President Obama is an appalling commander in chief. In the last couple of months alone, he’s selected and muscled through the Senate the least qualified nominee for secretary of defense in a half century; forced out of his position early a superb combatant commander, General James Mattis, because Mattis took seriously the Iranian threat; and blithely ordered women into combat arms units, with no pretense of serious consideration of the effect of this on the capability, discipline, and morale of our warfighters. Before that, while growing every other part of the federal government, he cut defense. So we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s not doing anything serious about the further devastating cuts sequestration will impose on the military.
And the Republicans? To their credit, they opposed Chuck Hagel, and did so forcefully. But on General Mattis, on women in combat, and on national security in general, they’ve been mostly silent. And now, with respect to the sequester, the Republican party has, at first reluctantly, then enthusiastically, joined the president on the road to irresponsibility.
Touting their role as trimmers of a welfare state they once wanted to transform, titillated by the prospect of using as a boomerang against President Obama an idea that was originally his own, thrilled to be showing unaccustomed cleverness by trying to make lemonade out of lemons, the Republicans have taken to the ramparts to preserve, protect, and defend sequestration.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that GOP politicians and conservative commentators were reluctantly allowing as to how they might temporarily have to accept the sequester as the least bad of a set of bad options. But despondent Republicans wanted to believe in something. Demoralized conservatives wanted to be excited about something. So they convinced themselves: That creature we’re enamored of? It’s not an ugly duckling at all, it’s a graceful swan!
Now what? It’s the morning after. Bloated domestic discretionary federal programs may become a bit less bloated. But they won’t be reformed or improved. Meanwhile, it is defense—the first function of the national government, whose share of federal spending has gone from about 47 percent under John Kennedy to less than 20 percent today—that takes the bulk of the cuts. The one part of the government that has performed well, even above and beyond the call of duty, over the last decade is slashed deeply and indiscriminately.
It’s at this point that the writer is supposed to interject, hastily and apologetically, that of course the Pentagon can and should be cut to some degree, that of course there is at least some bloat in its budget, and that of course no one is mindlessly defending all defense spending. We scorn this pointless accommodation to what are assumed to be the prejudices of uninformed readers. The fact is, if America is to pursue anything resembling its traditional role in the world for the last 70 years, the Pentagon has already been cut too much. We are already at dangerously low levels. The most reasonable position to take now on defense spending cuts is: No.
But the GOP is now saying: Yes. Which means the Republican party is complicit in the failure of political responsibility and national seriousness we’re now witnessing. Which means, unfortunately, that historians will say not just of the Obama administration but also of today’s Republican party: “They were weighed in the balance and found wanting.”