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And to the Republic

Howard Manly | 11/8/2011, 8:27 p.m.

Two months earlier, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that, “Slightly more than half said they liked the way he was handling foreign policy generally, up from 39 percent in April. About six in 10 approved of his handling of Afghanistan, up from 44 percent in January. And more than seven in 10 supported his handling of the terrorism threat, up from about half in August 2010. Perhaps least surprising, more than eight in 10 said they supported his handling of the pursuit of  bin Laden.”

What is more troublesome now to the Obama Administration may very well have little do with actual foreign threats but much to do about the outrage over the national economy, the size of the government budget and cost of foreign interventions. The numbers are staggering. Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimated that direct government spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had amounted to roughly $2 trillion by July 2011 — $17,000 for every U.S. household.  A Congressional Research Service report offered even more disturbing data: the costs of the two wars alone accounted for 23 percent of the combined budget deficits between fiscal years 2003 and 2010. The ultimate cost, at least according to the Eisenhower Research Project, could end up as high as $4 trillion, including medical care and disability for current and future war veterans.  

And those figures are just for the two wars. Between FY1998 and FY2012, the baseline defense budget (in constant dollars and exclusive of war funding) has grown to $553 billion from $374 billion - an increase of close to 50 percent. Setting the agenda now is the debt-limit deal that calls for cutting more than $2 trillion from federal spending over the next decade.

Potential cuts and cost-saving measures are well-known.

A target is the multibillion-dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the next-generation aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The Obama Administration has all but admitted that the F-35 has been a costly mistake. Ten years in, the program has been plagued by cost overruns and delays. The cost of each aircraft has gone from $69 million to $133 million; the total cost of buying more than 2,400 F-35s has jumped from $233 billion to $385 billion.

Obama has publicly stated the obvious but is reluctant to cut the military budget for legitimate security reasons and more pressing domestic political realities. “Over the last decade,” Obama said, “we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource - our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means.”

It remains unclear just how Obama will balance those needs with what President Dwight D. Eisenhower forewarned about the military industrial complex.

Arguably the most important challenge Obama faces as he confronts looming budgetary restraints coupled with remaining perceptions that he is soft-on-defense is his ability to avoid committing the U.S. to another costly war.