Commentary Magazine


Topic: sequestration

The Defense Budget vs. History

Traditionally, military planners have operated under a worst-case scenario: i.e., what do we need to have in place to respond if nothing goes as planned? The Obama administration and Congress appear to be operating under a best-case scenario: i.e., what is the minimum force we can field on the assumption that nothing will go terribly wrong?

Thus the new defense budget, being unveiled today, which cuts the army’s active-duty force size to the smallest level since before World War II–just 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a wartime high of 570,000, although even that figure was painfully inadequate to allow the U.S. to respond to two unforeseen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As critics of the Bush administration–including Senator Barack Obama–were once fond of pointing out, Bush never sent enough troops to stabilize Iraq until 2007 and that commitment was only made possible by keeping a ludicrously small force in Afghanistan, once known as the “necessary” war. The failure to send more troops early on allowed the Taliban to rebound from near-defeat in 2001 and allowed various insurgent groups to sprout all over Iraq.

So if 570,000 troops were not enough to handle such relatively weak foes as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, how on earth would 440,000 troops be able to handle more robust contingencies–unlikely but not impossible–such as simultaneous wars with Iran and North Korea and a stabilization mission in, say, Yemen? The answer is that they couldn’t.

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Traditionally, military planners have operated under a worst-case scenario: i.e., what do we need to have in place to respond if nothing goes as planned? The Obama administration and Congress appear to be operating under a best-case scenario: i.e., what is the minimum force we can field on the assumption that nothing will go terribly wrong?

Thus the new defense budget, being unveiled today, which cuts the army’s active-duty force size to the smallest level since before World War II–just 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a wartime high of 570,000, although even that figure was painfully inadequate to allow the U.S. to respond to two unforeseen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As critics of the Bush administration–including Senator Barack Obama–were once fond of pointing out, Bush never sent enough troops to stabilize Iraq until 2007 and that commitment was only made possible by keeping a ludicrously small force in Afghanistan, once known as the “necessary” war. The failure to send more troops early on allowed the Taliban to rebound from near-defeat in 2001 and allowed various insurgent groups to sprout all over Iraq.

So if 570,000 troops were not enough to handle such relatively weak foes as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, how on earth would 440,000 troops be able to handle more robust contingencies–unlikely but not impossible–such as simultaneous wars with Iran and North Korea and a stabilization mission in, say, Yemen? The answer is that they couldn’t.

Actually the situation is even worse than the news would have you believe. Because the army’s plan to cut down to 440,000 to 450,000 is premised on the assumption that Congress will continue to provide relief from half a trillion dollars in sequestration cuts. But the budget deal reached by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray only provides sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015; unless Congress is willing to turn off sequestration in future years, the army will have to go even lower in end-strength.

Moreover, the defense budget includes modest cuts in personnel spending–spending on pay, pensions, and health care–which are long overdue but which are likely to be blocked by Congress, as was the case with a recent attempt to cut cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees by a measly one percent. Unless Congress goes along with cuts to personnel costs, which now constitute half of the defense budget, other parts of the budget–including, no doubt, the army’s end-strength–will have to endure further scaling back.

That is a responsible decline in military strength only if you assume that we will never fight another major land war, or engage in simultaneous stabilization and counterinsurgency operations. And that, in turn, is a tenable assumption only if you assume that the laws of history have been repealed and a new era is dawning in which the U.S. will be able to protect all of its vital interests through drone strikes and commando raids. We all hope that’s the case but, as the saying has it, hope isn’t a strategy. Except, it seems, in Washington defense circles today.

If history teaches anything, it is that the era of land wars is not over and that we will pay a heavy price in the future for our unpreparedness–as we have paid in blood at the beginning of every major war in American history. Our failure to learn from history is stunning and (from a historian’s standpoint) disheartening but not, alas, terribly surprising: Throughout history, supposedly enlightened elites have been able to convince themselves that the era of conflict is over and a new age is dawning. The fact that they have always been wrong before does not, somehow, lead them to question those assumptions in the present day, because this is such a convenient belief to have.

Today, for both Republicans and Democrats, the president and Congress, these hope-based assumptions about defense spending allow them to put off the truly difficult decisions about cutting entitlement spending. But at what cost? If history is any guide, the cost of unpreparedness will be steep and will be borne by future generations of American troops.

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Marco Rubio and the Perils of Opportunism

The opponents of the bipartisan budget deal oppose it for different reasons, and some of the opposition is undoubtedly based on principle. But some of the opposition, it appears, is based on something rather less admirable.  

Take Senator Marco Rubio. He originally voted against the sequester, in part, he said, because it cut defense too much. “Defense funding should be driven by our national security needs, not by arbitrary fiscal arithmetic,” he said in a joint statement with other senators. “We cannot responsibly allow across-the-board, draconian defense cuts to go forward at the expense of our national security.”

Now he’s criticizing a budget deal that would increase spending on defense while also slightly cutting the deficit, arguing that we shouldn’t give up the sequestration deal he initially opposed. And he’s the one complaining about the lack of “long-term thinking.”

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The opponents of the bipartisan budget deal oppose it for different reasons, and some of the opposition is undoubtedly based on principle. But some of the opposition, it appears, is based on something rather less admirable.  

Take Senator Marco Rubio. He originally voted against the sequester, in part, he said, because it cut defense too much. “Defense funding should be driven by our national security needs, not by arbitrary fiscal arithmetic,” he said in a joint statement with other senators. “We cannot responsibly allow across-the-board, draconian defense cuts to go forward at the expense of our national security.”

Now he’s criticizing a budget deal that would increase spending on defense while also slightly cutting the deficit, arguing that we shouldn’t give up the sequestration deal he initially opposed. And he’s the one complaining about the lack of “long-term thinking.”

I’ve said favorable things about Senator Rubio in the past. He’s a likeable figure, and often a persuasive one. But some worrisome patterns are emerging.

Senator Rubio voted against the Budget Control Act in 2011 that paved the path toward the sequester–and now he’s blasting a defensible, if far from perfect, deal by Representative Ryan and Senator Murray on the grounds that it undoes the sequester (which is a simplistic and incomplete argument in itself, for reasons I lay out here). And Senator Rubio showed a massive error in judgment in championing the effort to shut down the federal government if the Affordable Care Act wasn’t de-funded–a gambit that did absolutely no good and in fact inflicted a fair amount of harm on his party.

Senator Rubio strikes me as a person not only highly attuned to criticisms of him from the base, but overly reactive to them, adjusting and responding moment by moment. One senses that believing he badly hurt himself with the base because of his stand on immigration, he’s now scrambling to ingratiate himself with it. It isn’t a particularly impressive thing to watch.

Senator Rubio is young, talented, and, I think, has a lot to contribute to conservatism. But he might take to heart the words of St. Paul, who in the book of Ephesians warned about those “tossed like waves and blown about by every wind of doctrine.”

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The Budget Deal and Defense

The budget deal struck between Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, assuming it’s passed by both chambers, hardly solves all of our budget woes. But it is a positive step forward especially for the U.S. Armed Forces, which have faced the prospect of devastating and illogical budget cuts dictated by the sequestration process. The Ryan-Murray deal does not turn off all the defense cuts, but it does pare them back. Defense News sums up the details:

The compromise budget resolution, if adopted by both chambers, would provide $63 billion in sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015, which would be split evenly among defense and non-defense discretionary accounts.

The 2014 relief would total $45 billion, meaning the Defense Department would get back about $22.5 billion. In 2015, the relief amount would be around $18 billion total, and $9 billion for the Pentagon.

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The budget deal struck between Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, assuming it’s passed by both chambers, hardly solves all of our budget woes. But it is a positive step forward especially for the U.S. Armed Forces, which have faced the prospect of devastating and illogical budget cuts dictated by the sequestration process. The Ryan-Murray deal does not turn off all the defense cuts, but it does pare them back. Defense News sums up the details:

The compromise budget resolution, if adopted by both chambers, would provide $63 billion in sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015, which would be split evenly among defense and non-defense discretionary accounts.

The 2014 relief would total $45 billion, meaning the Defense Department would get back about $22.5 billion. In 2015, the relief amount would be around $18 billion total, and $9 billion for the Pentagon.

The restoration of some of these budget cuts would be “financed” by reducing cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees, cutting modestly payments to Medicare providers, and other small budget fixes.

In short the deal should be seen from a conservative perspective as a good outcome–it maintains budget discipline while providing more funding to the armed forces. It is puzzling, therefore, that so many conservative firebrands are expressing opposition and that House and Senate Republican leaders are hesitating to endorse it. Paul Ryan should be winning congratulations for what he has achieved rather than being forced to fight to keep the deal from getting torpedoed by conservative absolutists who have no workable alternative to offer.

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Smarter Cuts Needed

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has just announced that he is cutting major headquarters, including his own Office of the Secretary of Defense, by some 20 percent. This is a welcome development, for there is little doubt that headquarters are vastly bloated. But the cost savings that will be realized are minuscule in the context of a defense budget of more than $500 billion a year; the immediate reductions that Hagel announced to his own front office will save only $1 billion over five years–i.e., $200 million a year. The pressure is on to cut more because Congress is unlikely to turn off sequestration, at least not in full, which could result, when combined with previous cuts, in a defense budget $1 trillion smaller than projected over the next decade.

There is no way to responsibly cut that amount from the Defense Department without hampering our power-projection capability–and hence the entire underpinning of our domestic security and of the international security system. But if we are going to have to make nearly impossible choices, then the least-bad alternative is to cut back personnel costs which have soared in the past decade–and, one hopes, plow some of the savings into training, readiness, and procurement to rejuvenate our sagging military capabilities. (Ha! Dream on! The savings are likely to wind up financing civilian entitlement programs.)

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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has just announced that he is cutting major headquarters, including his own Office of the Secretary of Defense, by some 20 percent. This is a welcome development, for there is little doubt that headquarters are vastly bloated. But the cost savings that will be realized are minuscule in the context of a defense budget of more than $500 billion a year; the immediate reductions that Hagel announced to his own front office will save only $1 billion over five years–i.e., $200 million a year. The pressure is on to cut more because Congress is unlikely to turn off sequestration, at least not in full, which could result, when combined with previous cuts, in a defense budget $1 trillion smaller than projected over the next decade.

There is no way to responsibly cut that amount from the Defense Department without hampering our power-projection capability–and hence the entire underpinning of our domestic security and of the international security system. But if we are going to have to make nearly impossible choices, then the least-bad alternative is to cut back personnel costs which have soared in the past decade–and, one hopes, plow some of the savings into training, readiness, and procurement to rejuvenate our sagging military capabilities. (Ha! Dream on! The savings are likely to wind up financing civilian entitlement programs.)

As the last several defense secretaries have warned, the Defense Department faces soaring costs for pay and benefits legislated by a Congress understandably eager to reward current service personnel and veterans for their contributions. The Washington Post succinctly summarizes the problem:

Putting veterans’ care aside, the military’s health care costs have grown annually by 6.3 percent for the past decade, rising to $52.2 billion in the department’s most recent budget proposal. Health care spending now accounts for about half the military spending on personnel costs, and 9.5 percent of the defense budget. The military now spends just as much on salaries as it does providing health care benefits.

And that total is expected to grow. Todd Harrison, a policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, recently crunched the numbers on what would happen if personnel costs kept growing at the same rate they have for the past decade, and the overall defense budget only kept pace with inflation. Under that scenario, the entire defense budget would be consumed by paying benefits, both for health care and other services, in 2039.

Put another way, if we stay on the current trajectory, the Defense Department will become a giant HMO that occasionally blows up a terrorist or two.

This is obviously an unsustainable trajectory, but to do anything about it, the Defense Department will have to enlist Congress’s help, which so far has not been forthcoming. Congress prefers to cut defense, and other discretionary programs, across the board, thereby hurting readiness. Lawmakers are too scared to support targeted cuts to benefits and pay that will bring a backlash from the powerful veterans’ lobby.

It is well past time for legislators of both parties to step up to this difficult task. If they want reductions in military spending, this is where they should pursue them–while keeping in mind that it is still irresponsible to cut the “top line” (i.e., total defense outlays) in a world where the demands on the U.S. military only continue to grow.

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The Arctic Strategy

At the Halifax Security Forum over the weekend, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid out a new Arctic strategy for the U.S. military. The need for such a strategy is obvious given that the Arctic’s copious natural resources and fast routes for maritime travel are ready for exploitation because of the melting of the polar ice caps. If the U.S. doesn’t act to protect its interests, other nations such as Russia will seize the initiative.

Hagel is right to call on the U.S. armed forces to be ready to preserve freedom of navigation, defend Alaska, and to ensure the safety of efforts to operate in the Arctic environment. The question left unanswered is: How will we pay for this expanding mission?

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At the Halifax Security Forum over the weekend, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid out a new Arctic strategy for the U.S. military. The need for such a strategy is obvious given that the Arctic’s copious natural resources and fast routes for maritime travel are ready for exploitation because of the melting of the polar ice caps. If the U.S. doesn’t act to protect its interests, other nations such as Russia will seize the initiative.

Hagel is right to call on the U.S. armed forces to be ready to preserve freedom of navigation, defend Alaska, and to ensure the safety of efforts to operate in the Arctic environment. The question left unanswered is: How will we pay for this expanding mission?

Sequestration isn’t going away anytime soon. Combined with previous budget cuts, this will result in a trillion dollars being sliced from the defense budget over the next decade. U.S. military capabilities will decline by at least a third. But U.S. military missions aren’t declining at all. They are growing. In addition to Arctic operations, the U.S. armed forces are stepping up cyber and space commitments, among others.

As I have repeatedly written, there is a growing mismatch between commitments and resources. It is not reasonable to expect the U.S. armed forces to do 30 percent more with 30 percent less money. Yet that seems to be what Washington wants. Unless Congress coughs up more money, and fast, the result will be a readiness crisis to recall the “hollow” days of the 1970s.

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Sequestration and Combat Readiness

Gen. Martin Dempsey, army chief of staff, and Gen. Jim Amos, Marine commandant, are warning that sequestration could result in overly deep cuts to the ground forces. But is anyone listening? Not so that you would notice.

As Mike O’Hanlon of Brookings noted yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, if sequestration continues unabated, the army could fall from 532,000 today to 380,000 active-duty soldiers–or even fewer. Figures of less than 300,000 have even been mentioned. That would cut the U.S. Army to a size not seen since the start of World War II.

The dangers of such an approach should be obvious. But few if any are paying attention to them in Washington today because the widespread assumption is that we will never have to fight another ground war again. Why this assumption has become prevalent is a mystery because it flies in the face of all known history–to wit, mankind has been fighting on the ground since his earliest days on this earth. Ground warfare continues notwithstanding the creation of air forces, computers, and precision, stand-off weapons such as drones and smart bombs. Just look at Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and a whole lot of other places.

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Gen. Martin Dempsey, army chief of staff, and Gen. Jim Amos, Marine commandant, are warning that sequestration could result in overly deep cuts to the ground forces. But is anyone listening? Not so that you would notice.

As Mike O’Hanlon of Brookings noted yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, if sequestration continues unabated, the army could fall from 532,000 today to 380,000 active-duty soldiers–or even fewer. Figures of less than 300,000 have even been mentioned. That would cut the U.S. Army to a size not seen since the start of World War II.

The dangers of such an approach should be obvious. But few if any are paying attention to them in Washington today because the widespread assumption is that we will never have to fight another ground war again. Why this assumption has become prevalent is a mystery because it flies in the face of all known history–to wit, mankind has been fighting on the ground since his earliest days on this earth. Ground warfare continues notwithstanding the creation of air forces, computers, and precision, stand-off weapons such as drones and smart bombs. Just look at Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and a whole lot of other places.

It is the height of hubris to imagine that the U.S. can stand aloof from such messes simply because we desire to do so. If history shows anything, it is that the U.S. has a tendency to get sucked into distant conflicts, and that includes the dispatch of ground forces. Just look at the 1990s–the last period of major defense downsizing when we got involved in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, among other places.

Today if we show an inability to field substantial ground forces we are practically inviting our enemies to challenge us in this arena of warfare, whether through the use of terrorist and guerrilla tactics or (more unlikely but not impossible) through conventional combat operations. Yet both Republicans and Democrats are so caught up in their political squabbles, with neither side being willing to address the fiscal danger of runaway entitlement spending, that they are oblivious to the impact their defense cuts are having on our military readiness in general and our ground-combat readiness in particular.

Dempsey and Amos might as well be talking to a brick wall for all the notice they are getting. We should be paying more attention because history shows that those in the past who have warned about the dangers of excessive defense drawdowns have inevitably been proven correct.

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Military Budget Numbers Don’t Add Up

Two items from Politico’s Morning Defense Roundup caught my eye today.

Item 1: “As Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation became painfully clear yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and other Navy ships to sail for the Philippines as quickly as possible….The George Washington is carrying Carrier Air Wing 5 with nine squadrons that include strike fighters, electronic attack aircraft and – crucially for disaster relief – MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. Two Navy cruisers and one destroyer are also expected to be on station with the carrier in as soon as two days.”

Item 2: “Just when Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale thought things could not get more uncertain and chaotic, they have. Now, he faces three very different budget scenarios for 2014, ranging from President Barack Obama’s $527 billion request for the Pentagon’s base budget to the $475 billion if sequestration is allowed to happen in January. ‘We still don’t know what fiscal ’14 is, which is an extraordinary situation,’ Hale said.”

There is a fundamental disconnect between these two news stories. The first story demonstrates that the demand for the U.S. military’s services is as great as ever and is hardly limited to war-fighting in the strictest sense. When an ally like the Philippines is hit with a natural disaster, the U.S. government naturally and rightly wants to help. How? There’s no civilian corps of disaster-response experts who can be scrambled to a faraway country at a minute’s notice. Only the U.S. military can do that.

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Two items from Politico’s Morning Defense Roundup caught my eye today.

Item 1: “As Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation became painfully clear yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and other Navy ships to sail for the Philippines as quickly as possible….The George Washington is carrying Carrier Air Wing 5 with nine squadrons that include strike fighters, electronic attack aircraft and – crucially for disaster relief – MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. Two Navy cruisers and one destroyer are also expected to be on station with the carrier in as soon as two days.”

Item 2: “Just when Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale thought things could not get more uncertain and chaotic, they have. Now, he faces three very different budget scenarios for 2014, ranging from President Barack Obama’s $527 billion request for the Pentagon’s base budget to the $475 billion if sequestration is allowed to happen in January. ‘We still don’t know what fiscal ’14 is, which is an extraordinary situation,’ Hale said.”

There is a fundamental disconnect between these two news stories. The first story demonstrates that the demand for the U.S. military’s services is as great as ever and is hardly limited to war-fighting in the strictest sense. When an ally like the Philippines is hit with a natural disaster, the U.S. government naturally and rightly wants to help. How? There’s no civilian corps of disaster-response experts who can be scrambled to a faraway country at a minute’s notice. Only the U.S. military can do that.

But the military is under severe strain right now because of budget cuts which are only going to get worse. The Pentagon comptroller is dreaming if he thinks Congress will repeal sequestration. Assuming these Draconian cuts continue to be implemented—and that’s almost certain right now—the result will be to eviscerate the very capabilities the U.S. military needs to respond not only to typhoons and earthquakes but also to more direct threats to our national security. For example, Hagel is contemplating reducing the number of aircraft carriers from 11 to eight or nine. Even before that happens, the readiness levels of all of our military forces—land, sea, and air—have been hurt by the ongoing budget cuts.

Yet there is no major push in Washington to reduce the number of missions the U.S. military is being asked to carry out. Our political leaders seem to want the armed forces to carry out 100 percent of their existing missions with only 70 percent of the funding. (Sequestration combined with earlier budget cuts will result in a roughly 30 percent reduction in the military budget over the next decade.) And even much of the existing budget is being swallowed up by personnel and health-care costs with increasingly little left over for operations, training, or weapons procurement. That doesn’t add up.

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Too Soon to Call Sequester a Success

From the standpoint of a budget hawk like Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the budget sequestration process may indeed look like a success. “After President Obama’s first two years in office, many in Washington expected that number to hit $4 trillion by 2014,” Moore writes. “Instead, spending fell to $3.537 trillion in fiscal 2012, and is on pace to fall below $3.45 trillion by the end of this fiscal year (Sept. 30). The $150 billion budget decline of 4% is the first time federal expenditures have fallen for two consecutive years since the end of the Korean War.”

That is certainly good news, given the long-term threat to our international standing posed by runaway spending, even if there is cause to doubt how lasting the success of sequestration will be. As R. Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane write in the New York Times, “The C.B.O. still anticipates a 2015 deficit of $378 billion. And Uncle Sam is heading — and this is the best-case scenario — toward nearly a trillion dollars of red ink every year after 2023.”

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From the standpoint of a budget hawk like Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the budget sequestration process may indeed look like a success. “After President Obama’s first two years in office, many in Washington expected that number to hit $4 trillion by 2014,” Moore writes. “Instead, spending fell to $3.537 trillion in fiscal 2012, and is on pace to fall below $3.45 trillion by the end of this fiscal year (Sept. 30). The $150 billion budget decline of 4% is the first time federal expenditures have fallen for two consecutive years since the end of the Korean War.”

That is certainly good news, given the long-term threat to our international standing posed by runaway spending, even if there is cause to doubt how lasting the success of sequestration will be. As R. Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane write in the New York Times, “The C.B.O. still anticipates a 2015 deficit of $378 billion. And Uncle Sam is heading — and this is the best-case scenario — toward nearly a trillion dollars of red ink every year after 2023.”

More immediately, the danger from a military standpoint is that we are purchasing deficit reduction at the cost of a catastrophic loss of military capability and readiness. As Moore himself notes, “The defense budget is on a pace to hit its lowest level (as a share of GDP) since the days of the post-Cold War ‘peace dividend’ during the Clinton years.” He concedes that “these deep cutbacks could be dangerous to national security,” but he argues that “as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were winding down, defense would have been cut under any scenario.” Perhaps so, but there was nothing inevitable to dictate that cuts would be so deep–amounting to some $1 trillion over the next decade–or that they would be enacted so indiscriminately across the board.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave an overview of the unpalatable choices facing the Defense Department when he unveiled the results of a strategic review of spending. Even assuming a 20-percent reduction in headquarters overhead and a $50 billion reduction in military compensation–by no means easy to pull off–the armed forces will still have to cut a lot of muscle to achieve their budget targets.

Option 1 would be to cut the size of the existing armed forces dramatically to preserve investment in cutting-edge technologies. This would mean: “The active Army would drop to between 380,000 and 450,000 troops [from a peak of 570,000]. The number of Navy carrier strike groups would be reduced from a target of 11 to eight or nine. The Marine Corps would be reduced from 182,000 troops to between 150,000 and 175,000. And the Pentagon would retire older Air Force bombers.”

Option 2 would be to preserve more forces in being while cutting investments in “the Air Force’s new bomber, submarine cruise missile upgrades, the F-35 Lightning II, cyber capabilities and special operations forces.”

Either way, the U.S. will suffer a dangerous loss of military capability and hence influence in the world at the same time that the long-term danger from China and the short-term dangers from Iran and al-Qaeda are only growing. Ultimately, history teaches that decline of international security and stability will have parlous consequences for the American economy (see, for worst-case scenarios, the 1930s and 1970s), which will ultimately necessitate a large military buildup and make projected budget savings illusory. It makes more sense to keep in existence the top-notch American armed forces as they have been developed at great cost and effort since the last period of major cuts in the 1970s. But that would require repealing sequestration, which appears increasingly unlikely.

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Sequester Already Taking Toll on Military

The news media have, by and large, stopped writing about sequestration and Congress has stopped agitating about it. So it stands to reason that it’s not that big of a deal, right? Surely the doomsayers who predicted grave consequences from willy-nilly cutting $1 trillion from the budget over the next decade–including more than $500 billion in defense cuts–have been proven wrong. Not quite. In fact, sequestration is already taking a serious toll on our military readiness–and the impact is only going to get worse over time.

In the Wall Street Journal, retired Air Force general David Deptula warns:

In the Air Force alone, more than 30 squadrons are now grounded, along with aircrews, and maintenance and training personnel. The U.S. military’s foremost air-combat training exercise—Red Flag—has been canceled for the rest of the year. The graduate schools for Air Force, Navy and Marine combat aviators have been canceled. Equipment testing and upgrades to F-22s, F-15s, F-16s and other aircraft have been delayed.

And it’s not just the Air Force that is feeling the hit. In the Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius writes:

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The news media have, by and large, stopped writing about sequestration and Congress has stopped agitating about it. So it stands to reason that it’s not that big of a deal, right? Surely the doomsayers who predicted grave consequences from willy-nilly cutting $1 trillion from the budget over the next decade–including more than $500 billion in defense cuts–have been proven wrong. Not quite. In fact, sequestration is already taking a serious toll on our military readiness–and the impact is only going to get worse over time.

In the Wall Street Journal, retired Air Force general David Deptula warns:

In the Air Force alone, more than 30 squadrons are now grounded, along with aircrews, and maintenance and training personnel. The U.S. military’s foremost air-combat training exercise—Red Flag—has been canceled for the rest of the year. The graduate schools for Air Force, Navy and Marine combat aviators have been canceled. Equipment testing and upgrades to F-22s, F-15s, F-16s and other aircraft have been delayed.

And it’s not just the Air Force that is feeling the hit. In the Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius writes:

The Army is sharply cutting training above the basic squad and platoon level. All but one of the Combat Training Center rotations scheduled for brigades this fiscal year have been canceled. Depot maintenance has been halted for the rest of the fiscal year, meaning that six divisions won’t have the necessary equipment readiness. The Army will cut 37,000 flying hours from its aviation training, creating a shortfall of 500 pilots by the end of the fiscal year….

The Navy reports that by the end of this fiscal year, two-thirds of its non-deployed ships and aviation squadrons won’t meet readiness targets. The Navy has also delayed planned fleet deployments, including the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf and the frigate USS Thach to the South Atlantic. “In the near term, we will not be able to respond in the way the nation has expected and depended on us,” Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, told Congress in February.

All of these developments are highly worrisome for anyone who thinks–as I do–that U.S. military strength is the greatest force for peace in the world. Because sequestration is a relatively recent development it would not be hard to reverse the slide in readiness–now. But as the months and years go by, the lack of training for our fighting men and women will become harder and harder to reverse. We are, on the current trajectory, headed for a reprise of the “hollow” military of the 1970s.

That period of military weakness was an invitation to Communist aggression from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. Communism is no longer a mortal danger to the United States, but Islamism is. We can only wait and worry to see how today’s looming weakness will invite aggression from our current enemies.

It is high time that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior officers spoke out more vocally about the self-inflicted destruction the forces under their command are now experiencing. There have been a few warnings from the brass–for instance the statement quoted above from Admiral Greenert–but, on the whole, they have been all too silent in the face of looming disaster, presumably because they have been muzzled by a White House that is de facto committed to not repealing sequestration unless Republicans agree to massive tax hikes.

The admirals and generals have a legal and moral duty to speak the truth, and to warn us about the degradation of the combat forces they lead. They must make clear to lawmakers and the public that it is not too late to stop this disaster, but time is running out.

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The U.S. Army’s Readiness Crisis

No one is seriously proposing sending large numbers of U.S. ground forces to Syria (military options are generally limited to the use of airpower and the provision of arms and training to the rebels), but it’s still dismaying to hear General Ray Odierno, the army chief of staff, warn that we will soon lose the ability to send troops even if the president wanted to. Odierno just told reporters, as quoted by Foreign Policy:

“Readiness is OK right now, but it’s degrading significantly because our training is reducing. So, the next three, four months, we probably have the capability to do it,” he said, of a Syrian incursion. “Next year, it becomes a little bit more risky.”

“If you ask me today, we have forces that can go. I think it will change over time because the longer we go cancelling training and reducing our training, the readiness levels go down.”

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No one is seriously proposing sending large numbers of U.S. ground forces to Syria (military options are generally limited to the use of airpower and the provision of arms and training to the rebels), but it’s still dismaying to hear General Ray Odierno, the army chief of staff, warn that we will soon lose the ability to send troops even if the president wanted to. Odierno just told reporters, as quoted by Foreign Policy:

“Readiness is OK right now, but it’s degrading significantly because our training is reducing. So, the next three, four months, we probably have the capability to do it,” he said, of a Syrian incursion. “Next year, it becomes a little bit more risky.”

“If you ask me today, we have forces that can go. I think it will change over time because the longer we go cancelling training and reducing our training, the readiness levels go down.”

The culprit, of course, is sequestration—the mindless cuts, amounting to some $500 billion over the next decade, which have gone into effect this year and which Congress refuses to repeal. Sequestration has already caused the cancellation of numerous training exercises and deployments which are needed to keep the armed forces fresh for the challenge of combat. The cost isn’t obvious to civilians—and it won’t be unless troops are sent unprepared into harm’s way or, more subtly, if their lack of readiness forecloses the option of sending troops when needed. Ironically, this much-publicized readiness crisis is no doubt hampering our ability to deter actual or potential foes, and thus making more likely the need to deploy troops on missions for which they are unready.

Just because sequestration is no longer front-page news doesn’t mean it’s not having an impact—it is, and that impact, as Odierno warned, will grow worse over time. If Congress waits too long to act, it may take years to restore readiness back to existing levels. Given how dangerous the world is (think just of North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, and Syria), that is time we don’t have.

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Will Furloughs Decimate Military Academies?

The U.S. military runs five service academies and a number of graduate institutions, for example the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis; West Point; the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; the Navy War College in Newport, Rhode Island; the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California (full disclosure: where I am affiliated); and the U.S. Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, among others.

These universities provide educations as good as, if not better than, top-notch private colleges and universities. To do so, they rely on a combination of faculty drawn from both the military and civilian world. Enter sequestration: The Defense Department will soon order its civilian personnel to take a 14-day furlough, effectively taking one day off a week without pay for three months. This applies not only to the often idle administrative staff at the Pentagon where, admittedly, a lot of fat exists, but also among teaching faculty at the universities. (Full disclosure: I’m not full-time at the Naval Postgraduate School, “furlough days” will not impact me, and so this is not self-serving).

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The U.S. military runs five service academies and a number of graduate institutions, for example the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis; West Point; the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; the Navy War College in Newport, Rhode Island; the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California (full disclosure: where I am affiliated); and the U.S. Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, among others.

These universities provide educations as good as, if not better than, top-notch private colleges and universities. To do so, they rely on a combination of faculty drawn from both the military and civilian world. Enter sequestration: The Defense Department will soon order its civilian personnel to take a 14-day furlough, effectively taking one day off a week without pay for three months. This applies not only to the often idle administrative staff at the Pentagon where, admittedly, a lot of fat exists, but also among teaching faculty at the universities. (Full disclosure: I’m not full-time at the Naval Postgraduate School, “furlough days” will not impact me, and so this is not self-serving).

When the furlough days come, professors who teach certain courses will be forced to stay home. According to colleagues at several of these military universities and institutions, some administrators have suggested that their course on that one day per week simply be taken over by a uniformed serviceman not subject to furlough. But while the Army and Marines embrace an attitude of one-size fits all and that PowerPoint slides can supplant critical thinking, dispensing with expertise will have a negative impact on pedagogy.

Compounding the problem will be the impact of sequestration and perhaps layoffs on tenure. Personally, I oppose tenure as the last vestige of the medieval guild system and as an institution which now does more to quash free speech than promote it, as tenured professors do not hesitate to retaliate against their non-tenured associates for heterodox thinking. But, when the Defense Department unilaterally warns professors that it does not respect tenure absent broader reform, then it is reasonable to assume that many professors will flee U.S. military universities for better security elsewhere.

Combine this together, and President Obama, congressional leaders, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are really playing with fire: it is quite possible that once top-notch military universities and post-graduate institutions will have difficulty in their next round of accreditation.

Cuts should be made—military institutions, especially post-graduate ones, might be combined or consolidated. But the across-the-board expenditure cuts and furloughs risk gutting a system that is, at present, a crown jewel of American education.

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The GOP Begins to Find Its Groove

It’s been clear for some time that President Obama’s strategy on sequestration cuts–to speak as if they would unleash the seven plagues from the book of Revelations and, when that didn’t occur, attempt to magnify pain on the American people–has been a failure. The latest evidence of this was late last week when President Obama and congressional Democrats jettisoned their position that they would resolve the issue of furloughed air traffic controllers only in the context of a broader agreement to end all the sequestration cuts.

The House, by a margin of 361-to-41, approved a deal to give the secretary of transportation the financial flexibility to shift hundreds of millions of dollars to the air traffic control system–flexibility that Republicans have insisted on and Mr. Obama originally refused. (The House vote came after the Senate acted.)

Originally, the president and Democrats said they would only replace the sequester cuts with tax increases. They are now, slowly and against their will, embracing the GOP approach of applying cuts in a reasonable and prioritized way. Read More

It’s been clear for some time that President Obama’s strategy on sequestration cuts–to speak as if they would unleash the seven plagues from the book of Revelations and, when that didn’t occur, attempt to magnify pain on the American people–has been a failure. The latest evidence of this was late last week when President Obama and congressional Democrats jettisoned their position that they would resolve the issue of furloughed air traffic controllers only in the context of a broader agreement to end all the sequestration cuts.

The House, by a margin of 361-to-41, approved a deal to give the secretary of transportation the financial flexibility to shift hundreds of millions of dollars to the air traffic control system–flexibility that Republicans have insisted on and Mr. Obama originally refused. (The House vote came after the Senate acted.)

Originally, the president and Democrats said they would only replace the sequester cuts with tax increases. They are now, slowly and against their will, embracing the GOP approach of applying cuts in a reasonable and prioritized way.This development is a vindication for those who argued earlier this year that Republicans should avoid a showdown on raising the debt ceiling, which the GOP would almost certainly have lost, in order to move toward the much stronger ground of sequestration cuts. Republicans have made other wise tactical decisions as well, from Speaker of the House John Boehner insisting that the Senate take up President Obama’s gun control measures first (where those measures died) to Senate Republicans avoiding an ill-considered filibuster on background checks led by Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul.

Republicans have a long way to go before their party is where it needs to be. But this year they have mostly made the right decisions in the right order. They’ve demonstrated patience and prudently picked their battles. And they now head into May in a stronger position than they were and with the president on the defensive, with many parts of his second-term agenda crippled and with public approval for the Affordable Care Act now down to 35 percent.

It’s too early for Republicans to say happy days are here again. But the worst days may have passed, even as the storm clouds for the president seem to be gathering.

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Airline Sequester Fix Exposes Dem Hysteria

Our long national nightmare is finally over. After a week of experiencing some delays at many major airports, Congress acted in the last 24 hours and passed a bill that will allow the Federal Aviation Agency to bring back air controllers from the furloughs that were forced upon them by the budget sequester. The legislation gives the secretary of transportation the ability to manage the ample funds left to the FAA to perform essential services. Of course, that is exactly what Republicans have been asking their Democratic congressional colleagues and the White House to do for the entire federal government since the sequester went into effect. Since it would mitigate the effects of the sequester and end any talk of a budget deal that would raise taxes, the president and his party have refused to consider any such commonsense measure. But the idea of forcing their constituents to stand in line at security checks at airports was too terrible to contemplate, and the Democrats finally gave in after a week on this one point.

This episode demonstrates two basic facts about the entire sequester controversy.

One is that the pain being inflicted on some people as a result of across-the-board, rather than targeted, cuts is entirely unnecessary and can almost immediately be remedied by the Democrats getting down off their high horses and agreeing to GOP demands to extend the same courtesy granted the FAA to the rest of the government.

The second is that the white flag the Democrats quickly ran up on the FAA furloughs illustrates they know they’ve failed to convince the country to pressure Republicans to give in on tax increases in order to create a grand budget deal.

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Our long national nightmare is finally over. After a week of experiencing some delays at many major airports, Congress acted in the last 24 hours and passed a bill that will allow the Federal Aviation Agency to bring back air controllers from the furloughs that were forced upon them by the budget sequester. The legislation gives the secretary of transportation the ability to manage the ample funds left to the FAA to perform essential services. Of course, that is exactly what Republicans have been asking their Democratic congressional colleagues and the White House to do for the entire federal government since the sequester went into effect. Since it would mitigate the effects of the sequester and end any talk of a budget deal that would raise taxes, the president and his party have refused to consider any such commonsense measure. But the idea of forcing their constituents to stand in line at security checks at airports was too terrible to contemplate, and the Democrats finally gave in after a week on this one point.

This episode demonstrates two basic facts about the entire sequester controversy.

One is that the pain being inflicted on some people as a result of across-the-board, rather than targeted, cuts is entirely unnecessary and can almost immediately be remedied by the Democrats getting down off their high horses and agreeing to GOP demands to extend the same courtesy granted the FAA to the rest of the government.

The second is that the white flag the Democrats quickly ran up on the FAA furloughs illustrates they know they’ve failed to convince the country to pressure Republicans to give in on tax increases in order to create a grand budget deal.

It should be conceded that the sequester is a stupid idea and one that the White House—which suggested it in the first place and resisted efforts to lessen its effects until now—is right when it says that it should never have been put into effect. As our Max Boot has written many times, its effect on the U.S. military is especially unfortunate and Congress should have acted to exempt the Pentagon from it months ago.

But if most of the public isn’t exactly up in arms about the sequester, as President Obama expected they would be, it also shows they understand that a bloated federal budget needed trimming. The sequester cuts are a mere drop in the bucket attempting to bail out the ocean of government debt. But as some conservative Republicans who have learned to love the sequester are pointing out, it was the only way anyone has found to make actual cuts—rather than reductions in the amount of increase in spending—in recent memory.

The point is every federal agency, including the military, could, if allowed the flexibility given the FAA, reduce expenditures without compromising their ability to perform the basic functions the public expects it to handle. As Rich Lowry pointed out in his latest Politico column the FAA holdup was entirely unnecessary:

The head of the FAA, Michael Huerta, says he has no choice but to disrupt the nation’s aviation in implementing the sequestration. He has to find $600 million in cuts in an agency with a $15 billion budget within a Transportation Department with a $70 billion budget. Only 15,000 of the FAA’s 47,000 employees are air traffic controllers. Yet he is furloughing controllers such that on Monday more than 1,000 flights were delayed. …

The FAA should be able to manage with a little less. Its operations budget has doubled since 1996. The agency got along just fine in 2007, even though it had fewer controllers than today and less money, while handling more air traffic. Even with sequestration, the FAA overall has slightly more funding than under President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request.

Democrats have been trying to sell the country on the idea that the sequester is an evil that was mandated by the takeover of the House of Representatives by a group of Tea Party extremists. But rather than storming Congress to force them to bow to the president’s demands for more taxes in a grand budget deal, the public has yawned. Whatever they think of Republicans, most people think forcing the government to make do on less—as they have been forced to do in hard economic times—is a good idea. Rather than hurting the GOP, the sequester has helped it.

If the president was counting on the budget helping him lay the groundwork for a Democratic takeover of Congress in 2014, he was mistaken. The hysteria they’ve tried to feed on this issue has fizzled. It’s time for him to acknowledge that error and start negotiating with Congress rather than trying to dictate to it.

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The State of British Counterinsurgency–and its Lesson for the U.S.

From the 1950s to the 1990s–from the Malayan Emergency to the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland–British troops developed a reputation as the foremost counterinsurgency experts in the world. Iraq and Afghanistan have been the undoing of their reputation.

In Iraq, British troops allowed Basra to become taken over by Shiite extremists and criminals. They hunkered down in an airbase outside the city even as extremists rained rockets and mortars down upon them. Order was not restored until Prime Minister Maliki ordered an Iraqi assault, Operation Charge of the Knights, in 2008, which received some much-needed, last-minute American help.

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From the 1950s to the 1990s–from the Malayan Emergency to the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland–British troops developed a reputation as the foremost counterinsurgency experts in the world. Iraq and Afghanistan have been the undoing of their reputation.

In Iraq, British troops allowed Basra to become taken over by Shiite extremists and criminals. They hunkered down in an airbase outside the city even as extremists rained rockets and mortars down upon them. Order was not restored until Prime Minister Maliki ordered an Iraqi assault, Operation Charge of the Knights, in 2008, which received some much-needed, last-minute American help.

In Afghanistan, British forces similarly allowed Helmand Province, once their exclusive preserve, to become a Taliban stronghold. The Taliban were not driven back until U.S. Marines entered Helmand in strength in 2009.

The latest embarrassment for the British was the Taliban attack last fall on their airbase in Helmand, Camp Bastion: an assault squad managed to blow up six Marine Harrier jump jets on the ground and kill two marines, including the squadron commander.

Now the Washington Post reveals that the attack was made possible because the British had turned over perimeter security to a small contingent of troops from Tonga who had left key watchtowers unmanned. Meanwhile the Marines, who had done vigorous patrolling around Bastion (which adjoins their own base, Camp Leatherneck), had scaled back their presence in the vicinity because of a larger troop drawdown, which put combat troops at a premium.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation in the Post account is this: “No U.S. or British military personnel have been reprimanded as a result of the attack. The Marine Corps does not plan to release its review. NATO also intends to keep its investigation confidential, in part to avoid embarrassing the British for leaving towers unmanned, according to officers briefed on the findings.” In other words, there is no accountability for this gross negligence.

In fairness, British troops remain of high quality and the British army remains one of the most professional in the world. But Britain’s military has been badly hurt by crippling and continuing budget cuts and by a lack of support on the home front for their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both of these factors have led British commanders to take the most cautious approach possible toward the employment of their forces, trying to limit casualties even at the expense of allowing the enemy to make gains. That is a sad fate for what was once the world’s premier “small wars” force–and a warning of where the U.S. armed forces could end up as our own budget cuts and manpower reductions continue unabated.

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Air Force Hit Hard by Sequester

Sequestration isn’t much in the news anymore, as hopes of repealing the cuts have faded. Instead, Congress passed legislation that gives the Defense Department some more discretion in allocating the cuts, which amount to more than $40 billion in this fiscal year alone. Perhaps, you figure, that means that the issue has been dealt with and we don’t have worry about the impact of sequestration on our armed forces.

Actually, the relief provided by Congress has been minimal. The operations and maintenance budget must still take a significant cut and that means that the armed services unfortunately are being forced to trim back their readiness to respond to national security threats. The severity of these cuts is made clear by the Air Force’s announcement, which has not received the attention it deserves, that roughly a third of all combat aircraft are being grounded because of budget woes.

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Sequestration isn’t much in the news anymore, as hopes of repealing the cuts have faded. Instead, Congress passed legislation that gives the Defense Department some more discretion in allocating the cuts, which amount to more than $40 billion in this fiscal year alone. Perhaps, you figure, that means that the issue has been dealt with and we don’t have worry about the impact of sequestration on our armed forces.

Actually, the relief provided by Congress has been minimal. The operations and maintenance budget must still take a significant cut and that means that the armed services unfortunately are being forced to trim back their readiness to respond to national security threats. The severity of these cuts is made clear by the Air Force’s announcement, which has not received the attention it deserves, that roughly a third of all combat aircraft are being grounded because of budget woes.

As Stars and Stripes notes: “The Air Force’s budget for flying hours was reduced by $591 million for the remainder of fiscal 2013, which makes it impossible to keep all squadrons ready for combat.” Even those aircraft that are kept operational will have reduced flying time, which means that their pilots will be less prepared for combat.

This is a particularly wretched time for such an announcement given the increased tensions on the Korean peninsula. But, frankly, there is never a good time to let our guard down–there are always hot spots that the U.S. armed forces must be prepared to deal with and if they display a lack of readiness, that is an invitation to aggression for our enemies. Let’s just hope that Kim Jong-un doesn’t read Stars and Stripes.

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When the Crisis Comes, Will the Navy Be Ready?

I have just returned from three weeks both at Norfolk and crossing the Atlantic while teaching aboard a couple U.S. naval vessels. Concern over sequestration, not surprisingly, is looming large among the sailors and marines I met on-board.

Most of the sailors had friends and colleagues on the deferred USS Harry S. Truman deployment, cancelled with only about a day’s notice back in February. Anger at the Navy was palpable, as almost everyone believed that the Pentagon had been using the Truman’s crew to play a political game. There were numerous stories not only about how sailors had let the leases expire on apartments and sold cars and sent children to live with relatives, but also about how many had literally given away the family dog ahead of the expected nine-month deployment. The cost of sequestration isn’t simply human, however.

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I have just returned from three weeks both at Norfolk and crossing the Atlantic while teaching aboard a couple U.S. naval vessels. Concern over sequestration, not surprisingly, is looming large among the sailors and marines I met on-board.

Most of the sailors had friends and colleagues on the deferred USS Harry S. Truman deployment, cancelled with only about a day’s notice back in February. Anger at the Navy was palpable, as almost everyone believed that the Pentagon had been using the Truman’s crew to play a political game. There were numerous stories not only about how sailors had let the leases expire on apartments and sold cars and sent children to live with relatives, but also about how many had literally given away the family dog ahead of the expected nine-month deployment. The cost of sequestration isn’t simply human, however.

The vessel I was on had been delayed repeatedly by repairs and was not in top condition. U.S. Marines putting themselves in harm’s way deserve better than open sewage pipes in their restrooms, or dysfunctional drink machines in the mess. Nor should they have to worry about water rationing because of water plant shutdowns, closing the gym, showers, and draining water from the sinks. The impact sequestration will have on the Navy, some senior officers warned in the mess, will be felt most not this year but in the very near future. Deferred maintenance—some ships funded at only 15 percent, if not less—mean effectively that those ships will be lost: the cost of fixing chronic problems will only increase. Worse, however, is the risk that those ships whose operations are funded will be run into the ground without the budget for maintenance to prevent catastrophic failures.

Congressmen posturing as supportive of the Navy are only making matters worse by constraining them. When the Navy seeks to scrap or sell some ships, congressmen afraid of declining ship numbers mandate that the Navy must keep them instead, but do not provide the money for their basic upkeep or function, making the overall strains worse.

North Korea is already testing the United States, and Iran’s leadership is also overconfident. The danger is not that the United States will become embroiled in a proactive war, but rather that our adversaries’ miscalculations could involve us in a reactive one. Let us hope that the commander-in-chief and Congress do not assume that the Navy will be ready or that the United States will always be able to project its power. Aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships are maintenance heavy and take constant investment. At the best of times, perhaps half of them were ready at any time. In five years, I doubt one-quarter of them will be.

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Prudence and Republican Vindication

It looks as if the sequestration drama is taking a toll on the president. In two recent polls (see here and here) his approval ratings have dipped into the 40s. In addition, a CBS News poll shows that on the matter of sequestration 38 percent of Americans place more blame on the Republicans in Congress, while 33 percent blame President Obama and the Democrats in Congress more for the difficulty in reaching agreement on spending cuts. (Among independents, 33 percent blame Republicans, 31 percent blame Obama.) This is hardly the tidal wave of opposition to the GOP that Democrats were counting on.

In addition, a story in Politico highlights Democratic concerns with how Obama has dealt with sequestration. “I think they probably went over the top in terms of saying that the consequences were going to be horrible, especially because it’s happened and the lines in the airports aren’t long, the world hasn’t changed overnight,” former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell said. He added, “it probably wasn’t the best strategic path for the White House to follow.”

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It looks as if the sequestration drama is taking a toll on the president. In two recent polls (see here and here) his approval ratings have dipped into the 40s. In addition, a CBS News poll shows that on the matter of sequestration 38 percent of Americans place more blame on the Republicans in Congress, while 33 percent blame President Obama and the Democrats in Congress more for the difficulty in reaching agreement on spending cuts. (Among independents, 33 percent blame Republicans, 31 percent blame Obama.) This is hardly the tidal wave of opposition to the GOP that Democrats were counting on.

In addition, a story in Politico highlights Democratic concerns with how Obama has dealt with sequestration. “I think they probably went over the top in terms of saying that the consequences were going to be horrible, especially because it’s happened and the lines in the airports aren’t long, the world hasn’t changed overnight,” former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell said. He added, “it probably wasn’t the best strategic path for the White House to follow.”

Indeed. The various acts of the sequestration drama include the president misleading Americans about whose idea sequestration was (Act I),; predicting consequences from sequestration that rivaled the most vivid verses in the Book of Revelations (Act II); backing away from his apocalyptic warnings once the cuts were set to go into effect (Act III) even as he tries to inflict maximize pain on the American people in hopes that they will turn on his opposition (Act IV).

The public doesn’t seem to be particularly enchanted with the Obama modus vivendi.

All of this seems to vindicate, I think, those of us who urged Republicans to veer away from a showdown with Obama over the debt ceiling in order to confront him on sequestration.

As I told Townhall’s Guy Benson during an interview in mid-January, as Republicans were engaged in the debt ceiling debate:

I just think that unfortunately the sequencing is very bad. We’ve got the debt ceiling debate before the continuing resolution and sequestration. Those things are going to come; that’s much stronger ground for Republicans to make the argument… If you’re going to make that fight, you’ve got to — the term of art is you have to be willing to shoot the hostage. Republicans won’t do it on the debt ceiling issue. I don’t think that they should. But if you got to, say, sequestration, I do think that Republicans have a much stronger hand because the Obama administration and the president himself don’t want sequestration. And the Republicans do.

To their credit, Speaker Boehner and Representative Paul Ryan convinced House Republicans to avoid a fight on the debt ceiling in favor of one on sequestration. This was the exercise of a supreme political virtue, prudence. It showed the capacity to pick battles with care and discretion. It’s true that some on the right were urging Republicans to go to the mat on the debt ceiling issue, which would have been a disaster, but fortunately cooler and wiser heads prevailed.

Republicans are still in a weakened state. But the situation would be far worse if they had not avoided the fiscal version of Pickett’s Charge. 

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Military Needs Flexibility in Spending Cuts

Numerous conservatives, including Jonathan, are understandably voicing suspicions that the armed forces are pursuing a “Washington Monument” strategy toward sequestration—in other words deliberately making the most painful cuts possible (such as cancelling a carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf and grounding air wings) so as to increase public support for a repeal of sequestration. As evidence, they can point to numerous examples of wasteful Pentagon spending that, in a more perfect world, should be cancelled before operational readiness is hurt. But the problem with sequestration is that the Pentagon doesn’t have flexibility in applying $46 billion in cuts that have to be implemented by the end of September—it is an automatic process that cuts necessary and not-so-necessary spending alike.

The problem is compounded because Congress has not yet passed a defense budget for 2013; the Department of Defense is forced to operate under a continuing resolution that only provides funding at the 2012 level even though some costs (such as transporting supplies across Pakistan) have spiked. One of the few accounts that are protected is the one for military payroll and benefits—those are safe. But that means that even more must come out of unprotected accounts including the most important one of all—“Operations and Maintenance,” which pays for ongoing military operations.

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Numerous conservatives, including Jonathan, are understandably voicing suspicions that the armed forces are pursuing a “Washington Monument” strategy toward sequestration—in other words deliberately making the most painful cuts possible (such as cancelling a carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf and grounding air wings) so as to increase public support for a repeal of sequestration. As evidence, they can point to numerous examples of wasteful Pentagon spending that, in a more perfect world, should be cancelled before operational readiness is hurt. But the problem with sequestration is that the Pentagon doesn’t have flexibility in applying $46 billion in cuts that have to be implemented by the end of September—it is an automatic process that cuts necessary and not-so-necessary spending alike.

The problem is compounded because Congress has not yet passed a defense budget for 2013; the Department of Defense is forced to operate under a continuing resolution that only provides funding at the 2012 level even though some costs (such as transporting supplies across Pakistan) have spiked. One of the few accounts that are protected is the one for military payroll and benefits—those are safe. But that means that even more must come out of unprotected accounts including the most important one of all—“Operations and Maintenance,” which pays for ongoing military operations.

As Defense News notes: “The Pentagon is expecting a $35 billion shortfall in operations and maintenance (O&M) funding in 2013 should billions of dollars in defense spending reductions and other budget restrictions remain in place for the rest of the fiscal year.” The article goes on to note that “the Army is in the worst shape of all the services, short about 80 percent in O&M accounts,” which is why the army is canceling training for all units not deploying to Afghanistan or South Korea.

Congressional Republicans have tried to provide some relief to the Pentagon by proposing legislation that would give the department more discretion in allocating the cuts. But that has been stymied by President Obama and Senate Democrats, who are apparently pursuing a strategy of maximizing the pain in order to force a repeal of sequestration. House Republicans are now trying anew with a fresh funding plan that increases operations and maintenance funding.

It is fair enough, then, to criticize the president for exacerbating the current crisis—but the fault doesn’t lie with our military leaders who are trying to make the best of a very bad situation.

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The White House’s Self-Destructive Cynics

The Obama administration’s promise to make the country’s work force suffer as much as possible for their representatives’ inability to stop the sequester—which was Obama’s idea—seems to mean more work for at least one sector of the American economy: fact-checkers. They are overworked trying to keep up with the task of debunking the White House’s embarrassing parade of false talking points and misrepresentations about the effects of the budget cuts included in the sequester.

Because this legion of fact-checkers are really just opinion bloggers, the White House doesn’t have too much to lose from subjective statements that are open to interpretation—which the fact-checkers inexplicably often “fact check” despite the absurdity of it. But the administration has stumbled in offering verifiably false statistics, which removes the protective layer of interpretation revealing an obvious attempt to mislead the public. Today Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post seems almost agitated at the Obama administration’s antics:

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The Obama administration’s promise to make the country’s work force suffer as much as possible for their representatives’ inability to stop the sequester—which was Obama’s idea—seems to mean more work for at least one sector of the American economy: fact-checkers. They are overworked trying to keep up with the task of debunking the White House’s embarrassing parade of false talking points and misrepresentations about the effects of the budget cuts included in the sequester.

Because this legion of fact-checkers are really just opinion bloggers, the White House doesn’t have too much to lose from subjective statements that are open to interpretation—which the fact-checkers inexplicably often “fact check” despite the absurdity of it. But the administration has stumbled in offering verifiably false statistics, which removes the protective layer of interpretation revealing an obvious attempt to mislead the public. Today Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post seems almost agitated at the Obama administration’s antics:

At a news conference last Friday, President Obama claimed that, “starting tomorrow,” the “folks cleaning the floors at the Capitol” had “just got a pay cut” because of the automatic federal spending cuts known as the sequester.

The president very quickly earned Four Pinocchios for that statement, especially after senior officials at the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), the federal agency that employ janitors on the House side, and the office of the Sergeant at Arms (SAA), which employs janitors on the Senate side, issued statements saying the president’s comments were not true.

Still, the White House has kept up its spin offensive, claiming that a cut in “overtime” was a de facto pay cut and thus the president was right — or at least not wrong.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this new claim also received four pinnochios. Why is the White House making stuff up? Democrats are starting to complain to the media that it’s because the petty yes-men the president famously surrounds himself with are essentially political pranksters who are a bit removed from reality. As Politico reports:

The stakes in the sequester debate aren’t quite as high as they were during the debt ceiling battle of 2011, but Democratic veterans of the Obama-Republican wars of 2009 and 2010 are getting a creepy sense of déjà vu from a White House messaging shop they believe fumbled the rollouts of the stimulus and health care initiatives….

One top Democratic Congressional aide offered this bit of advice to Obama: “Don’t accentuate a fight you don’t intend to wage [and] can’t win. … They spent two weeks building up sequester as a horror show and then got fact-checked a dozen times and were forced to back off their own claims of it being a disaster once they were forced to acquiesce to the cuts happening.”

Though Democrats in 2008 valiantly attempted to establish Obama as a thoughtful intellectual, what quickly became clear was that the president was inexperienced and inflexible and obsessively focused on the daily political skirmishes in the press instead of long-term policy wisdom. It is the Twitter presidency for the Twitter age.

This comes through forcefully in Vali Nasr’s much-talked about piece for Foreign Policy in which he recounts his time as an advisor to the administration as having a front-row seat to disaster. It should be noted that Nasr was brought on by the late Richard Holbrooke who was frozen out by Obama, and thus Nasr’s perspective is sympathetic to Holbrooke (and to Hillary Clinton).

But Nasr is also sympathetic to Obama’s stated policy goals, and joined the administration hopeful. He soon became disillusioned by the discovery that long-term policy objectives were utterly meaningless to Obama and his staff, who spent much of their time settling scores. Nasr acknowledges that such behavior is a fact of life in Washington, and he is credulous of Holbrooke’s general perspective. But he knocks Obama for advertising himself as a different kind of candidate who would be a different kind of president:

Not only did that not happen, but the president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans. The Obama administration’s reputation for competence on foreign policy has less to do with its accomplishments in Afghanistan or the Middle East than with how U.S. actions in that region have been reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns.

The Politico story shows that while Nasr may have had his own loyalties in the Obama administration turf wars, his view of how policy is shaped in the Obama White House is widely shared. One of the reasons the president makes such a terrible negotiator is that he doesn’t seem to seriously think through the issues on which he is negotiating. It is more important to him that that he not give his opponents any semblance of a policy victory than it is to solve the problem. This is the way the president and his supporters accuse Republicans of approaching every negotiation, and no wonder—they assume their own bitterness and cynicism is widely shared. We should be thankful they’re wrong about that.

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Barack Obama’s Defective Public Character

Sequestration, for all its problems–and I consider it to be an abdication of responsible governance–is helpful at least to this extent: it captures, in a single, still-unfolding act the problematic character of the president.

To understand why, let’s update our effort to follow the bouncing Obama ball. Here’s some of what we know.

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Sequestration, for all its problems–and I consider it to be an abdication of responsible governance–is helpful at least to this extent: it captures, in a single, still-unfolding act the problematic character of the president.

To understand why, let’s update our effort to follow the bouncing Obama ball. Here’s some of what we know.

(a) The president and his administration are responsible for the sequestration idea. (b) Before that fact became widely known, Mr. Obama misled Americans of that fact in a debate with Mitt Romney–and his aides did the same thing in the aftermath of the debate. (c) Thanks to Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics, the White House has now been forced to admit that, as top White House adviser Gene Sperling put it on Sunday, “Yes, we put forward the design of how to do that [implement sequestration].” (d) Over the last several weeks, the president vilified sequestration as a brutal, savage, and inhumane idea. (e) At a press conference last Friday, when sequestration cuts began and the world as we know it did not end, the president began to moonwalk away from his scorching rhetoric, saying, “Just to make the final point about the sequester, we will get through this. This is not going to be an apocalypse, I think, as some people have said.” (f) Since the sequestration idea was first signed into law by President Obama in 2011, House Republicans have twice passed legislation to make the cuts more reasonable–and Democrats have refused to act on it. (g) In the last week, Republicans have tried to give the president greater authority to make more reasonable cuts–but he has refused it, allowing unnecessary pain to be inflicted on Americans in order to blame Republicans.

To summarize, then: The president has spoken in the harshest possible terms about an idea he and his White House originated and signed into law. He has used apocalyptic language leading up to the sequestration–and then, as the sequestration cuts began, lectured us that “this is not going to be an apocalypse” as “some people have said.” And Mr. Obama has warned about the devastating nature of the cuts even as he has opposed efforts to make the cuts less devastating.

That’s quite a hat trick.

Will the president pay a political price for this fairly remarkable (and empirically demonstrable) record of dishonesty, inconsistency, and hypocrisy, to say nothing of inflicting unnecessary pain on the country he was elected to serve? I would think so, but I really don’t know.

What I do know is that the sequestration fight has once again shown us that Barack Obama has a defective public character and a post-modern attitude toward truth. He simply makes things up as he goes along. It looks to me that there are few things he will not do, and fewer things he will not say, in order to undermine his opponents and advance his progressive cause. That is something that is deeply injurious to American politics and America itself.

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