Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 28, 2014

Russian Aggression Merits a Response

Men in military fatigues, armed with assault rifles, don’t magically appear out of nowhere. The fact that such individuals have taken control of two key airports in Crimea—a majority Russian-ethnic part of Ukraine—is not an indication of spontaneous protests against the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev. Rather it is a barely covert Russian military offensive designed, one assumes, to separate Crimea from the rest of Ukraine and bring it under de facto Russian sovereignty.

This would not be a new strategy for Vladimir Putin and Russia—it is similar to the way that Moscow has backed the breakaway regions of Transnistria in Moldova and South Ossetia in Georgia, in the latter case justifying an outright invasion of a sovereign neighbor based on the excuse that action was necessary to protect poor abused ethnic Russians. This also recalls how Hitler justified his invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland on the grounds of protecting ethnic Germans.

Indeed the Russian fingerprints are blatantly obvious all over the Crimea operation even if the men in military uniforms—presumably affiliated with the Russian military, the Interior Ministry special forces, the FSB or some other branch of the Russian state—are not wearing any identification or taking any questions from reporters. Elsewhere in Crimea armored personnel carriers with Russian markings have been spotted on the roads. Russia does not even have to undertake a formal invasion of Ukraine; through such semi-covert action it can make massive trouble for the new pro-Western government in Kiev.

The question now is how the West—assuming such a thing still exists—will respond to Russian aggression. Based on the experience of Georgia in 2008—the last time Russia invaded one of its neighbors, that time using columns of tanks rather than rifle-wielding mystery men—the response will be scant.

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Men in military fatigues, armed with assault rifles, don’t magically appear out of nowhere. The fact that such individuals have taken control of two key airports in Crimea—a majority Russian-ethnic part of Ukraine—is not an indication of spontaneous protests against the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev. Rather it is a barely covert Russian military offensive designed, one assumes, to separate Crimea from the rest of Ukraine and bring it under de facto Russian sovereignty.

This would not be a new strategy for Vladimir Putin and Russia—it is similar to the way that Moscow has backed the breakaway regions of Transnistria in Moldova and South Ossetia in Georgia, in the latter case justifying an outright invasion of a sovereign neighbor based on the excuse that action was necessary to protect poor abused ethnic Russians. This also recalls how Hitler justified his invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland on the grounds of protecting ethnic Germans.

Indeed the Russian fingerprints are blatantly obvious all over the Crimea operation even if the men in military uniforms—presumably affiliated with the Russian military, the Interior Ministry special forces, the FSB or some other branch of the Russian state—are not wearing any identification or taking any questions from reporters. Elsewhere in Crimea armored personnel carriers with Russian markings have been spotted on the roads. Russia does not even have to undertake a formal invasion of Ukraine; through such semi-covert action it can make massive trouble for the new pro-Western government in Kiev.

The question now is how the West—assuming such a thing still exists—will respond to Russian aggression. Based on the experience of Georgia in 2008—the last time Russia invaded one of its neighbors, that time using columns of tanks rather than rifle-wielding mystery men—the response will be scant.

Certainly John Kerry’s warnings about Russia “crossing a line in any way” cannot carry much weight with Putin, who remembers all too well how President Obama allowed Bashar Assad to cross a previous “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. But the issue is not just Obama’s credibility or lack thereof; George W. Bush was still president in 2008 and he did precious little about Russia’s invasion of Georgia.

The more general issue is that Russia, while no longer a superpower, remains an important power that Washington hesitates to antagonize because of a general feeling that we need Russian help to deal with Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and other important issues—and a sense that there is not much we can do anyway against a nuclear-armed state. Such sentiments are understandable but they should not be a bar to serious non-military action—for example imposing sanctions on either the Russian economy as a whole or on particular individuals, i.e., senior members of the government and their business world cronies who have built up hefty bank accounts and real estate portfolios in the West. At the very least the Russian elite must be made to pay a price if Putin does not stop his aggression against yet another former Soviet republic. More than that, the West must rally to the cause of the new government in Ukraine and provide the kind of support it needs–beginning with a financial lifeline–to withstand Russian intimidation.

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The Tea Party Five Years In

This past week marked the fifth anniversary of the creation of the Tea Party Movement. Here are some thoughts on it. 

1. The Tea Party arose from a justifiable concern with the expanding size, scope and reach of the federal government. It was an important factor in the epic 2010 mid-term election. At its best it has integrated itself into the GOP while continuing to apply pressure to Republican leaders to re-limit government and waring them against making careless and unprincipled deals.

2. Particularly early on, the elite media smeared the Tea Party as racist. The double standard was particularly evident in how the press covered the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which was responsible for violence, sexual assaults, arson and general filth in the areas it choose to occupy. If the Tea Party had committed a fraction of the lawless things done by OWS, it would have dominated news coverage for months. But because OWS was advancing a progressive agenda, the transgressions were politely overlooked. (I wrote about the bias here.)

3. The Tea Party has been an important factor in the political rise of senators like Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, who have been outstanding additions to Congress. But it has also gotten behind other candidates in primaries – Christine O’Donnell, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and others — who flamed out. The result is that Democrats still retain control of the Senate when they could easily have lost control of it.

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This past week marked the fifth anniversary of the creation of the Tea Party Movement. Here are some thoughts on it. 

1. The Tea Party arose from a justifiable concern with the expanding size, scope and reach of the federal government. It was an important factor in the epic 2010 mid-term election. At its best it has integrated itself into the GOP while continuing to apply pressure to Republican leaders to re-limit government and waring them against making careless and unprincipled deals.

2. Particularly early on, the elite media smeared the Tea Party as racist. The double standard was particularly evident in how the press covered the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which was responsible for violence, sexual assaults, arson and general filth in the areas it choose to occupy. If the Tea Party had committed a fraction of the lawless things done by OWS, it would have dominated news coverage for months. But because OWS was advancing a progressive agenda, the transgressions were politely overlooked. (I wrote about the bias here.)

3. The Tea Party has been an important factor in the political rise of senators like Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, who have been outstanding additions to Congress. But it has also gotten behind other candidates in primaries – Christine O’Donnell, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and others — who flamed out. The result is that Democrats still retain control of the Senate when they could easily have lost control of it.

4.  How positive a force the Tea Party ends up being depends in large part on whether its populist sentiments are channeled in a constructive or destructive way. If the movement becomes one which finds its greatest satisfaction in (a) trying to excommunicate those whom they deem to be the ideologically impure — like those well-known leftists Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative Pete Sessions, both of whom have received 100 percent ratings by the American Conservative Union — and (b) championing tactics like shutting down the federal government, it will damage conservatism by discrediting it.

If on the other hand the Tea Party directs its energies toward supporting serious, principles candidates with cross-over appeal and who will advance far-reaching conservative reforms in areas like Medicare, health care, the tax code, elementary, secondary and higher education, and energy, it will be a hugely positive force in American politics.

5. It’s not clear right now which direction the Tea Party will go or what will ultimately become of it. At this particular moment the key to understanding what is animating members of the Tea Party is frustration and outright anger with what they derisively refer to as The Establishment, most especially the GOP establishment, which they see as supine, weak, craven, and timid. That is the thing I’ve heard most often from those who identify with the Tea Party – that Republicans, and in particular GOP leaders, are seized by an “abject fear” of the left, that they are constantly “caving it” to President Obama and Democrats, and simply unwilling to fight. 

Those feelings, while not wholly unjustified, have, I think, led the Tea Party down some blind alleys and into some silly mistakes. The danger is that those feelings are stoked by demagogues in and out of office and that they intensify; that the Tea Party becomes more agitated, more consumed by resentments, and more apocalyptic in its rhetoric and outlook. That would ultimately be self-destructive.

This fate isn’t a foregone conclusion by any means. The Tea Party movement itself (as opposed to some of the organizations that claim to speak for it) is more variegated than is commonly thought, political movements are subject to shifting currents, and Republicans would be unwise to give up on the Tea Party or render sweeping, definitive judgments about it. What Republicans have to hope for is that figures emerge whom members of the Tea Party trust and who can help guide and direct the Tea Party in constructive and conservative, rather than a destructive and radical, ways.

A great deal in American politics hinges on whether such individuals materialize. 

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The State of the Tea Party 2014

Five years ago this week, CNBC commentator Rick Santelli delivered an on-air tirade from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in which he talked about organizing a tea party to protest government bailouts and stimulus spending. What followed was the birth of a nationwide movement that adopted the name Tea Party that has transformed American politics. That anniversary was commemorated this week with a Capitol Hill conference of the Tea Party Patriots—one of a number of groups that seek to represent the views of this movement—at which a number of conservative politicians either sought to channel Santelli’s initial rabble-rousing spirit or to harness it to a more pragmatic campaign to win both houses of Congress and the White House. But those seeking to assess the current strength of the Tea Party idea are wrong to measure it solely in partisan political terms or even the relative influence of any of those who claim to fly the movement’s flag. The most important thing to realize about the Tea Party is that it is a broad set of ideas, not a coherent or distinctly organized movement that takes orders from any one leader or leaders.

What both conservatives and liberals often forget about the Tea Party is that the driving spirit of this movement is not so much Republican as it is one of rebellion against those who defend a Washington status quo that perpetuates a government tax and spending machine. The mainstream media sees the Tea Party as the embodiment of the Washington event at which, like all such conferences, an eclectic gathering of ordinary citizens network with political outliers. But the Tea Party that turned the 2010 midterms into a historic GOP landslide is more than a convention of grass roots activists. It is the expression of frustration with the inability of the political class to reform itself and preserve the vision of limited government promised in the Constitution.

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Five years ago this week, CNBC commentator Rick Santelli delivered an on-air tirade from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in which he talked about organizing a tea party to protest government bailouts and stimulus spending. What followed was the birth of a nationwide movement that adopted the name Tea Party that has transformed American politics. That anniversary was commemorated this week with a Capitol Hill conference of the Tea Party Patriots—one of a number of groups that seek to represent the views of this movement—at which a number of conservative politicians either sought to channel Santelli’s initial rabble-rousing spirit or to harness it to a more pragmatic campaign to win both houses of Congress and the White House. But those seeking to assess the current strength of the Tea Party idea are wrong to measure it solely in partisan political terms or even the relative influence of any of those who claim to fly the movement’s flag. The most important thing to realize about the Tea Party is that it is a broad set of ideas, not a coherent or distinctly organized movement that takes orders from any one leader or leaders.

What both conservatives and liberals often forget about the Tea Party is that the driving spirit of this movement is not so much Republican as it is one of rebellion against those who defend a Washington status quo that perpetuates a government tax and spending machine. The mainstream media sees the Tea Party as the embodiment of the Washington event at which, like all such conferences, an eclectic gathering of ordinary citizens network with political outliers. But the Tea Party that turned the 2010 midterms into a historic GOP landslide is more than a convention of grass roots activists. It is the expression of frustration with the inability of the political class to reform itself and preserve the vision of limited government promised in the Constitution.

Like all such movements the transition from the stump to the halls of government power has been rough. Effecting change in a democracy is more than a matter of demonstrations or even getting out the vote. It requires persuasion and a commitment to the sort of nose-to-the-grindstone political work that is antithetical to the spirit of rebellion Santelli and those who followed him have sought to harness.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah summed up the challenge for the Tea Party when he said this week, “The way to defeat establishment inertia is not by finding and discarding heretics as much as it is about winning a civil debate. A civil debate, not a civil war.” He’s right about that and those who see only a war between the party establishment and the activists need to remember that the Tea Party has already won the ideological war within the Republican Party.

Though coverage of the Tea Party mostly focuses on the fights between Senator Ted Cruz and some of his GOP colleagues, what is often forgotten is that there is no debate within the party about the principles that the Tea Party movement embodies. All endorse the Tea Party view about the need to fight back against President Obama’s efforts to increase the power of government. Anger against ObamaCare and a government that is too big to fail and too powerful to be held accountable for its out-of-control spending is universal in the GOP. The only differences are about tactics, not the ideas that catapulted the movement into the public square after the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act were past by a Democratic Congress in 2009 and 2010.

The Tea Party has stumbled at times when it allowed the emotions of the debate to overwhelm good sense and dictate destructive tactics like the government shutdown to undermine their cause. It has sometimes pursued party purity over the less exciting business of building governing coalitions. But what its liberal critics forget is that while Ted Cruz and government shutdown advocates are not trusted by most Americans, the same public anger that gave birth to the Tea Party is even greater today than it was five years ago. The challenge for Republicans is to remember that the Tea Party is not just a bunch of activists who go to conventions but, in fact, a broad cross-section of Americans who share their basic beliefs about the role of government. That mass movement of voters took liberal pundits by surprise in 2010 when the Tea Party that they derided as a band of racist cranks turned out in numbers sufficient to oust a Democratic Congress.

The Tea Party is not tied to specific organizations bearing the name but to an idea of reform. To the extent that Republicans continue to embody that concept while also showing themselves worthy of the people’s trust, they will win. That’s why, for all of its ups and downs in recent years, Democrats who prefer to believe the myth that the Tea Party is a top-down concept created by corporate funders may discover they are as wrong about it today as they were when it first started. 

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The “War on Women” for Dummies

Liberal activists and lobbyist groups used today’s New York Times story on identity politics to loudly declare two things: there is a “war on women,” and these groups couldn’t be happier. That may sound strange at first glance. After all, some of these groups are ostensibly “women’s groups,” and this is indeed a counterintuitive way to react to political bias.

But that’s only if they actually believe their rhetoric; keep in mind, the White House fabricated the “war on women” to win elections. If that’s the case, why would these women’s groups repeat the story, especially considering just how demeaning and dehumanizing it is to women for these liberal groups to reduce them to their gender or reproductive organs? They’re surprisingly frank about their answer:

Democrats do not just get mad when they hear those words. They cash in.

In fact, they are trying to find even more examples by tracking Republican opponents, their surrogates and conservative news media personalities, then blasting their comments out to supporters to build voter lists and drum up donations, casting aside the well-worn advice to shrug off sexist comments lest they draw attention to gender over issues.

It is proving effective. Emily’s List, the political action committee that backs female candidates who support abortion rights, has raised a record $25 million this election cycle. On Tuesday, the group put out an online petition, “Tell the G.O.P.: Pregnant Women Are Not ‘Hosts,’ ” after Steve Martin, a state senator in Virginia, referred to a pregnant woman as the child’s “host” in a Facebook message.

“Instead of fearing sexist attacks, we wait gleefully for the next one,” said Jen Bluestein, a political strategist who formerly ran communications at Emily’s List.

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Liberal activists and lobbyist groups used today’s New York Times story on identity politics to loudly declare two things: there is a “war on women,” and these groups couldn’t be happier. That may sound strange at first glance. After all, some of these groups are ostensibly “women’s groups,” and this is indeed a counterintuitive way to react to political bias.

But that’s only if they actually believe their rhetoric; keep in mind, the White House fabricated the “war on women” to win elections. If that’s the case, why would these women’s groups repeat the story, especially considering just how demeaning and dehumanizing it is to women for these liberal groups to reduce them to their gender or reproductive organs? They’re surprisingly frank about their answer:

Democrats do not just get mad when they hear those words. They cash in.

In fact, they are trying to find even more examples by tracking Republican opponents, their surrogates and conservative news media personalities, then blasting their comments out to supporters to build voter lists and drum up donations, casting aside the well-worn advice to shrug off sexist comments lest they draw attention to gender over issues.

It is proving effective. Emily’s List, the political action committee that backs female candidates who support abortion rights, has raised a record $25 million this election cycle. On Tuesday, the group put out an online petition, “Tell the G.O.P.: Pregnant Women Are Not ‘Hosts,’ ” after Steve Martin, a state senator in Virginia, referred to a pregnant woman as the child’s “host” in a Facebook message.

“Instead of fearing sexist attacks, we wait gleefully for the next one,” said Jen Bluestein, a political strategist who formerly ran communications at Emily’s List.

Essentially what the story makes clear is that liberals have realized that the extent of their dominance of mainstream media and cultural institutions has enabled them to create a new dialect of the American political lexicon, and until someone gives Republicans a Rosetta Stone to the left’s Orwellian language, they will struggle to communicate according to the approved rhetoric.

Now, it’s important to note: there are certainly instances of clear sexist language being used against Democratic women. It doesn’t quite rise to the level that the left deploys against conservative women, for example the National Organization of Women declaring that a woman with conservative political views is not a woman at all, but in fact, as far as NOW is concerned, a man. Nonetheless, not all the outrage is ginned up out of nothing; occasionally someone steps over the line, and there’s nothing wrong with pointing that out.

But actual sexist remarks are only one of three categories of comments that the Times story attempts to seamlessly blend into one, considering all of them to be overtly sexist. The other two consist of insults that are offensive but not inherently sexist, and comments that are neither offensive nor sexist. The Times explains that to Democratic lobby groups seeking to raise money, the latter two categories, when applied to women, become sexist merely because the target of the comment is a woman.

The story gives one example of the second of the three categories: Claire McCaskill’s opponent said she was like a dog playing “fetch” by going to Washington to push for taxes and regulation that then get brought back to the people of Missouri. It’s obviously offensive to liken someone to an animal, and this particular analogy is also nonsensical. But it was also clearly not meant as a comment on her physical appearance.

As an example of the third and final category, the Times explains that a GOP communications official called Kentucky candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes an “empty dress,” referring to her campaign’s lack of policy specifics. This is obviously the same insult as calling someone an “empty suit,” standard fare for political debate. The only difference was that the GOP figure acknowledged that Grimes is a woman. This is the opposite of sexist (using a male version of the insult would have brought the accusation that Grimes was being called a man).

One is tempted to suggest that all this would be easier if the Democrats’ ministry of communications would just publish a book of what words and phrases Republicans are permitted to say in America. But that would defeat the purpose, which is, liberals explain, to ensure Republicans say the wrong thing so the left can raise money, as a former Obama official made startlingly clear:

“It comes down to your ability to not just ride the wave, but create the wave,” said Marie Danzig, deputy digital director for Mr. Obama’s 2012 campaign and head of creative and delivery at Blue State Digital, which works with Emily’s List.

If a wave’s not there, they’ll “create” it. And all they need is your generous donation to do so.

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The Shelved Iran Report and Diplomacy

With the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference starting this weekend in Washington, the debate about the Iranian nuclear threat is back in the headlines. But, as the AIPAC activists know all too well, in their efforts to mobilize Congress to support increased sanctions on Iran the administration has effectively checkmated them on the issue by claiming the measure would derail diplomacy. Opponents of sanctions have falsely sought to frame the issue as being a choice between war and diplomacy even though the new sanctions, which would not go into effect until after the current negotiations with Iran are seen to have failed, would clearly strengthen the administration’s hand in the talks. But the problem with treating the diplomatic process as sacrosanct is that in doing so, the truth about the nature of the threat may be sacrificed without the West getting any closer to its goal of thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.

That dilemma was illustrated this week when it was revealed that the International Atomic Energy Agency had shelved a new report about Iran’s nuclear project because it was felt its publication would harm the diplomatic process. Sources told Reuters that the report would have been a wider review of the Iranian program including crucial analysis of Tehran’s military research. But the IAEA, whose reports over the last few years have raised awareness of the nuclear threat, ultimately decided that putting out more information about the topic now would, like the sanctions being debated in Washington, harm diplomacy.

After the Reuters report was published, Israel called on the IAEA to release the report. In response, the agency claimed today that it doesn’t exist. But all that tells us is that the decision to spike the report took place before it was formally prepared. The bottom line remains the same. Whatever new information the IAEA has obtained about military dimensions of Iran’s program is not going to be published because the more the Western public knows about the subject the less likely they are to give diplomats the leeway they need to craft a nuclear deal that will fall short of their stated goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

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With the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference starting this weekend in Washington, the debate about the Iranian nuclear threat is back in the headlines. But, as the AIPAC activists know all too well, in their efforts to mobilize Congress to support increased sanctions on Iran the administration has effectively checkmated them on the issue by claiming the measure would derail diplomacy. Opponents of sanctions have falsely sought to frame the issue as being a choice between war and diplomacy even though the new sanctions, which would not go into effect until after the current negotiations with Iran are seen to have failed, would clearly strengthen the administration’s hand in the talks. But the problem with treating the diplomatic process as sacrosanct is that in doing so, the truth about the nature of the threat may be sacrificed without the West getting any closer to its goal of thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.

That dilemma was illustrated this week when it was revealed that the International Atomic Energy Agency had shelved a new report about Iran’s nuclear project because it was felt its publication would harm the diplomatic process. Sources told Reuters that the report would have been a wider review of the Iranian program including crucial analysis of Tehran’s military research. But the IAEA, whose reports over the last few years have raised awareness of the nuclear threat, ultimately decided that putting out more information about the topic now would, like the sanctions being debated in Washington, harm diplomacy.

After the Reuters report was published, Israel called on the IAEA to release the report. In response, the agency claimed today that it doesn’t exist. But all that tells us is that the decision to spike the report took place before it was formally prepared. The bottom line remains the same. Whatever new information the IAEA has obtained about military dimensions of Iran’s program is not going to be published because the more the Western public knows about the subject the less likely they are to give diplomats the leeway they need to craft a nuclear deal that will fall short of their stated goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

We don’t know what a new IAEA report on Iran would have said. Given that the interim nuclear deal signed by the U.S. in November did not provide for inspections of Iranian facilities where military research is being conducted, it may be that the agency has not learned of any breakthroughs or further evidence of Iran’s clear intent to build a bomb. But past IAEA reports have served an important purpose in clarifying the danger involved in letting Tehran continue to use diplomacy to run out the clock until they reach their nuclear goal. But whether the IAEA acted on its own or if it succumbed to pressure, the effect is the same. The Obama administration and its P5+1 partners understand that the more information is released about the ongoing Iranian efforts to circumvent the diplomatic process, the harder it is to silence criticism of their tactics or to prevent Congress from seeking to put more sanctions in place.

There is no disagreement between the administration and its critics about whether a diplomatic solution is the best way to resolve this issue. No one wants the U.S. to be forced into a position where its only choice really is between the use of force and accepting a situation in which Iran becomes a nuclear power. But the suppression of the free flow of information about the nature of that threat raises suspicions that what is going on now is more about preserving diplomacy for its own sake than anything else.

By agreeing to negotiations that tacitly recognized Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and loosened existing sanctions, the administration has allowed Tehran to believe that it will never have to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Having triumphed in the interim talks, it is little surprise that Iran’s leaders believe they will achieve their nuclear goal either through diplomacy or by stalling the process until the point where their bomb is a fait accompli. It is to be hoped that the administration means what it says about preventing an Iranian bomb. But the more President Obama seeks to suppress the truth about the Iranian threat and to silence debate about sanctions, the harder it is to believe that he will keep his promises. The goal must be to make it impossible for the Islamist regime to build a bomb, not detente. A diplomatic process that aims for anything less than that is not worth the effort or the sacrifices of the truth required for keeping it alive.

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The Zen of Defense Budget Cuts: Rashomon or Kabuki?

Max and Peter have already discussed the scale and meaning of President Obama’s recently revealed defense budget cuts. Yet there are so many different interpretations of what is really happening that it feels like a Washington D.C. version of Rashomon. I would add only three points, each of which has a different interpretation of the issue.

First, there is strong betting in Washington that all this is kabuki theater. The administration already submitted an FY1015 budget that is $115 billion above sequestration levels, while going forward, Congress will keep delaying cuts until sequestration simply falls apart. If so, then the past 36 months of angst have been a gigantic waste of time. Not because some weapons systems have not been delayed or terminated and end strength reduced, but because all this political theater has done nothing to reduce the national deficit (as anyone remotely aware of fiscal reality already knew).

Worse, the military has been forced to take a “six of one, half dozen of the other” approach that leaves it with no clarity as to its real future sizing or posture, and is unclear how to best reshape itself to deal with new threats. In a sense, however, a kabuki-like outcome would actually be good news for the long run, as the military will be spared the worst of the cuts, as Congress puts money back in for favored programs, and as the whole idea of placing an uneven burden on the Pentagon to cut government discretionary spending simply fades from sight. It’s almost unbelievably unserious governing, but it’s all kabuki.

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Max and Peter have already discussed the scale and meaning of President Obama’s recently revealed defense budget cuts. Yet there are so many different interpretations of what is really happening that it feels like a Washington D.C. version of Rashomon. I would add only three points, each of which has a different interpretation of the issue.

First, there is strong betting in Washington that all this is kabuki theater. The administration already submitted an FY1015 budget that is $115 billion above sequestration levels, while going forward, Congress will keep delaying cuts until sequestration simply falls apart. If so, then the past 36 months of angst have been a gigantic waste of time. Not because some weapons systems have not been delayed or terminated and end strength reduced, but because all this political theater has done nothing to reduce the national deficit (as anyone remotely aware of fiscal reality already knew).

Worse, the military has been forced to take a “six of one, half dozen of the other” approach that leaves it with no clarity as to its real future sizing or posture, and is unclear how to best reshape itself to deal with new threats. In a sense, however, a kabuki-like outcome would actually be good news for the long run, as the military will be spared the worst of the cuts, as Congress puts money back in for favored programs, and as the whole idea of placing an uneven burden on the Pentagon to cut government discretionary spending simply fades from sight. It’s almost unbelievably unserious governing, but it’s all kabuki.

A second interpretation, however, is much more troubling. President Obama is about to hand his predecessor one of the most hobbled militaries in recent American history, one that Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said would be so unready that it would be “immoral” to use. If the president and Congress are indeed serious about their unserious budget cutting, then when sequestration finally takes effect in 2016, tens of billions of dollars will have to be precipitously cut. Max has already outlined what that would mean in terms of canceled and mothballed ships and planes, not to mention personnel cuts.

But just imagine what type of military the next president would inherit on January 20, 2017. Instead of a bad policy competently implemented, the incoming commander in chief will get a disastrous policy incompetently shoved down the military’s throat. When that force is unable to carry out needed missions does anyone think that Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Rand Paul, or others will be blamed? They all will escape mainstream criticism even as they have handed America a military that will be expected to carry out its full range of missions with dramatically lower levels of readiness and capacity.

Both of these interpretations above are, to me, among the clearest condemnations of the overall unseriousness, incompetence, and unaccountable behavior by all our nationally elected leaders. Washington D.C. increasingly is a cabal run against the interests of the American people even as it endlessly fleeces them.

There is a third interpretation, however, one that tracks more closely with Peter’s observation. He argues that President Obama is consciously engineering America’s decline. From a slightly angled perspective, nothing he is doing runs counter to a strategic agenda that seeks to reduce the country’s ability to play the type of global role it has for the past 70 years. Put another way, if you’re not really interested in holding the line against instability, coercion, and aggression abroad–if you don’t plan on confronting those states that are causing disruption in the world–then you don’t need the type of military we’ve fielded for decades.

Every cut, whether thought through or not, makes sense if it derives from a manifestation of political will that seeks a radically different global role for the United States. A shrunken military means America must correspondingly reduce its presence, effectiveness, and influence abroad. From that perspective, President Obama knows exactly the type of military he wants to bequeath to his successor, not to mention what type of country.

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