With the congressional “supercommittee” – or, to be precise, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction – now complete, the stage is set for a very high drama indeed. Now comes the moment when Americans must confront the costs of remaining the world’s sole superpower, the guarantor of an international system that has created a generation of great-power peace, widespread prosperity, and unprecedented human liberty.
The committee members must take action to avert the train wreck awaiting the Pentagon: doing nothing will result in an automatic “sequestration” that will make the cumulative reductions in military spending of the Obama years something above $1.3 trillion. That’s a cut with big consequences. New Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen – a man who has heretofore pronounced the debt to be the greatest threat to the country – last week said the cuts in view would be “disastrous” and “unacceptable.” The incoming chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, described such cuts as creating “very high risk” to U.S. national security. Serious stuff.
The composition of the supercommittee looks at first glance to be a recipe for gridlock and sequestration, or the functional equivalent thereof. The House Republican nominees are green eyeshade types: Jeb Hensarling is a disciple of Sen. Phil Gramm, Fred Upton is a veteran of the Reagan Office of Management and Budget, and Dave Camp heads the Ways and Means Committee. Nancy Pelosi has named a resolutely diverse troika of liberals – previous campaign committee chairman Chris van Hollen, leadership number-two James Clyburn, and ex-chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Xavier Becera, three who can be expected to carry out her guidance to “address our entire budget” – that’s code for raiding military budgets – “while strengthening” – that is, defending to the last – “Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.”
The Senate nominees are the upper-body partisan equivalents. Majority Leader Harry Reid named campaign committee leader Patty Murray, the lugubrious Max Baucus, and Massachusetts liberal and former presidential candidate John Kerry. Minority leader Mitch McConnell counts on former OMB director Rob Portman, former currency trader Pat Toomey, and Minority whip John Kyl. Sen. Kyl is also the supercommittee member with the most familiarity, experience, and interest in military and national security affairs, yet often concentrates narrowly on the nuclear programs that have been the focus of much of his work and legislative efforts. If there’s any member of the committee who is willing to throw himself in front of the locomotive headed for the Pentagon, it’s Kyl. But he will have to transcend his past persona to do so.
Of course, all congressional leaders promise that the super-process will be “transparent” and “open,” but time is short: the committee is supposed to conclude its business by Thanksgiving. One measure of seriousness is whether the committee will hold hearings and take testimony on the national security consequences of big military cuts. There needs to be a moment of truth where the supercommittee looks Panetta, Mullen, and Dempsey in the eye and asks them to spell out the real world ramifications of reducing American military power by another 20 percent. Further, the defense superstars from the past should be called to speak. Bob Gates has earned his retirement, but we need to hear from him at least one more time. Likewise, it’s time for Colin Powell to make his views known. He once declared that the size of the U.S. military in the post-Cold War era should be a sign to the rest of the world that a “superpower lives here.” What has changed?
The two armed services committees should also make themselves heard – these moments are what congressional defense policy committees are for. Current service chiefs should be called upon to explain how they will deal with big budget cuts while continuing to provide forces for current operations. Theater commanders should describe what a lowered U.S military presence will mean in their areas of responsibility. And retired four-stars – who, even after their active careers are done, have an ongoing responsibility to the nation – should be asked to once again provide their professional judgments.
For 20 years, Congress has asked for countless defense reviews and strategies, and there is an immense body of literature that seeks to links the ends, ways and means of American policy, strategy and military power. The time for debate will have expired by thanksgiving, and the supercommittee will have made what can only be a fateful decision. It can act, or it can simply stand aside and let American military power and global leadership be “sequestered.”