It is already too late to reverse sequestration—the devastating hit of more than $500 billion in cuts that could afflict the Defense Department starting in January—before it has some impact on budgeting decisions being made by the government and its contractors. But it is not too late to engineer a deal that can stop the worst before it hits.
Accordingly, senators have been talking about what kind of deal they could come up with. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Politico: “I predict there will not be a sequester. One way or the other, since 90 percent of us don’t want it, it won’t happen. And my hope is that it won’t happen early enough to avoid any instability. What I am confident in is that it’s not going to happen because nobody around here wants it to happen except for some tea party folks.”
Sequestration—the $500 billion automatic budget cuts to Defense, which will be triggered if Congress cannot reduce the budget by $1.2 trillion as per the Budget Control Act of 2011—is a looming disaster. The sequestration cuts would be in addition to already scheduled budget cutbacks.
Owen Graham, a brilliant young scholar at the Heritage Foundation, has penned an important article in the Charlotte Observer outlining just what is at stake:
According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, sequestration would also eliminate a leg of the nuclear Triad, deliver a heavy blow to U.S. missile defenses, and eliminate next-generation fighter and bomber programs. The findings of the House Armed Services Committee were just as bleak: the smallest Air Force in its history; the smallest Navy since before World War I; and the smallest ground force since before World War II…
The reality is it is far from balanced. Military is less than one-fifth of the federal budget and absorbs fully 50 percent of the sequester. Meanwhile, 70 percent of entitlement spending, the key driver of the debt crisis, is exempt from the impact of the cuts.
The New York Times has a lengthy report on Shell’s plans this summer to drill exploratory oil wells in the Arctic Ocean off the north coast of Alaska. Much of the article focuses on the politicking and lobbying behind President Obama’s decision to let the drilling go forward which holds the possibility of tapping a million barrels a day of crude, or close to Qatar’s entire production. One of the many oddities which goes unexplained is why drilling in the Arctic Ocean–an inherently risky undertaking given the existence of icebergs, storms, monster waves, and other dangers–is permitted while drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a few miles away–which not only has more oil (upwards of six billion barrels in all) but also could be drilled in greater safety–is not. But let’s leave that aside. What I want to address here is another neglected dimension of this important issue–the security dimension.
I saw this for myself last week when I traveled to Alaska, along with a group from the Council on Foreign Relations, to meet with Coast Guard officials and to do an Arctic overflight that took me from Anchorage to Barrow–America’s northernmost city which remains, even now, frigid and snowy. The expansion of oil exploration calls for expanded security–to protect against terrorists and extreme environmentalists who might try to sabotage these operations (Greenpeace is said to be chartering a vessel to try to block Shell) and to guard against other Arctic nations such as Russia that might try to grab for themselves oil fields that rightfully belong to the U.S., Canada or other nations. There is also a need for expanded safety operations to ensure an adequate response in case of accidents or oil spills.
Max Boot last month argued that the State Department and USAID should largely be spared budget cuts. That may be true of the State Department, although (like the Pentagon), the Department has layers of bureaucratic fat and unnecessary positions. Various undersecretaries, for example, have their own press advisers, a wholly unnecessary position that not only might come with a six-figure salary, but also can run up hundreds of thousands of dollars each in flight, hotel, and benefit cost. Simply put, if a Foreign Service officer or a political appointee is smart enough to become an undersecretary, then they should be smart enough to handle their own press. And if they are not up to the task, there are dozens of ambitious diplomats or politicos who probably are. This might, indeed, make for more skilled diplomats because it would benefit those who have a broader array of experiences than simply passing a “trivial pursuit”-like written exam and then a contrived oral exam upon leaving college and entering the State Department’s bubble. It would enable those who have backgrounds in business or law, for example, to apply a skill set to their careers which would benefit everybody.
To be fair, the same is true for the Pentagon. Last month, I attended a conference in Europe in which a senior U.S. general spoke. The general was worth his stars, but came to Europe from Washington with a delegation of aides and assistants whose sole mission was to ensure that the general hewed close to a script which they developed. “We don’t want him to make any comment which the press might pick up on,” one explained. Now, these aides duplicated the work of the defense attaché and American embassy which was also working overtime to babysit the three-star. Surely, there are better uses for taxpayer money than hiring press aides and minders whose sole job is to obfuscate and do damage control. If a general is able to navigate the politics of the Pentagon, then he can understand the minefield of the fourth estate without spending millions of dollars to ensure that he says nothing.