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The Dwindling Constituency for Defense

As Max wrote last night, the growing chorus of pundits and politicians who think they can erase the federal deficit through defense cuts are not only wrong on fiscal terms but are doing the country a great disservice. As we look forward to a budgetary process in which across-the-board defense cuts will be on the table, it bears asking whether there is still a strong constituency for national defense in the current economic environment.

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen held a press conference during which they urged Congress to spare the Pentagon from the ruinous cuts contemplated by the debt ceiling compromise. But the two sounded as if they were upholding the banner of a lost cause.

Panetta rightly noted the Pentagon had already been forced to accept $350 billion in cuts during the next decade. That’s bad enough, but to ask it to kick in more savings toward the $1.5 trillion the special committee mandated by the debt ceiling deal must find to cut will be ruinous for the national defense. However, when the secretary urged Congress to increase revenues (i.e. raise taxes) as well as to spend less on entitlements instead of cutting defense, it was clear his advice was more a matter of wishful thinking than anything else.

With Republicans rightly dug in to oppose tax increases and Democrats set to fight against any cuts in Social Security or Medicare, it’s not likely the next step in the great compromise reached this past weekend will actually work. But whatever comes out of that committee, it appears cutting defense might be the one thing both sides appear ready to do. While Democrats can be counted on to approve any defense cuts (except for those that affect particular states or constituencies), the question is whether the GOP, traditionally a bastion of support for a strong defense, will sacrifice the Pentagon in order to hold their ground on fiscal issues.

This trend has been reflected in the GOP presidential race, where foreign policy and defense have been put on the back burner by all of the candidates. Unless there is some radical alternation in the political climate that will re-focus our attention on foreign policy — a development made all the more unlikely by the recent disastrous economic news — it’s hard to see how a coalition to oppose defense cuts can be assembled.

The impact of further cuts on both technology and force readiness may be incalculable. The established pattern of American history has always shown most Americans to be indifferent to defense and hostile paying for it until a time of crisis. The widespread talk of more sacrifices to be made by the Defense Department makes it appear as if history may be repeating itself. That means the ayatollahs in Iran and their nuclear scientists may have more influence on the budget process in the next couple of years than anything said by Panetta or Mullen. But the problem with such an equation is if a nuclear Iran does wake up America to its need to fund defense, the cost of that wake-up call may be paid in blood, a commodity still more precious than budgetary allocations.



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