The number-one question that moderators should be putting to candidates for the Republican presidential nomination at tonight’s defense debate is how they would maintain robust military spending in the absence of tax increases without borrowing more money from China. If they don’t have a coherent response, then they aren’t qualified to be president.
The number-one question about defense that reporters should be putting to President Obama is how he expects to maintain his credentials as an effective Commander in Chief if he insists on subjecting military spending to formula-driven cuts that could make the nation vulnerable to foreign attack. I’m not joking: when defense secretary Leon Panetta sent a letter to members of the Senate last week describing the potential impact of a sequester, he raised the possibility of cutting back all three legs of the nuclear triad — our main defense against nuclear attack. That option highlights the fact that the deficit debate isn’t just about dollars, it’s also about more cosmic matters like America’s future as a global power and national survival.
There’s a reason why Article II, Section Two of the Constitution enumerating the president’s powers begins with the phrase, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States…” It’s the most important job that the founders assigned to the chief executive. President Obama has signaled that he recognizes the solemnity of his duty as Commander in Chief by being slow to cut military spending, and thinking in a very deliberate manner about the nation’s security commitments. As a result, he has strong defense credentials, perhaps the strongest of any Democratic president since FDR.
But against the backdrop of the Budget Control Act and this week’s failure of the congressional “super-committee” to identify $1.2 trillion in savings, it is becoming harder for the president to reconcile his responsibilities as Commander in Chief with his budgetary objectives. In particular, his promise to veto any measure aimed at averting budget sequestration that does not identify $1.2 trillion in savings suggests he is ready to countenance formulaic, destructive cuts to the defense posture that could put national security at risk.
It is hard to see how the president can agree to military cuts implemented in the manner the law mandates without damaging his defense credentials. The problem isn’t just the size of the cuts, but the way in which they would be evenly distributed across major defense accounts (other than perhaps military personnel) without much sensitivity as to global conditions or military needs. Everybody knew that defense cuts were coming when the wars ended, but making cuts the way the Budget Control Act dictates seems like an abdication of constitutional responsibility.
It will not take the president’s opponents long to stitch together such a position with his “outsourcing” of the Pentagon’s top job to a Republican holdover and the selection of a successor who flies home to California most weekends — producing a bill of particulars concerning Obama’s performance as Commander in Chief that will eclipse his efforts to build strong defense credentials. He will still be the president who got Osama, but given the way Afghanistan is likely to turn out, the president is not likely to be looking very good with voters on national-security issues come election day.
That’s before we even get to some of his other decisions like delaying the pipeline that would have reduced U.S. dependence on Middle East oil, and it’s before we get to the effects of a defense sequester on key swing states like Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia. Of course, the Republicans aren’t going to look much better with their arithmetically-challenged approach to deficit reduction, but Obama is the Commander in Chief at the moment, so he must rise to a higher standard on national security. If he sticks to his guns on vetoing measures that avert a sequester, it’s going to be hard to prove he has met that standard.
Find Archived Articles: