Most of the criticism of the lack of progress on undoing the blunt instrument that is sequestration has focused on the role of Congress and particularly the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. Left almost entirely out of this discussion is President Obama, the Commander in Chief. It was the White House that first proposed the too clever legislative sleight of hand that became the 2011 Budget Control Act, the law which imposed sequestration. The President was a signatory to the agreement. As the clock has been ticking down, first to the January 1 deadline and now to the new date for imposing major cuts in discretionary spending, March 1, it is amazing that the President’s role in this cliff-hanger has garnered so little public attention or commentary. Some pundits view this merely as hardball politics; the President is betting that by hanging tough he can convince enough Republicans with defense interests in their districts to ally with House Democrats and push through a replacement package for sequestration that involves yet more tax hikes. Having already won a significant victory at the end of last year both for higher federal spending and higher taxes, the President’s apparent determination to “run the table” and force a complete Republican capitulation may be good politics but it is not good leadership.
When the idea of sequestration was first proposed, as the Commander in Chief, President Obama must have asked his national security staff, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff what the impact of a trillion dollar cut in defense spending over the next decade would mean. He must have had an appreciation for the damage that implementation of the law would do to the U.S. military, our national security and to his ability to fulfill his Constitutional responsibility to protect and defend. When his last budget failed to garner even a single Democratic vote in the Senate, creating conditions for a year-long Continuing Resolution, the Commander in Chief must have been informed by knowledgeable sources what the effects would be on military readiness. The significance of the decision to reduce the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf from two aircraft carriers to one just at the time that negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are about to restart could not have been hidden from the President. So who bears the greatest responsibility for the damage that will be done to the nation’s security if sequestration is implemented? I submit it is not the House Republicans.
The President is also the head of a worldwide network of alliances, defense relationships and security partnership agreements. What will the Commander in Chief tell our friends and allies when the U.S. military presence in their region is reduced? How will he justify to the Saudis that we are no longer going to ensure the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf or to the South Koreans and Japanese that they have to face a nuclear-armed North Korea alone? Or we can inform the Poles and other Eastern European allies that once again they can expect to be at the mercy of the Russian bear.
The real question is does President Obama take his responsibility as Commander in Chief seriously? It certainly is exhilarating to be able to order fleets to sail, bombers to deploy and armed drones to strike terrorist targets. But being Commander in Chief also means being responsible for the consequences of your actions. In the case of sequestration, should it come into force, the responsibility will lie squarely with President Obama. The Commander in Chief needs to stand up and put the nation’s security ahead of his political agenda.