On March 1 the sixty-five year consensus in American politics on national security will be dead. On that day, sequestration goes into effect imposing what every senior military leader describes as catastrophic cuts on our military. While it is true that U.S. defense spending has gone through repetitive “boom and bust” cycles, this time is different. Unlike the last drawdown in the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, this time the world is less peaceful. The U.S. military is busier today, even excluding the conflict in Afghanistan, than during most of the Cold War. There is no evidence of reduced appetite by the government for employing the military at home and abroad. However, both political parties have decided that they would rather savage the military than resolve their differences over domestic policies amicably. Sequestration, particularly in the context of the Continuing Resolution (CR), takes a meat ax to the defense budget. Everyone agrees that it is a bad way to rein in federal spending; it almost guarantees dysfunctional and uneconomical decisions. Yet, our leaders are about to allow one of the worst laws ever written, one considered so draconian it could never come into effect, to do exactly that. Winning the tax versus spend war is more important to both sides than the nation’s security.
Bad laws are a staple of Washington politics. Many are passed only to be revised or even rescinded. What is really different this time is the lack of traction in all the arguments about the impacts of deep budget cuts on the military and its ability to support the national security and defense strategies. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and every single senior military leader has described the impact of sequestration (particularly on top of the CR) as catastrophic. General Dempsey said just yesterday in an appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, that if we want the military to continue to do current missions it cannot afford a single additional dollar in budget cuts. All the descriptions offered regarding the important contributions of the U.S. military to national security and global stability — a force for good, cork in the bottle, guardian of the global commons, insurance policy or hedge — seem to have fallen on deaf ears. So too have warnings of the deleterious effects on regional stability that will result from a U.S. withdrawal from critical regions of the world and the power vacuums that will ensue. Neither the President, the Commander in Chief for heaven’s sake, Congressional Republicans, the heirs to Ronald Reagan, nor Congressional Democrats, seem swayed by any of these arguments.
There is now a move afoot in Congress to let sequestration take effect and the CR continue for the remainder of the fiscal year but mitigate their short-term effects by legislation that will permit the Department of Defense to move money around. This is a useful step but it is also a good example of chutzpah; like the Good Samaritan who breaks the victim’s legs but then offers him a pair of crutches. By allowing some flexibility in how the cuts are absorbed Congress and the White House can pretend they have solved the problem or at least off loaded it to the Pentagon and the services.
The old consensus on U.S. national security and the central role of U.S. military power to the maintenance of global stability is dead. Unfortunately, there is no consensus as to the strategy to take its place. This means that even with the requisite flexibility from a modified CR and sequestration law there is no basis for DoD to make the hard decisions that are needed. This also means that there is no way of defining a bottom to the defense drawdown that is just beginning.
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