House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon doesn’t look like an insurgent. The quintessential Californian – a man of Reaganesque optimism whose congressional district now includes the Gipper’s presidential library – McKeon has been a steadfast supporter of House speaker John Boehner in turbulent times. Yet, to the green-eyeshade editorialists of the Wall Street Journal, McKeon is leading a “rebellion” of defense hawks, an “act of masochism” threatening the Holy of Holies: the sequestration provision of the Budget Control Act (BCA). McKeon’s crime is that he’s hoping for a 2014 budget deal that would reduce the amount of defense sequestration by half.
The BCA has, as the Journal argues, marginally reduced federal spending, although the paper skews the numbers by comparing figures from 2011 to 2013. Overall federal outlays went down by about $150 billion in that period, but the roughly half of the reduction came from “ending” the war in Iraq and the surge in Afghanistan; “overseas contingency operations” spending went from $165 billion to $95 billion. Conversely, the BCA and sequestration did nothing to curb the rise in “mandatory spending,” which rose by about $200 billion from 2011 to 2013.
If the economic effects of the BCA have been microscopic, the national security effects have been metastasizing. The Journal patronizingly claims that “defense hawks” like McKeon “exaggerate how severe the cuts [in military spending] are.” But hawks have no need to exaggerate; the facts speak loudly enough.
Let’s just review the history of the Obama administration. Defense cuts didn't begin with the 2011 Budget Control Act. In 2009 and 2010, the Pentagon reprogrammed more than $300 billion – that is, terminating major programs, moving planned spending farther into the future while using a good deal of what was left to offset war costs. Robert Gates, then the secretary of defense, offered up another $100 billion in “efficiencies” that became simply cuts.
But the BCA reductions have been much larger. The “baseline” provisions of the law reduced military budgets by $489 billion. If sequestration – or simply sequestration levels of spending enacted without the across-the-board, automatic trigger mechanism – continues, the Pentagon will lose another $500-plus million.
The cuts total $1.2 trillion or more, or about 20 percent of planned defense spending. That’s a lot of money, even by government standards.
The effects are immediate and unquestionably severe. There is already a crisis in military readiness – in the fundamental measures of defense preparedness. Army chief of staff Gen. Ray Odierno admits his troops now have “the lowest readiness levels I’ve seen in our Army since I’ve been serving for the last 37 years.” Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale agrees: “We clearly have degraded readiness in the military right now.”
The problems of current readiness are about to bloom into a larger problem both of force size and weapons modernization, a shrinking of capacity and decline in relative capability. “We will get smaller, and we will have fewer forces,” predicts Hale. “And you will see, especially in a sequestered budget [for next year], a disproportionate cut in procurement and research and development areas.” In other words, the current-readiness money is all gone, and the future-readiness money will go soon.
But if the U.S. military’s resources are slashed, its missions have not. True, President Obama is fulfilling his promises to “end” U.S. participation in the wars of the Middle East. But that region continues to make operational demands on a military that was already reeling from more than a decade of war. Iran, at the brink of becoming a nuclear power and having successfully protected its Syrian proxy, terrifies America’s allies from Jerusalem to Jeddah. Osama bin Laden is dead, but al Qaeda never stronger. Ongoing operations in Afghanistan, a still-elevated naval presence in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, and a wide variety of smaller efforts continue to consume a large slice of the available U.S. forces. The much-ballyhooed “Pacific pivot” is a promise yet to be redeemed – indeed, it is one that China seems to be directly challenging across the region, underscoring the gap between the administration rhetoric and the military realities. Just this past week, the Navy has been scrambling to shift ships from relief missions in the Philippines to patrol the waters of the South and East China seas in response to Chinese provocations like the declaration of an “air defense zone” over islands administered by Japan.
The Journal allows that in “normal budget times” it would support higher defense spending levels. But what is increasingly “abnormal” about the current time is not the federal government’s balance sheet, but the failure of the United States to play its role as guarantor of the international system. Neither the world nor the American military can wait for accounting department approval.
Finally, it’s not as though McKeon and the “defense hawks” are asking for a blank check. What the chairman wants is simply to save the U.S. military from half the sequestration cut – not an increase, but a smaller cut. That’s not “parochial,” as the Journal charges, but patriotic.
No defense hawk – and so we would account ourselves – is under any illusion that any such “small deal” will provide for an adequate level of defense. That would require, at minimum returning military budgets to pre-Budget Control Act levels. But in the months since sequester has gone into effect, the Pentagon has lost nearly $40 billion and faces another $50 billion in cuts this year. The damage done to U.S. interests is priceless.
The Journal also is unhappy that the balance of power in the Republican caucus in the House is shifting away from the smaller-government-at-any-price zealots who invented the BCA and sequestration. The editorial warns darkly of a Tea Party revolt if the BCA’s spending caps are violated in the least, creating “an obstacle to GOP political gains in 2014.” But we think also of 2016 and the White House, which is the real prize. Peace through strength is at the heart of American conservatism and the Republican brand. The Journal would jettison national defense to replay the high stakes game of budgetary chicken that already has put the principles and interests of the Republican party – and the United States – at risk.
Roger I. Zakheim is of counsel at Covington and Burling LLP and previously served as deputy staff director and general counsel of the House Armed Services Committee. Thomas Donnelly is the co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.