When the people flying aircraft are incapacitated, one option is to put the plane on autopilot. It keeps the plane aloft for a while — as long as there are no mountains dead ahead — but it can’t land the plane. That requires having a real person in charge.
It appears that the debt agreement crafted by the White House and Congress this week creates a similar last-resort mechanism to reduce federal spending in the event a special congressional committee cannot reach consensus by December on how to reduce projected deficits by $1.5 trillion. In the absence of a political deal, the agreement would “sequester” about a trillion dollars in planned spending over the next ten years, distributing the cuts equally between security programs and domestic programs. In other words, the level of funding available for both types of programs would be automatically reduced.
The White House apparently sees the threat of sequestration as a forcing function that will compel Republicans to consider tax increases, since failure to reach agreement on how deficits should be cut would lead inexorably to big cuts in security spending. Maybe so, but Republicans seem more unified on taxes than they do on security policy, so the White House strategy could end up putting national-security spending on the bureaucratic equivalent of autopilot, headed along a vector to unilateral disarmament.
Having long predicted that security spending — especially military spending — would trend downward in the current decade, I can’t say I’m shocked. But who could have imagined that our much-vaunted political system might simply give up on allocating the pain, and let the amount of funding available for national security be set by a formula? This sounds like an abdication of leadership, an implicit admission that the commander in chief is incapacitated in his role as arbiter of security needs.
As for the Congress, the sequestration mechanism contained in the debt agreement raises the obvious question of what point there is to having a legislature if it can’t meet its fundamental responsibilities to fund a coherent security posture and reconcile financial resources with commitments. The whole world depends on America to keep the peace, and our political system seems to be sending the message that we may no longer be able to fulfill that role.
Ten years ago the Bush Administration published the first National Security Strategy produced by the U.S. government in the new millennium. It stated in its opening pages that there was only one successful path that countries could follow to development, and that one path was the American model of democratic politics and open markets. We have come a long way since then, mostly downward. If an American official tried to make the same claim for his nation today, he would be laughed out of the court of world opinion.
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