WASHINGTON -- As Congress looks at all sorts of discretionary non-defense projects to cut to reduce the deficit, a core member of House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) circle of economic advisers is advocating the United States reduce its footprint internationally, including by pulling out of the war in Afghanistan.
Shortly after the 2010 elections, Boehner "assembled a kitchen cabinet of economic advisers," The New York Times reported, "who have served as a sounding board over the last few months."
One of the key members of that group is Allan Meltzer, a professor of political economic at Carnegie Mellon University and the leading historian of the Federal Reserve. In 2000, he chaired the International Financial Institution Advisory Commission, which recommended changes to operations of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and concluded much of U.S. foreign aid is wasted.
"The United States has become the policeman of the world, and that's not something that we do well or that is easily doable," said Meltzer in an interview with The Huffington Post.
"So yes, we should make sure, as best we can, that the Taliban won't come here or go to Europe. But we don't need to have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan to do that, and it isn't clear anymore -- if it ever was -- what our objective is. Surely no one believes we're going to create something called a democratic government in Afghanistan. What we have is a corrupt government. And why we're fighting to establish a corrupt government is beyond me. And we're not likely to succeed."
Meltzer said he has not been asked by the Speaker for recommendations on specific cuts to reduce the federal deficit.
"The Speaker continues to listen to a broad range of economic experts, including Dr. Meltzer, about the best way to help the private sector create more jobs," responded Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.
Other members of Boehner's "kitchen cabinet" who responded to The Huffington Post aren't quite as supportive of a rapid withdrawal, aligning themselves closer to the Republican Party's public stance of largely backing President Obama's timeline. But there was a general consensus that cuts to the Pentagon's budget need to at least be on the table as the country looks at ways to reduce spending.
"We're on track to spend about $110 billion on Afghanistan this year," said Donald Marron, Jr., director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. "That's a lot of money. In Iraq, I think we're on track to spend $44 billion, for example, so Afghanistan is more than twice as much. From the big picture point of view, when you look around the world at our budget challenges, clearly walking down defense spending is part of the solution.
Although Marron insisted that the characterization is inaccurate and he is strictly nonpartisan, The New York Times identified him as an adviser -- and refused to print a correction, by his account.
American Action Forum President Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, said the war in Afghanistan is still being heavily debated by conservatives. While GOP leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insist the Republican Party is solidly behind Obama on the war, 2012 presidential contenders Haley Barbour and Mike Huckabee question the U.S. presence.
"Can you get U.S. troops out and U.S. resources out that rapidly, and not leave behind the makings of a failed state that would allow non-state actors to attack us again?" asked Holtz-Eakin. "That's always been the debate. People have disagreed on both sides of this debate for years, including the president and the previous president. Sounds to me like Haley and Mike have come to the conclusion that you can do that. I don't think that's going to be a quick consensus though."
The economists agreed defense spending is essentially a political and national security policy question, although with so much focus on cutting the deficit, economists are getting pulled into the debate.
A new report by the Swedish think tank SIPRI found that U.S. military spending has nearly doubled since 2001. The United States spent $698 billion on the military in 2010, an 81 percent increase over the last decade.
Kevin Hassett is the director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and, like Holtz-Eakin, was an adviser to Sen John McCain's (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign. He said that policymakers need to first decide what the country's defense policies are and then set spending levels. Right now, he argued, the military is being asked to get involved in too many conflicts with too few resources.
"To the extent that we're going to cut defense, we should have a conversation about what things we can do without," said Hassett. "I don't think that's a conversation we see happening here in Washington."
Officials in Washington have, so far, largely accepted the recommendations of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has identified $178 billion in savings over the next five years -- a figure that many progressives have argued doesn't cut deep enough. Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) FY 2012 budget reflects these priorities. Holtz-Eakin said Ryan's plan made sense.
"The last point is the political point, which is if you're going to engage in broad reconfiguration of the spending part of the budget, which we must, it's hard to make the political case that you make something exempt," said Holtz-Eakin on defense spending. "So I think the Ryan approach -- which is to embrace what Gates has already identified and earmarked that for deficit reduction -- is a sensible way to go."