Mark Tapscott asks the same question at the Washington Examiner I have begun asking fiscal conservatives who rightly see runaway federal spending as a threat to our economic health.  We need to find ways to erase over $1.3 trillion from annual spending just to get to the point where we don’t add to the national debt, let alone start to shrink it.  After the obvious targets at NPR and the National Endowments for the Arts contribute their drops in the bucket, where will those cuts come?   In order to make the kind of short-term cuts necessary to stop deficit spending, the Pentagon has to be at least fair game for belt tightening:

But their public commitment at this point extends exclusively to the very limited category of “non-defense discretionary spending,” which makes up only 15 percent of the federal budget. Discretionary defense spending now exceeds $550 billion annually. We were fully funding the military in 2008, and there is no good reason we cannot spend at the same level in 2011. This is one area where Republicans and President Obama possibly can work constructively together. They should listen to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who in a May speech declared that “as a matter of principle and political reality, the Department of Defense cannot go to America’s elected representatives and ask for increases each year unless we have done everything possible to make every dollar count.”

Gates decried expensive weapons development programs that pursue “the limits of what technology will bear without regard to cost or what a real-world enemy can do.” He added that the unquestioning assumption that more is better has led to “$20 million howitzers, $2 billion bombers, and $3 [billion] to $6 billion destroyers,” which burden taxpayers and decrease the quantities the Pentagon can afford. He even took on the sacred cow of veterans health spending, stating that “many working-age military retirees, who are earning full-time salaries on top of their full military pensions, are opting for TRICARE (the military health insurance program) even though they could get health coverage through their employer, with the taxpayer picking up most of the tab.” And why would they stay on TRICARE? The premiums have not risen in a decade.

Constitutionally, defense is one area of spending that is unequivocally the responsibility of the federal government.  We are also involved in one war and drawing down from another.  The Korean Peninsula is, as always, on the brink of another shooting war.  Conservatives will respond, with plenty of justification, that we should focus our budget-cutting efforts on those areas where the federal government’s writ shouldn’t run before scaling back our military.

However, without looking at Defense and Homeland Security for some cost reductions, we end up with a relatively small opportunity to reduce deficit spending in the short term.  The biggest problems lie in entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, and those will require massive overhauls to reduce annual expenditures and long-term liabilities.  We can focus exclusively on those efforts first, hoping for the big payoff in savings, but it will likely take several more budget cycles for the costs of the reforms to get made up by the savings — during which we will have to keep borrowing in order to fund the rest of the government.

We should be looking strategically at the role of the US in the world, especially in Europe.  We spend a fortune providing security to what has become a very stable and interconnected region.  Our investment in Europe should be reconsidered in light of our economic problems.  We won’t be able to withdraw from Korea for obvious reasons, nor should we scale back our naval power as we need to continue to protect shipping routes for secure and reliable global trade.  If we really want to stop deficit spending now, we have to look for the opportunities to cut in the short term as well as the painful and necessary long-term reforms in entitlements, and that means the Pentagon is going to have to share the load.