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The Military and the Monument Syndrome

Over the course of the past weeks as we’ve covered the sequester crisis, I have agreed with Max Boot that the impact of the sequester on the military is especially regrettable. After years of cuts it has suffered at the hands of the Obama administration, and with threats to our security around the globe getting more serious, this is no time to try to fund national defense on the cheap. But I part company with Max when he insists that the manner with which the unfortunate sequester cuts are being implemented cannot be questioned.

In his most recent post on the subject, Max takes George Will to task for voicing suspicions that the U.S. Navy’s decision to keep a second aircraft carrier at home rather than deploy it to the Persian Gulf as part of the cutbacks is just another attempt to hype hysteria about the sequester. I’d rather the Navy not be forced to cut a dime, but I share Will’s doubts that there was no better way to trim expenses than to keep the USS Harry S. Truman in port or to stop pilot training. Like the threats being voiced last week by various Cabinet secretaries about the impending sequestration apocalypse that don’t seem to have materialized, the Truman’s extended shore leave seems to me to be a classic case of the military employing its own version of the Washington Monument syndrome.

Max says Will is wrong to imply that our admirals would do such a thing without proof. Maybe he’s right, but I’d bet most Americans aren’t willing to salute the brass hats or their political masters on this call.

This sort of budgetary trick is called the Washington Monument syndrome because it calls for any government agency that is forced to cut expenses to eliminate spending that is most visible rather than that which is most superfluous. Thus, if you are a government bureaucrat who must stop spending on something, you choose to shutter the Monument or Mount Rushmore or lay off firemen rather than fire clerks or stop spending on other non-essential projects because those kinds of cuts are far more visible and therefore more likely to create pressure on politicians to restore funding.

In the case of the Navy, I’m sure that any cuts it had to implement would hurt our security and/or make the job that our brave sailors and marines have to do that much harder. But it is difficult to view a decision to thin out our forces in Persian Gulf at a time when the need to deter Iran is growing as anything more than a naval Washington Monument.

I share Max’s respect for our military, but asking us to believe that its leaders are above stunts to increase funding or to avert cuts is not merely naïve, it requires us to ignore much of the history of our armed services. Generals and admirals, as well as the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, may be entitled to more deference on some issues than those in charge of less heroic endeavors, but they are just as capable of orchestrating events to highlight what they believe are their needs as any other part of the government. And when they do things like cancel troop and naval deployments and vital training in order to make a point about the sequester, I think it is up to them to prove to us that there was no alternative to such dangerous decisions rather than for skeptics to prove the opposite.

It would be better if the White House had never thought up the sequester and the Congress had not agreed to it. But as much as the armed services are a victim of Washington’s dysfunctional political culture, there is no escaping the conclusion that much of what we have heard about the impact of the sequester is overblown. If they want us to believe that the Defense Department is not as guilty of trying to manipulate the crisis as the Department of Transportation, they’re going to have to do better than merely pull rank on people like George Will.


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