Image: Candidates Attend First GOP Primary Debate Of 2012 Presidential Race
Darren Mccollester  /  Getty Images
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, left, shakes hands with his rival Tim Pawlenty, while Rep. Ron Paul of Texas looks on prior to their debate Monday night in New Hampshire.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 6/15/2011 11:54:56 AM ET 2011-06-15T15:54:56

In their debate Monday, the seven Republican presidential contenders showed that they haven’t quite yet focused on a question that will be hard to avoid: how to resolve the irrepressible conflict between America’s overseas military commitments and its debt burden.

It was a questioner in the audience Monday night, truck driver Greg Salts from Manchester, N.H., who framed the issue sharply: “I support the U.S. military. But frankly, we're in debt up to our eyeballs. We have nation building going on around the world ... We still have military bases all over Europe, all over Asia.”

In his own way, Salts was saying some of what another Republican, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has been saying in recent days, as he prepares to retire, 45 years after entering government service.

To the NATO meeting on Friday in Brussels and in earlier speeches on his farewell tour, Gates has bluntly said what Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and the other GOP presidential hopefuls have only begun to grapple with: “The United States faces a serious fiscal predicament that could turn into a crisis — of credit, of confidence, of our position in the world — if not addressed soon.”

The looming fiscal crunch will not spare military spending.

On Wednesday in his farewell testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee, Gates said “we need to be honest” about the consequences of a smaller military which will “be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things.”

Spending cuts must be done in an open and candid way so that the nation “consciously acknowledges and accepts additional risk in exchange for reduced investment in the military.”

He warned the Senate against the kind of across-the-board cuts that Congress made in the 1970s — “a disastrous period for our military” — resulting in “a hollowing out of the force.”

He also gave one last reminder that defense costs are increasingly a matter of rising health care spending.

“Sharply rising health care costs are consuming an ever larger share of this department’s budget — growing from $19 billion in 2001 to $52.2 billion” in the Obama administration's Fiscal Year 2012 budget request, he told the senators, asking that military retirees be required to pay increased fees for their health care coverage.

In a similarly somber warning last week, Gates told his NATO peers that “there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources… to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

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Running out of ammo
The immediate clash is over NATO’s mission in Libya, where “only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime” as Gates pointed out, many allies “are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.”

Boehner asks Obama to justify legal grounds for Libya mission

But the larger context is the whole array of military commitments and promises to military retirees that collide with growing entitlement programs such as Medicare — and tax revenues that are utterly inadequate to pay for all this.

Using the standard Congressional Budget Office measure, publicly held debt is nearly 70 percent of gross domestic product, more than double what it was in 2003.

Under CBO’s “alternative fiscal scenario,” which is its euphemism for not cutting payments to doctors serving Medicare patients and not allowing taxes to be increased, debt soars to about 150 percent of GDP soon after 2030.

Video: Is Perry 'fixin' to get into the 2012 race? (on this page)

One of the GOP presidential hopefuls, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said during Monday’s debate that in order to win next year, “We need the peace through strength Republicans, we need the fiscal conservatives, we need the social conservatives.”

But the collision of defense spending and debt could bring one branch of the party  “the peace through strength Republicans” into conflict with the fiscal conservatives.

Loren Thompson, a military analyst who heads the non-partisan Lexington Institute, said, “It’s clear the Republican candidates aren’t eager to bring up unpleasant subjects with the electorate. For example, the possibility that we may not be able to continue spending nearly half of all global military outlays is not something that they are willing to address.”

Thompson said the United States accounts for about 23 percent of global economic output, yet “is generating nearly half of all global military expenditures.”

During Monday’s event, there were two opposing poles and some GOP contenders in the middle.

Paul: Cut defense and withdraw the troops
The “cut debt and cut defense” pole was represented by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

“We should think about protecting our borders, rather than the borders between Iraq and Afghanistan. That doesn't make any sense to me,” he said, to applause from the audience, when immigration came up as a topic.

When Romney said he wanted the U.S. troops in Afghanistan “to come home… based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals,” Paul shot back, “I wouldn't wait for my generals. I'm the commander in chief ... I tell the generals what to do. I'd bring them home as quickly as possible. And I would get them out of Iraq as well."

And he added, "I wouldn't start a war in Libya. I'd quit bombing Yemen. And I'd quit bombing Pakistan.”

Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

He said, “I'd start taking care of people here at home because we could save hundreds of billions of dollars.”

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty represented the hawkish, or “peace through strength” side of the party.

“We have Iraq being probably one of the shining examples of success in the Middle East,” he contended.

And he invoked the image of the Sept. 11 attackers, who would have killed “30 million if they could have. If they had the capability to do that in their hands — and as soon as they get it, they'll try.”

Rebuffing Paul, Pawlenty said, “If there are individuals I have intelligence on, or groups in Yemen that present a threat to our security interests in that region or the United States of America, you can bet they will hear from me and we'll continue the bombings.”

Between those two poles was the apparent frontrunner in the GOP race, Romney, who while opposing a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, also said, “We've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.”

Slideshow: The public life of Tim Pawlenty (on this page)

One GOP contender who wasn’t at the debate, former Utah governor and China envoy Jon Huntsman has begun to raise the issue of defense spending, asking last weekend, “When you look at Afghanistan, can we hang out until 2014 and beyond?”

He said, “You can if you're willing to pay another quarter of a trillion dollars to do so. But if it isn't in our direct national security interest and if there isn't a logical exit strategy and if we don't know what the cost is going to be in terms of money and human lives, then I think you have to say it's probably time we reevaluate this ... ”

Entitlements vs. armaments
But it's a Republican non-candidate, Gates, who has spoken most eloquently about the fiscal dilemma.

Because most of America’s NATO allies have more generous welfare states than the United States does, they do not nearly spend as much on the hardware of war as the United States does.

“For all but a handful of allies, defense budgets in absolute terms, as a share of economic output, have been chronically starved for adequate funding for a long time," Gates said last week in Brussels. "Just five of 28 allies — the U.S., U.K., France, Greece, along with Albania — exceed the agreed (level of) 2 percent of GDP spending on defense.”

The United States now spends about 4 percent of GDP on defense, compared to about 9 percent of GDP when John F. Kennedy was president.

If NATO wants to engage in operations such as imposing a no-fly zone on Libya, the lagging NATO members will need to spend more on weapons and on “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets,” Gates told the NATO ministers.

But he said, “fiscal, political and demographic realities make this unlikely to happen anytime soon.”

What Gates didn’t say, but is quite clear in reports from CBO and others: very similar "demographic realities" are inevitably pushing the United States toward the European model.

CBO projects that the ratio of entitlement spending to defense spending, currently two to one, will grow to three to one by 2020. Beyond that, an aging population and health care cost growth that outstrips income growth will make the mismatch ever bigger.

© 2013 Reprints

Video: Is Perry 'fixin' to get into the 2012 race?

  1. Closed captioning of: Is Perry 'fixin' to get into the 2012 race?

    >> from washington, host of andrea mitchell reports, andrea mitchell . let's start with the unofficial announcement by jon huntsman yesterday.

    >> i think it was more intentional than unintentional. it's mysterious why he chose that forum. it was not a great political kick off. he's choosing the statue of liberty backdrop. i think huntsman becomes a formidable challenger if he can road test his campaign. it's a big if, to the mitt romney part of the republican party . i think michele bachmann has the energy and excitement now with the media. some of her colleagues think she'll make a mistake and implod. i think she's a very different person from the january 25th performance she gave the tea party rebuttal. remember the self-produced rebuttal where she was looking at the wrong camera and they lampooned her effect i havely on "saturday night live." this is a woman, as mark was pointing out with good advice and is listening to it. she is the woman candidate who can, unlike sarah palin , appeal to tea party and social conservatives and do it in a great way. she's a tax lawyer. she's on the intelligence committee and she was showing all that in the debate.

    >> let's stop there, andrea . i think you have drawn a bright red line down the center of these two female conditioneds in the republican party . michele bachmann hired professionals, she's listening to professionals. she's presenting herself in a way that's more palable to the media and to middle class voters. sarah palin has never -- she will not bring in political professionals. she doesn't even listen to the advise of roger ales, who tells her do not do that facebook video after gabby giffords . if she won't listen to roger ales or the republican establishment, it's probably why she's floundering out there politically. michele bachmann , again, she's listening and following directions for stage craft very well.

    >> you know, she is seven generations from iowa now representing neighboring minnesota. she's authentic, also. when she talks about her five children and her 23 foster children , this is the way she and her husband lived their lives. i think she's got a lot of wind in her sails right now. then rick perry who could challenge her, i think he is running. i have been talking to people.

    >> did you see the clip of rick perry last night?

    >> yes, i did.

    >> be nice.

    >> i watched the whole speech. i was watching that last night. it was a republican event. he was filling in for donald trump . there were other awkwardnesses that night. he's got a good message, some argue because of the high employment in texas driven by the oil industry. he's got a great contact in texas and good advisers he's gotten from the failed newt gingrich campaign. there's the bush texans and the rick perry texans. they have been rivals since he was lieutenant governor for george w. bush .

    >> let's listen to rick perry and let america be the judge.

    >> the federal government was created by the state to be an agent for the state, not the other way around. [ applause ]

    >> i want to see a new york state, again, a place where we have to be looking at what we are doing in the state of texas because people are leaving texas headed to new york. i want to see that type of competition, again. we'll never do it with a washington, d.c., that's making us all be one size fits all. it may work good for gym socks , but it doesn't work good for states.

    >> he's got a bounce in his step.

    >> literally.

    >> a bee in his bonnet. no doubt about it. what do you think? willie? do you think that -- how is he going to do in buck's county?

    >> i am impressed he found a roomful of republicans in downtown manhattan .

    >> okay.

    >> biggest meeting ever.

    >> you were there last night. how did he perform?

    >> he is what he is. he's a totally transparent guy in terms of what he believes, and as willie said or andrea said, rather, the jobs message is going to be an opposing one if he runs. i'm less certain than andrea is that he's fixin to get into the race.

    >> and back to michele bachmann , joe, i just wonder if like my world view or whatever, my thinking just gets in the way of seeing the possibilities with her. is she formidable? because when you look at these candidates, aren't you looking at who could beat president obama ?

    >> if you were beating -- if you were betting money today on who would win the iowa caucuses , you would bet on her.

    >> she is formidable in this sense. if michele bachmann wins iowa , tim pawlenty is out of theris. tim pawlenty needs to win iowa . if michele bachmann wins iowa and skips new hampshire and goes straight to south carolina and pulls enough conservative votes away from mitt romney and huntsman is in the race, she is formidable. if she then goes to florida and does very well and draws enough conservative votes away from mitt romney -- if romney becomes sort of the mainstream conservative candidate, she helps elect john huntsman or somebody else who is out there. so, yes, i there if she doesn't make a mistake and she doesn't say something stupid, like let's stop cap and trade with assault weapons, a refuse translation of what she said before. if she keeps it in the middle of the road , andrea , she can be as much of a force in this campaign as mike huck bee was four years ago.

    >> indeed. and one other factor is some of these candidates, as you have seen, are also some of these republicans now talking about the cost of our wars and certainly against the libyan engagement. and that's really going to heat up this week with the showdown between congress and the white house , even today, over the war powers act and libya.

    >> fascinating. andrea , thank you so much. who do you have on the show today? anyone booked yet?

    >> actually, we do have barney frank and major garrett and chris van holland and a new book, "haunting legacy" about how vietnam still overshadows our decisions elsewhere. fascinating.

    >>> thank you. we'll be right back with more " morning joe ."

Photos: The political life of Michele Bachmann

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  1. President George W. Bush campaigns with state Sen. Michele Bachmann in Wayzata, Minn. during her first Congressional race in August 2006. (Evan Vucci / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. As a state senator, Bachmann proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. She is pictured here speaking during a Senate hearing at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. in 2006. (Janet Hostetter / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Helen LaFave, right, Bachmann's lesbian stepsister, speaks to the media at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. LaFave attended the 2006 hearing at which Bachmann presented her amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Her partner of 18 years, Nia Wronski, is seen at left. (Janet Hostetter / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Bachmann walks on stage during the second day of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in September 2008. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Bachmann attracted national attention when she said that Democratic nominee Barack Obama "may have anti-American views" during an interview on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews in October 2008. (MSNBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Bachmann participates in the launching of the Republican National Committee's "Fire Pelosi" bus tour on September 15, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Bachmann, a leading critic of the Obama-backed health care law, lobbies for petitions calling for repeal of Obamacare in January 2011 on Capitol Hill. (Tim Sloan / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Bachmann rankled some Republicans when she gave a "Tea Party" response to the president's State of the Union address in 2011. Critics said she detracted from the standard GOP response, which was given by House budget chief Rep. Paul Ryan. (NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) (C), her husband Marcus Bachmann (R) and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad listens to Bachmann's introduction prior to her speach at the Iowans for Tax Relief PAC Watchdog Reception January 21, 2011 in Des Moines, Iowa. Bachmann spoke to Iowa's largest anti-tax group amidst speculation that she will run for president as a Republican candidate in 2012. (Steve Pope / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Bachmann looks at a cake commemorating the 100th birthday of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington in February 2011. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Bachmann speaks at a rally by home school advocates in in Des Moines, Iowa in March 2011. More than 1,000 home school advocates rallied on the steps of the Iowa Statehouse, cheered on by three potential Republican presidential candidates who joined their cause. (Charlie Neibergall / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Rep. Michele Bachmann, speaks to supporters during her formal announcement to seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, June 27, 2011, in Waterloo, Iowa. Bachmann was born in Waterloo. (Charlie Neibergall / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Republican U.S. presidential candidate and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann waves to supporters after speaking during the Iowa straw poll in Ames, Iowa Aug. 13, 2011. Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll with 29% of the vote, edging out Rep. Ron Paul by 152 votes, or 28%. (Daniel Acker / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A police officer guards Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann after protesters from the Occupy Wall Street movement drowned out her foreign policy speech on Nov. 10, 2011 in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina. About 30 people rose in unison and began shouting during Bachmann's address aboard the USS Yorktown and then marched out peacefully. (Richard Ellis / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Rep. Michele Bachmann is joined by her husband, left, during a news conference formally ending her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination on Jan. 4, 2012 in West Des Moines, Iowa. Bachmann made the decision after a poor finish in the 2012 Iowa caucuses. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (15) The political life of Michele Bachmann
  2. Republican Tim Pawlenty Is Elected Governor Of Minnesota
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    Slideshow (7) The public life of Tim Pawlenty


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