The Magazine

Don’t Be Seduced by the Sequester

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

It’s understandable that Republicans are tempted by the prospect of allowing the “sequester”—the automatic cut to defense and domestic discretionary spending agreed to as an enforcement mechanism for the 2011 debt ceiling deal—to go into effect on March 1. It’s understandable because Republicans are in favor of cutting domestic spending. It’s understandable because Republicans are desperate to secure what they think could be a political victory over Barack Obama and Harry Reid. It’s understandable because going to the trouble of fixing the sequester would be difficult, and the effort to do so will create strains within the Republican conference.

An aircraft carrier

Newscom

But what’s understandable isn’t always responsible. Allowing the sequester to go into effect would be deeply irresponsible.

It’s true that the sequester will cut domestic discretionary spending. On the other hand, it will do so ham-handedly, with no reforms to domestic programs, and with the big-ticket entitlements untouched. Far more important, the sequester will endanger national security—cutting the military abruptly and arbitrarily to levels far below what Republicans have ever thought desirable.

It’s also true that President Obama has been utterly unserious about dealing with spending, and that he’s now disingenuously criticizing a sequester he proposed and insisted on in 2011. This seems to be a chance to defeat and embarrass the president. He deserves defeat and embarrassment. There will be opportunities for both. But this is not the right one, not at the expense of national security.

But wait, say Republican tacticians, it’s a chance to gain leverage against the president.

Leverage for what? The GOP pols who talk about “leverage” never explain what they’re going to use that leverage for. The Republican House can and should prevent further tax increases, and for that matter domestic spending increases, regardless of how the sequester battle turns out. The sequester gives Republicans no leverage here. And the House will have no more ability to insist on needed entitlement reforms or on the shape of next year’s overall budget with the sequester in effect than if it’s not.

Meanwhile, there’s the small matter of defense and the national interest. The sequester would do real damage to both. So Republicans should resist seduction by the sequester, overcome the temptation of embracing it, and should instead take the lead in fixing it.

The Republican House, to its credit, did pass legislation in 2012 that would have fixed the sequester in a responsible way. The current Republican House should do so again, this month, before the sequester goes into effect. And it should then pressure the Senate, and the president, to come to the table and agree to an acceptable alternative to sequester, one that would avoid crippling reductions to a military that’s already suffered from large and arbitrary cuts imposed by the Obama White House.

Republicans—as well as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and defense experts across the political spectrum—have explained so many times how damaging the sequester would be to our military that there’s no need to restate the case here. But consider last week’s announcement by the Navy that, just 48 hours before its deployment from Norfolk to the Gulf, the USS Harry S. Truman would not sail but instead be put on alert to “deploy on short notice.” This will leave only the USS John C. Stennis in the Gulf, until it is replaced by the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower—meaning our aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf will be reduced from two carriers to one. Christopher Harmer, naval specialist at the Institute for the Study of War, explains the consequences:

It’s a drastic move: The continuous deployment of two U.S. aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf area guarantees an immediate and crushing military response to any provocation—especially to one coming from the Iranians. .  .  . The typical deployment pattern for two carriers in this area is to station one carrier in the Persian Gulf, inside the Strait of Hormuz, and one outside the Persian Gulf, patrolling the Arabian Sea, Somali Basin, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, or Indian Ocean. .  .  . Maintaining one aircraft carrier inside and one outside the Strait of Hormuz ensures that the Iranian Navy is constantly aware that any attempt to close the Strait will result in an overwhelming military response. A two-carrier presence has a much greater deterrent effect than a single carrier would.

Harmer continues:

The cancelled deployment and permanent reduction in carrier presence is due exclusively to defense budget cuts and the uncertainty surrounding the defense budget. Sources on the Navy staff say that one of the reasons the Truman deployment was delayed was because it did not have the required number of trained personnel onboard. A carrier can train and conduct exercises off the American coast without a full complement of trained personnel, but it cannot deploy overseas without being fully manned, trained, and equipped. The Navy still has enough trained personnel to man the Truman, but the budgetary inflexibility prevents the service from transferring those personnel to the carrier.

The failure to deploy the Truman will greatly strengthen the argument that the U.S. is not only in retreat, but also entering a terminal decline in power and influence. Perhaps it’s because of budget constraints, but the Iranians are much more likely to see proof of their thesis that America’s power is permanently waning. That belief is likely to strengthen their recalcitrance on the nuclear program and increase their willingness to support their violent proxies throughout (and, perhaps, beyond) the region. It is likely to encourage Iranian military adventurism.

The decision not to deploy the Truman is only the tip of the sequester iceberg—an iceberg that has been building thanks to previous cuts in the defense budget. One is reminded, reading the news about the Truman, of this passage from Churchill’s great March 24, 1938, speech to the House of Commons on “Foreign Affairs and Disarmament”: “For five years I have talked to the House on these matters, not with very great success. I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends. A little further on there are only flagstones, and a little further on still, these break beneath your feet.”

Sequester is only one step down a stairway at the bottom of which the stones will break beneath our feet. But it’s an important step. It’s too important a step for the Republican party to be complicit in. Its likely negative consequences are far more important than any possible benefit that could come from a small and probably temporary cut in domestic discretionary spending, or from the satisfaction of highlighting the hypocrisy of Barack Obama and the irresponsibility of Harry Reid. Barack Obama and Harry Reid may be willing to sacrifice the national interest for petty and temporary political victories. Republicans shouldn’t be willing to do so. A great political party, on matters of great moment, puts national defense, and the national interest, first.

Recent Blog Posts