The Cable

Obama’s fuzzy math on defense “savings”

The White House today adopted Rep. Paul Ryan's dubious claim that winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would save $1 trillion over the next decade.

"The plan produces approximately $4.4 trillion in deficit reduction net the cost of the American Jobs Act," the White House said in a fact sheet issued to accompany President Barack Obama's new plan to cut the deficit. "$1.1 trillion from the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and transition from a military to a civilian-led mission in Iraq."

The more than $1 trillion in defense "savings" that the White House claims is based on a projection the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) put out last March, which found  that war costs would top $1.7 trillion over the next ten years. However, that projection was never meant to accurately forecast the costs of the wars over the next decade. The report just took this year's costs for Iraq and Afghanistan ($159 billion) and added inflation for every year in the future.

In other words, the CBO number was the projection if the United States kept the current number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan until 2020. However, nobody ever thought that was the plan. The CBO was required to do the math that way, as they do with all such projections.

At today's White House briefing, reporters were quick to point out that Obama never planned to keep that many troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for the next ten years. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Jack Lew's response was to point out that the House GOP had used the same faulty logic in Paul Ryan's budget plan.

"There is no doubt that those are going to be savings when presented to Congress. The Republican budget in the House took account of them," Lew said, referring to the Ryan budget plan that the House passed in April.

It's also true that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) claimed the same "savings" in the plan he released to avert a debt ceiling crisis, although that plan never got any traction. But the CBO issued a report on the day Reid's plan was released to make it clear that its projection should not be used in this way.

"It is important to note that the administration projection is not really a policy-based estimate -- CBO takes the most recent number and that becomes their baseline," said the report, which was crafted for congressional offices and obtained by The Cable.

The White House's gambit is only its latest attempts to claim savings from cutting defense when actually no cuts exist. The White House claimed it had cut $350 billion from defense over ten years as part of the debt ceiling deal, but actually there are no defense cuts in the bill.

What the bill does is set spending caps for "security" spending, which the administration defines as defense, homeland security, intelligence, nuclear weapons, diplomacy, and foreign aid. There's no breakdown that defines which of these agencies get what, so there's no way to be sure that all the cuts would come from "defense." Moreover, the spending caps are split between "security" and "non-security" discretionary spending only for fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2013.

If the next five Congresses actually cut the defense budget by $350 billion and if the Congressional supercommittee fails to find another $900 billion in discretionary cuts, that would "trigger" another $600 billion cuts in defense over ten years. Added to the $350, that would total about $1 trillion in defense "savings."

But Lew was clear that the trigger, which officials are now referring to as "sequestration," is not something the administration wants to happen.

"I don't know any serious policymakers on either side of the aisle who think sequestration is a good place to go," he said. "It was designed to be something that would have bad consequences wherever you look because it is not a serious set of policies."

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The Cable

Obama's busy foreign-policy week in New York

President Barack Obama turns to foreign policy this week with a trip to New York to attend the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly and hold meetings with world leaders, as the United Nations gears up for a showdown on Palestinian statehood.

The president heads to New York on Monday afternoon and will meet with staff at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, but that's about it for today. He gets down to business on Tuesday, which will begin with a morning meeting with Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of Libya's National Transitional Council. At 10:30 a.m., he'll attend a high-level multilateral meeting on the future of Libya chaired by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

"The TNC has been very affirmative about pursuing an inclusive transition that brings together the Libyan people. And so they'll have a chance to address those plans at this meeting," said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes in a briefing with reporters.

Obama will then have his first meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai since Obama announced his plans to start the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in June. They are set to discuss both the plan for transitioning control of territory before 2014, as well as U.S.-Afghan strategic cooperation after 2014.

Next, Obama will meet "briefly" with new Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, after which the United States and Brazil will host a meeting of "dozens of countries" to announce commitments to Obama's Open Government Partnership initiative, which he launched last year to promote accountability and transparency in governance.

Obama will meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday afternoon. "Turkey has been a close partner of ours on issues related to the Arab Spring, and I anticipate the two leaders will talk about events in Syria," Rhodes said. "And we have of course encouraged Israel and Turkey, two close friends of the United States, to work to bridge their differences. So we'll have an opportunity to discuss those issues."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu on Sunday, and officials said that Turkey's rapidly deteriorating relationship with Israel was high on the agenda.

Wednesday morning is Obama's big speech before the UNGA, where Rhodes said Obama will talk about Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, non-proliferation, and the Arab spring. On the matter of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the president will "express our support for a negotiated two-state solution between the parties," Rhodes added.

Obama then meets with new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who replaced Naoto Kan this month. High on the agenda for that meeting will be the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu and the East Asia summit in Indonesia, both of which Obama will be attending in November. Then comes lunch with Ban, followed by Obama's speech at the Clinton Global Initiative and more bilaterals with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Last but not least, Obama will meet with South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, on Wednesday afternoon, before attending the annual UNGA reception that evening.

Rhodes said Obama is planning to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but no time has yet been set. There are no plans to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

So what will Obama say about the Palestinian bid to seek member state status at the U.N. Security Council, which the United States has promised to veto? Rhodes alluded to ongoing efforts to create a new Quartet statement as a means of getting back to negotiations.

"[W]e're talking to our European allies, the Russians, the United Nations and members of the Quartet about ways in which we could, again, provide support for successful negotiations going forward. So I think [Obama] will address, again, how we think the parties can come back to the table and the basis upon which they can make progress," Rhodes said.

"[W]e believe that for the peace to be lasting...that's going to have to be accomplished through negotiation with Israel, not through actions at the United Nations. So that will be the U.S. position in New York."

Even if the Palestinians go through the U.N. General Assembly, where the United States does not have a veto, the Obama administration will still oppose the effort.

"We don't think that you can accomplish statehood through the U.N. General Assembly," Rhodes said. "I think our fundamental message is going to be, if you support Palestinian aspirations and if you support a Palestinian state, that the way to accomplish that is through negotiation with Israel."

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