The Magazine

The Politics of Defense Cuts

The president tries—and fails—to paint Republicans into a corner.

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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The potential candidates most closely associated with the Tea Party tend to share that view. Sarah Palin has been vocal in her opposition to additional defense cuts, and Michele Bachmann, in her own list of proposed cuts, went no further on military spending than Ryan and Gates. It’s the dropouts—Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, and Mike Huckabee—who were most squishy on the issue of defense spending. And as is often the case with squishes, they were squishy about being squishy. The only Republican candidate who seems gung-ho for serious defense cuts is Obama administration veteran Jon Huntsman.

In fact, the politics of national security seem to be returning to more familiar, and more favorable, terrain for Republicans as the 2012 presidential campaign gets under way. Obama’s uncharacteristically impulsive response to the Ryan budget, with its call for $400 billion in new defense cuts, will now be followed by the departure of Secretary Gates, who provided cover and credibility for Obama’s stingy defense budgets with Congress, the military, and the press.

Ironically, on his way out the door, Gates is doing to Obama what Obama tried to do to Republicans just a few weeks ago. In a series of speeches and press conferences, Gates has warned that there isn’t any fat left to cut—and that the president risks jeopardizing our ability to meet vital military requirements. At the American Enterprise Institute last week, Gates said, “We need to be honest with the president, with the Congress, with the American people, indeed with ourselves, about what those consequences [of more cuts] are: that a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things.”

The Republican candidates for president need to be honest with the American people, too. The military has done everything Obama has asked of it, including killing Osama bin Laden in a daring raid that relied on capabilities that were previously undisclosed or only rumored, like stealth-modified helicopters and stealth drones. American aircraft are flying missions over Libya, American soldiers and Marines are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and American ships are supporting combat and relief missions all over the world. Republicans are well positioned to seize the opportunity and make a compelling case that Obama’s defense proposals are irresponsible and dangerous. It’s not just good politics, it’s good policy.

Michael Goldfarb is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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