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Obama hints at deeper cuts to defense spending

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 29, 2011

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama hinted Wednesday that the military may see even steeper budget cuts than the $400 billion in reduced spending already outlined by defense leaders, as part of efforts to rein in the federal debt.

The comments came at a White House news conference, in response to reporters’ questions about continuing struggles with Congress to raise the national debt limit and find ways to trim government spending. Obama said numerous agencies and programs will face difficult financial decisions, and the military will not be exempt.

“I, as commander-in-chief, have to have difficult conversations with the Pentagon, saying ‘There’s fat here, we have to trim it out,’” he said. “[Defense Secretary] Bob Gates has already done a good job identifying $400 billion in cuts, but we’re going to do more.”

Last month, Gates told lawmakers that the goal of cutting defense spending over the next 12 years will require fundamental changes to military pay and benefits, force structure and mission capabilities.

Pentagon planners have already outlined about $78 billion in reduced spending over the next five years, which includes reducing the Army’s and Marine Corps’ combined end strength by nearly 70,000 servicemembers.

Without giving specifics on where additional defense cuts may come from, Obama acknowledged that “the preference of the Pentagon would be not to cut anything, because they feel like they’ve already given.”

At least some of the additional savings will come from reductions in the war effort in Afghanistan, including the withdrawal of 33,000 troops by September 2012.

Obama defended that plan again Wednesday, saying the moves are necessary to shift the long-term responsibility of security to Afghan forces. He also said he remains confident that U.S. troops can cripple al-Qaida networks and provide a secure environment for the Afghan government to operate.

The president acknowledged the deadly attack hours earlier at Kabul’s Hotel Inter-Continental, where a group of suicide bombers killed nine civilians in an area thought to be well protected. But he said the attack had no connection to U.S. drawdown plans, and added that it did not change his perception of progress there.

“Kabul is much safer than it was, and Afghan forces in Kabul are more capable than they were,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be events like this taking place. Our work is not done. But the tide of war is receding.”

Obama also deflected several questions on the U.S. military’s role in Libya, and congressional opposition in recent days to his handling of the ongoing military action there.

Despite lawmakers’ insistence to the contrary, Obama said he consulted Congress before U.S. military involvement in airstrikes there and that his actions do not violate the War Powers Act, which demands congressional authorization for most military deployments.

The president noted that no U.S. ground troops have been deployed to Libya, and said the joint airstrikes with NATO allies have been limited in size and scope.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane