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Are We Repeating the Mistakes of the “Peace Dividend?”

A lot of conservatives seem to be taking the reflexive attitude that if President Obama is warning that sequestration will be disastrous, then it must a good thing. Witness this National Review symposium, wherein various contributors bemoan “the hysteria of President Obama, liberals in Congress, and the media over very small cuts in federal spending” and argue “let’s do it” because “sequestration is the only chance we have had, and probably ever will have, to cut any federal programs under President Obama.”

Time for a reality check. It’s not just President Obama who is warning of the dire consequences of sequestration. So are our foremost admirals and generals, men and women who have devoted their entire lives to the nation’s defense and can hardly be accused of being liberal Democrats–most are in fact conservative Republicans. The Joint Chiefs of Staff continue to testify to Congress about the terrible impact of sequestration and as more and more details emerge, their case becomes even stronger.

To get the details you have to skip the MSM, which tend to report only sweeping rhetoric, and instead read the defense-industry press, which has chapter and verse. See, for example, this report in AOL Defense, which notes “the Army already knows it will cancel all full-brigade wargames except for a single brigade that will deploy to Afghanistan, a mission the service insists it cannot shortchange.” It further notes “the service has already decided to defer essentially all maintenance at its bases – which will certainly cost more in the long run and may make life distinctly uncomfortable in the meantime.”

And beyond the issue of being able to train and maintain our soldiers, there is also the issue of how many soldiers we will have. The House Armed Services Committee predicts that if sequestration goes through the Marine Corps’ active-duty strength will fall from 200,000 personnel to 145,000 and the Army will fall from 569,000 to 425,000. That amounts to the loss of a quarter of all our ground forces. It would cut the Marine Corps down to its smallest size since 1950, before the start of the Korean War, and the U.S. Army down to its smallest size since 1940, before the American entry into World War II. Those conflicts should remind us of the catastrophic consequences of military unpreparedness of the kind we are now facing.

Unfortunately, neither President Obama nor congressional Republicans are treating this crisis with the gravity it deserves. The president has made clear he will hold the military hostage to his desire for more tax hikes–he has refused to endorse Republican plans that would achieve the same amount of budgetary savings without eviscerating military preparedness. Republicans, in turn, seem to be so enamored of budget cuts and so opposed to any tax hikes–even the closing of loopholes rather than raising marginal rates–that most of them are willing to see defense sacrificed instead.

This is a tragedy: We are in danger of repeating the same mistake we made after World War II, after Vietnam and after the Gulf War–all times when we cut defense excessively and subsequently paid a stiff price. It is particularly bizarre that we are in effect spending a “peace dividend” when there is in fact no peace—U.S. troops are still fighting in Afghanistan and in the War on Terror, and they are on hair-trigger alert to fight Iran if necessary. Yet at the same time we are exempting from cuts the actual causes of our fiscal crisis–runaway entitlement spending, in particular spending on Medicare and Medicaid.

I am not one of those who has argued that partisan gridlock in Washington endangers our standing as a superpower. I have always retained a large measure of optimism about the ability of our political system to work things out and reach solutions even to the most difficult problems. But now I am starting to think that perhaps the doomsayers have a point. This is as self-inflicted a wound as it possible to imagine.


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