The Middle East is ablaze again, literally, and Israel is sending strong signals that it intends to attack Iran’s nuclear complex with or without U.S. assistance. It would be nice to stay out of this latest round of regional violence — most Americans have had their fill of foreign entanglements for the time being — but sometimes circumstances don’t afford us that luxury. If Iran responds to an Israeli air strike by trying to close the Strait of Hormuz, Washington will need to act.
Imagine, though, that the crisis came after across-the-board spending cuts triggered on January 2, pursuant to the sequestration provisions of the Budget Control Act. Or imagine that there is no crisis, just a need for the joint force to patrol the region more intensively next year to prevent another war. Where would the money come from with legislatively-mandated defense cuts in place? Congress always has the option of amending the budget law, but if the current session is any indication, it might have difficulty finding a majority in both chambers. Then what?
The issue here isn’t whether the defense budget needs to be cut. Of course it does, if we are to get the deficit under control. But the way we go about doing the cutting will decide whether the Pentagon has the flexibility to respond to unforeseen challenges. The approach contained in the Budget Control Act is more like a straitjacket than the kind of loose-fitting framework that would allow policymakers to shift focus as needed. So no kidding, budget sequestration could make security challenges much harder to deal with after January 2.
Near as I can tell, there’s no provision in the Budget Control Act for quickly escaping its strictures in a national emergency — especially one that Congress is slow to acknowledge. The assumption seems to be that if something serious happens, legislators will understand the need to suspend sequestration provisions. Well don’t count on it, because that something would have to be really huge to bring back emergency supplemental appropriations, and members might argue endlessly about whether lesser needs required legislative exertion. So maybe we’ll just leave the Israelis to their fate, or decline to patrol the region more intensively until a “real” threat develops. As long as sequestration is the law, there might be no legal alternative.
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