.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, we should. I mean, that would be a good debate to have.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Hartung, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Bill Hartung is director of the Arms and Security Project for the Center for International Policy. His book, called Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

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