Do conservatives want a smaller and better government than we now have—properly limited and governed by the rule of law, but also energetically capable of accomplishing its appropriate ends? Or do conservatives just want to cut government willy-nilly, not only reducing its overall size but endangering its ability to carry out its proper functions?
Some on the anti-all-government right are salivating at the chance, as the Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) puts it, to slay the “sacred cow” of Pentagon budgets. Meanwhile, the Democratic left, in the person of Barney Frank, is more than willing to engage in such “scrutiny,” and is now rallying behind the proposal of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the heads of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, to cut more than $100 billion in “excess” military spending. And the media, of course, are all agog at the possibility of a “bipartisan” consensus on ending the supposedly profligate ways of the Pentagon.
There’s only one thing wrong with this alleged consensus: Its facts are wrong, and there’s no real consensus.
The fact is, Simpson and Bowles are outliers even on their own panel. Knowing that few of the other members of the commission would go along with their ideas, the co-chairs announced their proposals on their own. They had good reason to do so. Much of what they offer up makes little sense. As Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute has noted, the proposals “bespeak a broader ignorance of military plans and technology.”
Consider just one example. Bowles and Simpson suggest terminating the procurement of the vertical take-off-and-landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter, along with the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV). They also want to end early the buy of V-22 Osprey “tilt-rotor” aircraft. But such moves would gut the capabilities of the U.S. Marine Corps. The “B” variant of the F-35 (a replacement for the old Harrier jump-jet), the EFV (a new amphibious assault vehicle), and the Osprey all provide troop transport. Without these systems, the Marines will have very little organic firepower and mobility; they’ll be simply sea-based light infantry. The commission chairmen, therefore, suggest the Marines substitute mortars and guided missiles. But in that case the Marines would still lack the ability to conduct the kind of independent campaigns they waged in Operation Desert Storm or in the 2003 march to Baghdad.
Such is the consequence of a salami-slicing approach to defense spending. Bowles and Simpson also recommend a 15 percent cut in Pentagon procurement accounts. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already cut $330 billion in planned weapons spending in the last year alone, killing the Air Force’s frontline F-22 fighter, the Navy’s program for a new destroyer, and the Army’s plan for a family of new combat vehicles.
Before taking a further hatchet to defense, maybe Congress might try making a more serious effort to reverse the huge increases in domestic spending put in place by the Obama team?
What really ties ATR, Barney Frank, Erksine Bowles, and Alan Simpson together is not a desire to see the Pentagon spend its money in the most efficient way possible. No, what ultimately drives their push for defense cuts is the idea of, in Bowles and Simpson’s phrase, “rethinking our 21st century global role.” This is shorthand for a reduced American role in the world. What the libertarian right and liberal left want, in other words, is nothing short of a reversal in America’s six-decade-long strategic posture.
America certainly faces a budget crisis. And to the degree that economies can be found in the Pentagon budget, they ought to be found. But people should not kid themselves: Proposals for treating defense as if it were on an equal footing with the Department of Education are not about getting America’s fiscal house in order. They are back door efforts to reduce America’s global leadership role. That’s a debate conservatives should welcome, and an outcome conservatives should defeat. But conservatives must insist on an honest and open debate, and not allow a phony “consensus” to be proclaimed that would make our troops fighting overseas-, and our future security, indirect casualties of drive-by budget cutters.
-—Thomas Donnelly and Gary Schmitt