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.
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