Commentary Magazine


Topic: sequestration

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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Sequestration Impact on Military Isn’t “Synthetic Hysteria”

Washington pundits–especially of the conservative stripe–continue to insist, as George Will wrote in a recent column, that all the talk of the disastrous impact of sequestration is “synthetic hysteria.” If only.

Actually, we are already seeing severe consequences for our military readiness even though the full brunt of the cuts has not yet taken effect–many will not be implemented for another month or more. But already the Navy has announced that in addition to canceling the deployment of the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group to the Persian Gulf (which Will denounced, based on no actual evidence, as part of a “crude, obvious and shameful” campaign by the Navy “to pressure Congress into unraveling the sequester”), it will have to cancel eight other ship movements and ground four air wings.

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Washington pundits–especially of the conservative stripe–continue to insist, as George Will wrote in a recent column, that all the talk of the disastrous impact of sequestration is “synthetic hysteria.” If only.

Actually, we are already seeing severe consequences for our military readiness even though the full brunt of the cuts has not yet taken effect–many will not be implemented for another month or more. But already the Navy has announced that in addition to canceling the deployment of the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group to the Persian Gulf (which Will denounced, based on no actual evidence, as part of a “crude, obvious and shameful” campaign by the Navy “to pressure Congress into unraveling the sequester”), it will have to cancel eight other ship movements and ground four air wings.

Two more air wings will be operating at minimum safe flying levels–i.e., flying fewer hours than judged necessary to maintain a high state of warfighting readiness. Military Times reports: “Basic flight training for pilot and flight officer trainees will halt in March.” Since the Navy only has nine active carrier air wings, this means that it has effectively lost nearly half of its aerial strike power.

There is still time to restore the combat effectiveness of the Navy and the other services, but that will require a recognition on the part of both Republicans and Democrats that a crisis is at hand. At the moment, however, most of the power brokers in Washington appear to be in denial mode, which means that our armed forces will pay a heavy price for partisan gridlock.

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Privatize Airport Security

Rather than use sequestration to trim waste, the Obama administration has viewed the deadline—and the Republican desire to curtail spending—as an assault on big government. If it’s a choice between defending big government and hurting the individual, President Obama appears much more inclined to punish the individual, hoping that a backlash against government-instigated inconvenience will lead Republicans to cave.

Nowhere is this attitude on greater display than with regard to airport security. Transportation Security Administration procedures at airports have been controversial for some time, and their effectiveness up for debate. There’s no need to rehash those news stories here. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Transportation Secretary Raymond LaHood, and other officials have warned darkly of the time needed to clear security checkpoint and customs lines doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling. Jonathan Tobin has covered the fear-mongering well.

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Rather than use sequestration to trim waste, the Obama administration has viewed the deadline—and the Republican desire to curtail spending—as an assault on big government. If it’s a choice between defending big government and hurting the individual, President Obama appears much more inclined to punish the individual, hoping that a backlash against government-instigated inconvenience will lead Republicans to cave.

Nowhere is this attitude on greater display than with regard to airport security. Transportation Security Administration procedures at airports have been controversial for some time, and their effectiveness up for debate. There’s no need to rehash those news stories here. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Transportation Secretary Raymond LaHood, and other officials have warned darkly of the time needed to clear security checkpoint and customs lines doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling. Jonathan Tobin has covered the fear-mongering well.

Lost in the headlines, however, has been the desire of several airports even prior to sequestration to drop the TSA and instead contract out for their own security. The government may be playing chicken, with ordinary people the victims, but sequestration should also renew the drive to enable the private sector to replace government bureaucracy. Endless airport lines under sequestration are not about security, they are about the inability of a government agency to do its job with its available means. In the real world, if a business fails to provide a promised service, its contract becomes void. Rather than cave once against to those who would embrace big government, perhaps it’s time to call Obama and Napolitano’s bluff, send the TSA pink slips, and let airlines and airports handle the security task themselves.

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Obama’s Abusive Staff

There’s been a lot of attention to the battle between the White House and Bob Woodward, but this article by National Journal’s Ron Fournier, on the toxic relationship he has with some high-ranking White House sources, is also worth reading.

Last week Fournier sent out a tweet that angered the White House. Here’s what happened next:

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There’s been a lot of attention to the battle between the White House and Bob Woodward, but this article by National Journal’s Ron Fournier, on the toxic relationship he has with some high-ranking White House sources, is also worth reading.

Last week Fournier sent out a tweet that angered the White House. Here’s what happened next:

The official angered by my Woodward tweet sent me an indignant e-mail. “What’s next, a Nazi analogy?” the official wrote, chastising me for spreading “bull**** like that” I was not offended by the note, mild in comparison to past exchanges with this official. But it was the last straw in a relationship that had deteriorated.

As editor-in-chief of National Journal, I received several e-mails and telephone calls from this White House official filled with vulgarity, abusive language, and virtually the same phrase that Politico characterized as a veiled threat. “You will regret staking out that claim,” The Washington Post reporter was told.

Once I moved back to daily reporting this year, the badgering intensified. I wrote Saturday night, asking the official to stop e-mailing me. The official wrote, challenging Woodward and my tweet. “Get off your high horse and assess the facts, Ron,” the official wrote.

I wrote back:

“I asked you to stop e-mailing me. All future e-mails from you will be on the record — publishable at my discretion and directly attributed to you. My cell-phone number is … . If you should decide you have anything constructive to share, you can try to reach me by phone. All of our conversations will also be on the record, publishable at my discretion and directly attributed to you.”

I haven’t heard back from the official.

This seems to be, in fact, a fairly standard operating procedure in Mr. Hope and Change’s White House. 

Having worked in the White House for seven years, I recognize things can get heated between the press and the president and his staff. But this goes far beyond anything I ever witnessed and certainly anything I ever personally experienced. (I tended to have civil and cordial relations with members of the press during my tenure in the White House.)

Mr. Fournier’s experience is, I think, a good barometer of the cast of mind of the Obamacons. They are a rather thuggish, thin-skinned group who tend to view criticisms as a declaration of war. Many of them seem to view their opponents as enemies. As Fournier’s account shows, they routinely upbraid and insult reporters. Which is why I found his conclusion to be a bit puzzling. “This can’t be what Obama wants,” Fournier writes. “He must not know how thin-skinned and close-minded his staff can be to criticism.”

I actually believe this conduct can be what Mr. Obama wants. He is himself quite thin-skinned and closed-minded, so it makes perfect sense for his staff to be as well. And while the press coverage they get often ranges from favorable to fawning, it is never good enough for them. The job of intimidation is a full-time one, after all, and it clearly works with some journalists.

One of the extraordinary talents the president has is projecting an image of decency and civility while giving home to staffers who are known for being abusive and threatening.

It’s perfectly appropriate to judge a president by his White House staff. And Ron Fournier has done us the favor of lifting the curtain, just a bit, on this one.

It isn’t a pretty sight.

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Is the President Still Relevant Here?

After Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they continued to dominate debate and marginalize President Bill Clinton. That led to one of Clinton’s most memorable moments, when he declared at a 1995 press conference: “The president is still relevant here.” It was a low moment for Clinton, but he would have the last laugh—he’d recover his voice and easily win re-election. Looking back on that moment, George Stephanopoulos explained Clinton’s ill-advised remark by noting it was a “Perfect example of the stage direction coming out of the actor’s mouth, as opposed to the script.”

One wonders what kind of stage direction President Obama is currently receiving from his advisors, but it’s not unthinkable that someone has to remind him he’s relevant (but not to say so). Aside from the defense establishment, the president’s threats about the sequester’s budget cuts are receiving a collective yawn from the public. Polls show the public doesn’t know much about it, nor care to. Republicans have seemingly accepted the inevitability of the cuts, and some are even cheering them. The president’s bizarre behavior, in which he threatens to make the budget cuts hurt as much as possible and go after reporters who don’t regurgitate the White House’s ridiculous spin, is not moving the needle. And now, Ben White reports, when confronted with the sequester’s supposed impact, the business community is practically laughing in the president’s face:

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After Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they continued to dominate debate and marginalize President Bill Clinton. That led to one of Clinton’s most memorable moments, when he declared at a 1995 press conference: “The president is still relevant here.” It was a low moment for Clinton, but he would have the last laugh—he’d recover his voice and easily win re-election. Looking back on that moment, George Stephanopoulos explained Clinton’s ill-advised remark by noting it was a “Perfect example of the stage direction coming out of the actor’s mouth, as opposed to the script.”

One wonders what kind of stage direction President Obama is currently receiving from his advisors, but it’s not unthinkable that someone has to remind him he’s relevant (but not to say so). Aside from the defense establishment, the president’s threats about the sequester’s budget cuts are receiving a collective yawn from the public. Polls show the public doesn’t know much about it, nor care to. Republicans have seemingly accepted the inevitability of the cuts, and some are even cheering them. The president’s bizarre behavior, in which he threatens to make the budget cuts hurt as much as possible and go after reporters who don’t regurgitate the White House’s ridiculous spin, is not moving the needle. And now, Ben White reports, when confronted with the sequester’s supposed impact, the business community is practically laughing in the president’s face:

The administration has not been able to tap into the heavy pressure that comes from deep-pocketed and well-connected groups like the Chamber, the Business Roundtable, the Financial Services Forum and many others putting out statements and sending breathless letters to the Hill demanding immediate action, as they did during the cliff fight….

Corporate groups are also taking cues from financial markets, which largely have ignored threats about the sequester’s potential impact. Stocks sold off early this week, but that had much more to do with worries over the muddled outcome of elections in Italy and their possible impact on the European debt crisis than Washington and the sequester, analysts said.

“Investors have been hearing a lot of hysteria out of the politicians for the last two years over all the different end-of-the-world deadlines,” said Michael Obuchowski, portfolio manager at North Shore Asset Management. “We are human beings with vertebrate nervous systems, and there is a desensitizing effect when you hear it so many times. You eventually ignore it.”

That suggests the president has a serious credibility problem on spending and crisis management. White also quotes Michael Bloomberg’s response to the sequester threats: “come on, let’s get serious here.” White adds that the Chamber of Commerce has made it clear that, in their opinion, the Democrats’ plan to replace the sequester with tax increases “would be worse than even the sequester.”

That sums up much of the attitude, even on the Republican side, to the sequester: Obama’s own ideas about the debt and deficit are actually worse for the country than the sequester–which was also his idea–so they’ll take the lesser of two evils. In their opinion, the president goes from one bad idea to the next, and they’d like him to maybe stop talking for a while. The Washington Post carries a story today on the sequester rhetoric, and finds that experts in the relevant fields cannot confirm the White House’s dire warnings. Everyone seems pretty skeptical of the president’s rhetoric, in part, the Post reports, because the sequester’s structure is so unique:

What is not new, however, is the impulse of officials to resort to melodrama when they are faced with budget cuts. Getting people’s attention has been a challenge in the case of the sequester. In the latest Washington Post-Pew Research Center survey, only one in four said they were closely following news about the automatic spending cuts.

The ploy even has a name: the “Washington Monument” syndrome, a reference to the National Park Service’s decision to close that landmark and the Grand Canyon for two days a week after the Nixon administration cut funding in 1969.

They’ve seen this play before, and they believe life goes on. As Jonathan mentioned, the press’s reaction to this debate has been to push back a bit on the White House, first with regard to Bob Woodward and now with the Post accusing the president, and those who echo his pronouncements, of “melodrama.” And it also marks a shift on the Republican side. The GOP has often fallen into the president’s PR traps and allowed him to effectively divide their ranks, then step back and watch them point fingers at each other. There was even (overblown) talk of a mutiny against Speaker John Boehner when the new Congress took office.

But this time, the Republicans are putting up a much more unified front, and calling the president’s bluff. It’s a shift Obama ignores at his own peril. Clinton, after all, was still relevant–he was running for re-election. Obama has already put that victory behind him–and, it seems, may have squandered the momentum and political capital that came with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Demagoguery Supplemented by a Touch of Cruelty

In the Great Sequestration Debate, here’s what we know: (a) The president has paternity of an idea he now characterizes as a brutal and senseless assault on America. (b) The president and his then-chief of staff, Jack Lew, misled the public about their role in giving birth to the sequester idea. (c) House Republicans have twice passed legislation to avoid the sequester cuts with carefully targeted ones, but Senate Democrats refused to act. (d) Mr. Obama has brushed off a Republican plan to give him flexibility to allocate the $85 billion in spending cuts, which makes no sense if the president wants to replace reckless cuts with responsible ones. 

Whatever one thinks about the merits of cutting $85 billion out of an almost $3.6 trillion budget, the effort to portray the cuts as ushering in days of tribulation, distress and anguish, of trouble and ruin, of darkness and gloom is–how to put this?–insane.

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In the Great Sequestration Debate, here’s what we know: (a) The president has paternity of an idea he now characterizes as a brutal and senseless assault on America. (b) The president and his then-chief of staff, Jack Lew, misled the public about their role in giving birth to the sequester idea. (c) House Republicans have twice passed legislation to avoid the sequester cuts with carefully targeted ones, but Senate Democrats refused to act. (d) Mr. Obama has brushed off a Republican plan to give him flexibility to allocate the $85 billion in spending cuts, which makes no sense if the president wants to replace reckless cuts with responsible ones. 

Whatever one thinks about the merits of cutting $85 billion out of an almost $3.6 trillion budget, the effort to portray the cuts as ushering in days of tribulation, distress and anguish, of trouble and ruin, of darkness and gloom is–how to put this?–insane.

If the sequester cuts go into effect, domestic agencies would have to cut 5 percent from their budgets after having received a 17-percent increase during the president’s first term (not counting the more than a quarter-of-a-trillion stimulus bonus). And our budget this fiscal year would still be larger (by some $15 billion) than it was in the last fiscal year.

But what makes this particular episode somewhat different than past ones is that Mr. Obama has supplemented his demagoguery with a touch of cruelty. That is, he has made it clear that he wants to inflict as much harm as possible on Americans in order to make the cuts live up to the hype. The president’s greatest fear is that the sequester cuts will kick in and life will go on. So he’s threatening to pass over wasteful programs in order to target more essential ones. 

Emily Holubowich–a Washington health-care lobbyist who leads a coalition of 3,000 nonprofit groups fighting the cuts–gave away the game in her comments to the Washington Post. “The good news is, the world doesn’t end March 2. The bad news is, the world doesn’t end March 2,” Ms. Holubowich said. “The worst-case scenario for us is the sequester hits and nothing bad really happens. And Republicans say: See, that wasn’t so bad” (h/t Charles Krauthammer).

So we have the president determined to administer as much pain as he can on Americans even as he excoriates Republicans for their “meat-cleaver approach” that will “eviscerate” key programs.

It is really quite remarkable, this concoction of willful deceptions, hyperbole, demagoguery, mismanagement, and deliberate harm. And to think that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Barack Obama promised to put an end to cynicism. Instead he has added massively to it. The harm he is doing to our political culture is very nearly incalculable.

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In Praise of Bob Woodward

I want to add to what Jonathan wrote about Bob Woodward calling out the White House for misrepresenting its role in sequestration and “moving the goalposts” in order to get its way.

Mr. Woodward is clearly sympathetic to President Obama’s approach; he’s said as much. (“Obama’s call for a balanced approach is reasonable,” Woodward writes, “and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more.”) But Woodward has enough integrity as a journalist not to allow a willful distortion to go unchecked and unchallenged.

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I want to add to what Jonathan wrote about Bob Woodward calling out the White House for misrepresenting its role in sequestration and “moving the goalposts” in order to get its way.

Mr. Woodward is clearly sympathetic to President Obama’s approach; he’s said as much. (“Obama’s call for a balanced approach is reasonable,” Woodward writes, “and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more.”) But Woodward has enough integrity as a journalist not to allow a willful distortion to go unchecked and unchallenged.

Many in the elite media–NBC’s Chuck Todd prominently among them—have made a concerted effort to downplay the role of paternity when it comes to the sequestration idea. (Todd declared, “Of all the dumb things Washington does, this ‘who started it’ argument has proven to be one of the dumber ones, especially since we’re so close to the actual cuts going into place.”)

But this is a ludicrous position. Any journalist worth his salt must know that for a president to eviscerate a “brutal” idea that his own White House championed and that the president himself approved of is a big story. And you can be sure Chuck Todd would think so, and treat it as such, if the president was George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan instead of Barack Obama. 

In any event, we only know about the White House’s role because of Woodward’s book The Price of Politics. And now Woodward himself is holding the White House accountable for disfiguring the truth.

I don’t always agree with Mr. Woodward’s judgments, and I’ve expressed those differences publicly. I’m also aware of the fact that it’s fashionable among some, including some conservatives, to disparage Woodward. But the truth is that he’s a monumentally important figure in the history of journalism. His books have genuine historical value. He’s not afraid to take on either Republican or Democratic presidents. And whatever his own political views are, he is first and foremost a reporter, and an awfully good one. Which he’s showed once again, in this most recent dust-up with the White House.

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Sequestration and National Security

General Ray Odierno, the army chief of staff, has provided further details of what sequestration could mean for the army–and why it would be so devastating. Already the army is due to decline in size, because of existing budget cuts, from 570,000 active duty personnel today to 490,000 in a few years’ time. If sequestration occurs, Odierno says a total of 200,000 troops could be laid off—35% of the current force. That would result in the smallest army since the dark days of 1940 when, not coincidentally, German, Italian, and Japanese militarists were overrunning the globe.

Supporters of sequestration reply that it’s only fair the military absorb some cuts because of our fiscal crisis. But the military has already absorbed more than its share–unlike domestic programs. As Odierno reminded an audience at the Brookings Institution, in 2010 Secretary of Defense Bob Gates cancelled various procurement programs worth $300 billion, then in 2011 Congress enacted another $487 billion in cuts over 10 years. Thus the sequestration cuts, amounting to $500 billion, come on top of almost $800 billion in existing cuts. The drying up of funds for the war effort in Afghanistan will result in another major hit to the budget; that funding was used to pay for needed training and equipment refitting that will now have to be paid out of the regular defense budget.

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General Ray Odierno, the army chief of staff, has provided further details of what sequestration could mean for the army–and why it would be so devastating. Already the army is due to decline in size, because of existing budget cuts, from 570,000 active duty personnel today to 490,000 in a few years’ time. If sequestration occurs, Odierno says a total of 200,000 troops could be laid off—35% of the current force. That would result in the smallest army since the dark days of 1940 when, not coincidentally, German, Italian, and Japanese militarists were overrunning the globe.

Supporters of sequestration reply that it’s only fair the military absorb some cuts because of our fiscal crisis. But the military has already absorbed more than its share–unlike domestic programs. As Odierno reminded an audience at the Brookings Institution, in 2010 Secretary of Defense Bob Gates cancelled various procurement programs worth $300 billion, then in 2011 Congress enacted another $487 billion in cuts over 10 years. Thus the sequestration cuts, amounting to $500 billion, come on top of almost $800 billion in existing cuts. The drying up of funds for the war effort in Afghanistan will result in another major hit to the budget; that funding was used to pay for needed training and equipment refitting that will now have to be paid out of the regular defense budget.

Cumulatively, Odierno estimates, “if we implement the 2014 budget without sequestration, it’ll be a 45 percent reduction in the Army budget,” compared to the baseline of 2008. “If we implement sequestration, it’ll be over 50 percent.”

Little wonder than, that Odierno says “today, in my opinion, the greatest threat to our national security is the fiscal uncertainty resulting from the lack of predictability in the budget cycle.”

His words should not be dismissed as the pronouncements of a general bent on preserving his personal prerogatives. They are, instead, the words of a man who has devoted his life to the defense of his country and now sees our front line of defense in jeopardy of collapse. It is hard to exaggerate just how dire the situation is now, especially given that both Democrats and Republicans say there is virtually no chance of reaching a deal before sequestration hits on March 1.

The problem is that President Obama is demanding “revenue enhancements”—i.e., tax increases—along with further cuts to the defense budget as part of any deal to stop sequestration. Republicans, having already gone along on tax hikes once, aren’t budging this time around. Some privately even welcome sequestration; for instance John Makin of the American Enterprise Institute had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that made the pro-sequestration case without once mentioning its impact on defense.

This is the height of irresponsibility all around. Sequestration will have little impact on our fiscal situation (even eliminating the entire Department of Defense will not eliminate the budget deficit) but it will have devastating consequences for our military readiness in ways that will endanger our long-term security. In an ideal world lawmakers would reach a deal to cut entitlement spending instead since that is the real source of our budget woes. In today’s Washington, however, that won’t happen. If Republicans have no choice but to agree to tax hikes to stop sequestration, so be it: Almost any price is worth paying to prevent the evisceration of our most vital military capabilities.

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The Folly of Sequestration and the Legacy of Andrew Jackson Higgins

On May 25, 1942, the waters off Norfolk, Virginia played host to a dramatic competition between military landing boats designed by Andrew Jackson Higgins and those used by the Navy. Army Major Howard Quinn, after observing the contest, wrote to his commanding officer that “there was no comparison”–the Higgins boat was the better craft. Quinn was on hand to watch the competition along with a member of the Truman Committee, led by then-Senator Harry S. Truman to investigate waste in the U.S. military’s war production. The contest had come at the behest of Truman, whom Higgins had convinced of the superiority of his boat.

The switch was made; the boats were mass-produced, and were integral to the success of the landing at Normandy. Had the military not had the Higgins boats, Dwight Eisenhower later said, “The whole strategy of the war would have been different.” And it wasn’t just the boats. As William Lee Miller writes in his book about the intersection of the lives of Truman and Eisenhower, Truman claimed to have saved $15 billion with his committee’s recommendations, by tackling “the prodigious waste in constructing camps, the shortage of essential commodities like rubber, magnesium, and aluminum; the protection of the consumer economy and the expansion of the labor pool. The committee also exposed corruption in war production.”

The reason the committee was considered such a success is because it enabled the military to cut wasteful spending while improving military readiness, equipment, and combat capability. Six decades later, then-Senator Hillary Clinton sought to take advantage of the negative reporting and unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by invoking Truman’s name in a Wall Street Journal column full of righteous anger at perceived corruption and incompetence in war management during the Bush administration. The following year she was serving as the public face of the foreign policy of an Obama White House proposing to make cuts to the military decried by his own secretary of defense and whose devastating effect on military readiness has already begun to encroach on the line separating theory from reality.

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On May 25, 1942, the waters off Norfolk, Virginia played host to a dramatic competition between military landing boats designed by Andrew Jackson Higgins and those used by the Navy. Army Major Howard Quinn, after observing the contest, wrote to his commanding officer that “there was no comparison”–the Higgins boat was the better craft. Quinn was on hand to watch the competition along with a member of the Truman Committee, led by then-Senator Harry S. Truman to investigate waste in the U.S. military’s war production. The contest had come at the behest of Truman, whom Higgins had convinced of the superiority of his boat.

The switch was made; the boats were mass-produced, and were integral to the success of the landing at Normandy. Had the military not had the Higgins boats, Dwight Eisenhower later said, “The whole strategy of the war would have been different.” And it wasn’t just the boats. As William Lee Miller writes in his book about the intersection of the lives of Truman and Eisenhower, Truman claimed to have saved $15 billion with his committee’s recommendations, by tackling “the prodigious waste in constructing camps, the shortage of essential commodities like rubber, magnesium, and aluminum; the protection of the consumer economy and the expansion of the labor pool. The committee also exposed corruption in war production.”

The reason the committee was considered such a success is because it enabled the military to cut wasteful spending while improving military readiness, equipment, and combat capability. Six decades later, then-Senator Hillary Clinton sought to take advantage of the negative reporting and unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by invoking Truman’s name in a Wall Street Journal column full of righteous anger at perceived corruption and incompetence in war management during the Bush administration. The following year she was serving as the public face of the foreign policy of an Obama White House proposing to make cuts to the military decried by his own secretary of defense and whose devastating effect on military readiness has already begun to encroach on the line separating theory from reality.

“Of course, we need far more than a Truman Committee,” Clinton declared back in 2008. “We need the Truman spirit in the White House, where the buck finally stops.” Clinton is strangely silent on her former boss’s proposal to slash the military unless he gets more tax increases (the president’s supporters in the media and blogosphere like to refer to this tactic as “hostage taking”–when Republicans do it). But perhaps she should speak up, unless back in 2008 she was merely playing partisan politics with the armed forces and grandstanding from her Senate perch instead of expressing genuine concern about the American military.

These cuts to the military are part of sequestration, intended to make a dent in deficit spending. Will risking “hollowing out” the military at least get our budget issues under control? No, it won’t. As Philip Klein writes over at the Washington Examiner, the Congressional Budget Office’s newest 10-year spending forecast expects federal annual tax receipts to increase by 65 percent, revenue as a share of the overall economy to increase, spending on social security to go up by 67 percent, spending on federal health programs to balloon by 94 percent, and defense spending to increase 20 percent over that time period, bringing overall defense spending as a share of the federal budget below the historical average. Klein concludes:

These numbers, taken together, make it abundantly clear that the only reason for additional tax hikes at this point would be to chase skyrocketing spending on entitlements. Paying for this spending wouldn’t be a matter of asking the very rich to pay a little more — it would necessitate large tax hikes on the middle class that far exceed historical levels.

Sequestration is not about cutting “waste, fraud and abuse” or improving the efficiency of the U.S. military. It is about raiding a piggy bank to pay (unsuccessfully) for an ever-expanding welfare state, to which the president’s health-care reform legislation will only add as costs continue to rise, premiums increase, Medicaid rolls are expanded, and insurance consumers are shoved off of employer health plans and into government-subsidized exchanges. The result will be a nation even more deeply in debt but now also, thanks to the president’s bright idea, far less able to defend itself from threats and less able to do its part on behalf of global stability and security.

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Army Memo: Sequestration Means “Rapid Atrophy of Unit Combat Skills”

The Marine Corps has already spelled out the likely consequences of sequestration. So has the Navy, which has already cancelled an aircraft carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf. Now comes the Army. It has just released a memo laying out the impact of $18 billion in cuts it is expected to endure if sequestration occurs next month.

The Army will do everything it needs to do to make sure that units rotating to Afghanistan and South Korea are fully prepared for combat. But to do that it will have to stint on training and readiness for the rest of the force. The memo says that the effect of this “shortfall” will be “devastating to training and readiness in FY13 and affects FY14 and beyond.”  

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The Marine Corps has already spelled out the likely consequences of sequestration. So has the Navy, which has already cancelled an aircraft carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf. Now comes the Army. It has just released a memo laying out the impact of $18 billion in cuts it is expected to endure if sequestration occurs next month.

The Army will do everything it needs to do to make sure that units rotating to Afghanistan and South Korea are fully prepared for combat. But to do that it will have to stint on training and readiness for the rest of the force. The memo says that the effect of this “shortfall” will be “devastating to training and readiness in FY13 and affects FY14 and beyond.”  

The memo continues: “These cumulative reductions will distress and shock Army installations and their surrounding communities with terminations of temporary and term employees, wide-scale reduction of support contracts with more than 3,000 industry partners, and furlough all 251K Army civilians for up to 22 days.”

The cost for long-term readiness is even more distressing: “Shortfalls in Professional Military Education/Training means Soldiers will join units without requisite training and preparation.  These lost capabilities require years to reinstate and some cannot be reversed.  The strategic impact is a rapid atrophy of unit combat skills with a failure to meet demands of the National Military Strategy by the end of this year.”

Soldiers joining units “without requisite training and preparation”? Those words should set off alarm bells in Washington–before we repeat the “hollow army” experiences of the 1970s which culminated in the humiliation of Desert One.

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Lack of Money Delays Carrier Deployment

Sequestration is already hitting. It’s no longer about trimming the fat, but rather about undercutting U.S. national security. I was supposed to head off on the USS Harry S. Truman tomorrow as it began its deployment toward the Persian Gulf. I just received the call now not to bother. From the press down at Hampton Roads, Virginia:

U.S. officials say that budget strains will force the Pentagon to cut its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf area from two carriers to one. As a result, the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman won’t deploy from Norfolk on Friday as planned.

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Sequestration is already hitting. It’s no longer about trimming the fat, but rather about undercutting U.S. national security. I was supposed to head off on the USS Harry S. Truman tomorrow as it began its deployment toward the Persian Gulf. I just received the call now not to bother. From the press down at Hampton Roads, Virginia:

U.S. officials say that budget strains will force the Pentagon to cut its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf area from two carriers to one. As a result, the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman won’t deploy from Norfolk on Friday as planned.

Officials say Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has formally approved a plan to keep just one carrier in the region. There have been two aircraft carrier groups there for most of the last two years.

The expected announcement is the biggest indication yet that looming defense cuts have affected the way the U.S. military operates – an effect that will only grow as the cuts materialize. It was a highly symbolic move with lots of practical consequences for Hampton Roads.

It affects more than 5,000 sailors assigned to the carrier, its air wing and the ships that were to accompany it to the Gulf. Sailors routinely put their cars in storage, give up their apartments and sometimes move their families closer to loved ones while they’re gone. Carrier deployments now last around 8 months, meaning the crew likely planned to be gone until October.

It’s time to put aside the political posturing and have a serious conversation about national security. The implications of the past months’ games are no longer theoretical: They will undercut our strategic position in the region at a time we can least afford to be absent.

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GOP Caving on Sequestration?

Reading this Politico article this morning has really depressed me: “House GOP thinks unthinkable on defense cuts.” It reports: “A new breed of conservatives in the House cares so much about cutting spending they’re willing to extend that to the budget for bullets and bombs, too — in this case, by letting $500 billion in across-the-board automatic budget cuts over 10 years take effect, alongside a similar number for domestic agencies.”

This is crazy on many levels. Start with the policy implications: The Pentagon can’t afford another $500 billion of cuts on top of the $500 billion or so that has already been cut–not at a time when the armed forces must grapple with new missions such as dealing with the spread of al-Qaeda in Africa and an upsurge in cyber attacks.

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Reading this Politico article this morning has really depressed me: “House GOP thinks unthinkable on defense cuts.” It reports: “A new breed of conservatives in the House cares so much about cutting spending they’re willing to extend that to the budget for bullets and bombs, too — in this case, by letting $500 billion in across-the-board automatic budget cuts over 10 years take effect, alongside a similar number for domestic agencies.”

This is crazy on many levels. Start with the policy implications: The Pentagon can’t afford another $500 billion of cuts on top of the $500 billion or so that has already been cut–not at a time when the armed forces must grapple with new missions such as dealing with the spread of al-Qaeda in Africa and an upsurge in cyber attacks.

President Obama’s defense secretary, noted budget hawk Leon Panetta, has said that sequestration would be a “disaster” with “a devastating effect on not only national defense but I think on the rest of the country.”

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to make any cuts in defense. Former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy has some good suggestions in the Wall Street Journal for cutting bloated headquarters, eliminating unneeded bases, making military medical benefits less generous, and paring back the civilian workforce. But significantly she attaches no price tag to the reductions she seeks. The likelihood is that all of her savings, even if enacted, would not make a significant dent in the defense budget given that our military capabilities must grow to deal with threats from Africa to China. In any case sequestration is a mindless process of across-the-board hacking that will do major damage to vital programs; it is the very antithesis of the kind of rational pruning and rebalancing that Fluornoy suggests.

Now to the politics: In the last election, there was evidence that Republicans had lost their decades-old advantage on foreign policy and national security to a party led by the president who ordered the Osama bin Laden raid. How on earth will Republicans ever regain their advantage on these crucial issues if they come out as more anti-defense than Obama’s own defense secretary on the issue of sequestration?

I sympathize with the concerns of House Republicans about runaway spending. The growing public debt is a major concern that if left unaddressed could hamper American productivity and power in the long term. But the way to deal with this issue isn’t to whack away at the defense budget, which even if entirely eliminated would still not close our staggering, trillion-dollar-plus budget deficits. Congress needs to tackle entitlement reform, like it or not. President Obama’s opposition may make that impossible in the short-term but eviscerating our defense capabilities–and thereby making the world a more dangerous place–isn’t a viable alternative.

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Next Recession Belongs to Obama, Not GOP

Democrats spent the 2012 presidential campaign successfully blaming George W. Bush for the country’s sluggish economy. But a week after President Obama’s second inaugural, they are still not taking responsibility for the country’s fiscal health. The White House responded to yesterday’s disturbing news that GDP declined for the first time since 2009 in predictable fashion: they blamed the bad numbers on Republicans. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the dip was the fault of “Congressional Republicans” who have tried to restrain the government’s out-of-control spending. Even though the president got his way in the fiscal cliff negotiations with the GOP, Carney said the threat of sequestration, which would mandate across-the-board spending cuts, is the real culprit for the downturn and that the “brinksmanship” by the House Republicans was victimizing the nation’s economy.

This was thin gruel even from a practiced spin master like Carney. The idea of sequestration, which will have a particularly devastating effect on defense, originated in the White House and not the GOP caucus before it was put into the 2011 deal on the debt ceiling. But while we must give Carney credit for his usual chutzpah, the idea that Republican efforts to face up to chronic fiscal problems via entitlement reforms is to blame is a particularly depressing example of the ideological dead end into which the administration has driven the economy. As John Steele Gordon wrote yesterday, there is no way of knowing yet whether yesterday’s GDP numbers are the harbinger of an Obama recession or merely a statistical anomaly, but the steadfast refusal of the White House to face up to the long-term threats is what could be driving the economy into the ditch.

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Democrats spent the 2012 presidential campaign successfully blaming George W. Bush for the country’s sluggish economy. But a week after President Obama’s second inaugural, they are still not taking responsibility for the country’s fiscal health. The White House responded to yesterday’s disturbing news that GDP declined for the first time since 2009 in predictable fashion: they blamed the bad numbers on Republicans. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the dip was the fault of “Congressional Republicans” who have tried to restrain the government’s out-of-control spending. Even though the president got his way in the fiscal cliff negotiations with the GOP, Carney said the threat of sequestration, which would mandate across-the-board spending cuts, is the real culprit for the downturn and that the “brinksmanship” by the House Republicans was victimizing the nation’s economy.

This was thin gruel even from a practiced spin master like Carney. The idea of sequestration, which will have a particularly devastating effect on defense, originated in the White House and not the GOP caucus before it was put into the 2011 deal on the debt ceiling. But while we must give Carney credit for his usual chutzpah, the idea that Republican efforts to face up to chronic fiscal problems via entitlement reforms is to blame is a particularly depressing example of the ideological dead end into which the administration has driven the economy. As John Steele Gordon wrote yesterday, there is no way of knowing yet whether yesterday’s GDP numbers are the harbinger of an Obama recession or merely a statistical anomaly, but the steadfast refusal of the White House to face up to the long-term threats is what could be driving the economy into the ditch.

What Carney failed to mention is that every business in America is worrying about the implications of the president’s signature legislative achievement. ObamaCare is about to go into effect and the fear that it will drive up health-care costs in a way that could sink even substantial companies is already having a powerful impact on job growth and investment. Add in worries about the mounting federal debt and the government’s spending problems—which, contrary to the assertion of Senator Mary Landrieu, is a grim reality and not the invention of FOX News analysts—as well as Democratic threats to raise taxes and you have the makings of a perfect storm that could well create another Great Recession.

It is true that the uncertainty over the future that is fueled by the standoffs over the debt ceiling hasn’t helped the economy. The president has succeeded in fooling much of the public into believing this is solely the work of Republican obstruction, but now that the House GOP has punted on the debt ceiling, it is going to be difficult for Carney to keep pretending that it is House Speaker John Boehner and the Tea Party, rather than the man in the Oval Office, who has the principal responsibility for what is going on.

If the next growth report shows a negative number, President Obama will find himself presiding over his own recession. He may try to pin it on the GOP, but in his fifth year in the White House, that is a trick that even a master like Jay Carney will have trouble pulling off. The next recession, which may already be starting, is the work of an administration that is prepared to saddle the country with more debt in order to realize their liberal fantasies of expanded government, not the last-ditch efforts of generally powerless Republicans trying to stave off impending disaster.

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U.S. Headed for a Hollow Military?

Sequestration–the process of automatically cutting more than $500 billion from defense spending over the next decade–was momentarily delayed by a last-minute deal between Congress and the White House reached just before it was due to take effect on January 2. But the delay isn’t long–unless a new deal is reached, sequestration will hit on March 2. And odds are no deal will be reached. As Paul Ryan noted on TV this weekend, sequestration is likely to go into effect. This is because the price that the White House is demanding to prevent it–which would include further cuts in defense spending along with tax hikes–is too high for Republicans to stomach.

We don’t know exactly how this process is going to play out, but the Navy has released an instructive memo detailing the very real damage that sequestration will do to our defense capabilities. As summarized by Defense News, the consequences of sequestration include:

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Sequestration–the process of automatically cutting more than $500 billion from defense spending over the next decade–was momentarily delayed by a last-minute deal between Congress and the White House reached just before it was due to take effect on January 2. But the delay isn’t long–unless a new deal is reached, sequestration will hit on March 2. And odds are no deal will be reached. As Paul Ryan noted on TV this weekend, sequestration is likely to go into effect. This is because the price that the White House is demanding to prevent it–which would include further cuts in defense spending along with tax hikes–is too high for Republicans to stomach.

We don’t know exactly how this process is going to play out, but the Navy has released an instructive memo detailing the very real damage that sequestration will do to our defense capabilities. As summarized by Defense News, the consequences of sequestration include:

A drastic cutback in the number of strike group deployments. Aircraft flying hours in the Middle East cut by more than half. Naval operations stopped around Latin America and reduced in the Pacific. Four of the fleet’s nine air wings shut down starting in March. Two carrier strike group deployments “extended indefinitely.” Only partial training for two more strike groups.

Similar consequences will be felt by the other services. As the Marine Corps Times notes, “The Marine Corps is bracing for sudden and severe budget cuts that could throttle programs and services at installations across the globe if Congress and the Obama administration fail to act by March 1.”

Also affected will be the Defense Department’s 800,000 civilian employees. Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters “that if Congress does not come up with a way to avoid mandatory budget cuts by March 1, hundreds of thousands of Pentagon civilian employees will face furloughs and reduced paychecks by April.”

Some of these parlous consequences could be stopped and even rolled back should Congress reach a deal on sequestration after it goes into effect. But given the partisan gridlock on the Hill, there is a very real chance that these cutbacks will not be reversed. If so, the damage to our armed forces will be serious at a time when they confront more threats than ever before–including the Iranian nuclear program, Chinese cyberattacks, Islamist gains in Mali and other countries in Africa and the Middle East, and the instability emanating from the Syrian civil war.

How anyone thinks we can chop defense spending at a time likes this is beyond me; but that is where Washington is heading. The result is likely to be, heaven help us, another “hollow” military like the one in the post-Vietnam years in the 1970s.

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The Next Fight: Tea Partiers v. Hawks on Defense Cuts

The Hill reports that the defense industry is anxious the fiscal cliff tax deal may increase the likelihood of Pentagon cuts:

The defense industry is worried last week’s budget deal on taxes could damage its negotiating position for the next “fiscal cliff” deadline two months from now, when across-the-board spending cuts would take effect. 

The deficit debate is shifting from taxes toward spending cuts and the debt limit, where there will be more of a focus on new cuts to the Pentagon.

While the first fiscal cliff fight over taxes included the threat of massive across-the-board spending cuts, the sequel is going to be nearly all about where to cut spending. The Pentagon is the largest target outside of entitlements. …

Some defense analysts say that the shift in the Republican Party away from national security, with the rise of the Tea Party, was highlighted during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, where taxes trumped defense in importance. …

“Other issues have overtaken national security as being more important,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. 

“I think it does show how the Republican Party is no longer the party of national security, no longer a big-tent party of Reagan Republicans where a strong defense was a central tenet of conservatism.”

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The Hill reports that the defense industry is anxious the fiscal cliff tax deal may increase the likelihood of Pentagon cuts:

The defense industry is worried last week’s budget deal on taxes could damage its negotiating position for the next “fiscal cliff” deadline two months from now, when across-the-board spending cuts would take effect. 

The deficit debate is shifting from taxes toward spending cuts and the debt limit, where there will be more of a focus on new cuts to the Pentagon.

While the first fiscal cliff fight over taxes included the threat of massive across-the-board spending cuts, the sequel is going to be nearly all about where to cut spending. The Pentagon is the largest target outside of entitlements. …

Some defense analysts say that the shift in the Republican Party away from national security, with the rise of the Tea Party, was highlighted during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, where taxes trumped defense in importance. …

“Other issues have overtaken national security as being more important,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. 

“I think it does show how the Republican Party is no longer the party of national security, no longer a big-tent party of Reagan Republicans where a strong defense was a central tenet of conservatism.”

Fiscal conservatives argue that defense spending shouldn’t be immune from cuts, and they’re right. There is waste and mismanagement within the Pentagon, just like any other government bureaucracy, and there is undoubtedly room for reduction. What’s unacceptable is arbitrary, across-the-board cuts that would force the military to set priorities based on budget reductions, rather than the other way around. Defense should not be dealt with the same way as health care and entitlements; it’s the most important responsibility of the federal government. If there are specific areas where reductions can be made, that should be determined. But choosing a random number and asking the military to cut that much is not the way to do it.

It will be interesting to see whether this fiscal conservative v. defense hawk debate starts to play out during the Chuck Hagel confirmation hearings. There are senators on the Armed Services Committee who consider themselves fiscal conservatives first and foremost, and then there are others like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who vehemently disagree with Hagel’s support for major Pentagon cuts. The question will be whether any of the fiscal hawks come to Hagel’s defense because of his position on military spending.

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The “Fiscal Cliff” Deal and Defense

The Senate’s early-morning budget deal kicks the can down the road–not very far down the road–for about two months. For those of us who focus on defense policy, the good news is that the Senate at least agreed to address the looming sequester, something that looked unlikely as recently as a few days ago.

According to this report in the Washington Post, “The last last piece of the puzzle to fall into place was the sequester, which would be delayed until early March under an agreement to raise $12 billion in new tax revenue and $12 billion in fresh savings from the Pentagon and domestic programs.” Presumably that means that the cost of turning off the sequester for two months is about $6 billion in extra defense cuts. That’s much better than $50 billion in cuts, which would have hit if sequestration had occurred, but given how much the Defense Department has been cut already (remember that the budget deal of 2011 slashes some $500 billion over 10 years), while entitlement spending (the main driver of our debt) has not been cut at all, there is scant justification for cuts of any size. At least on the merits.

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The Senate’s early-morning budget deal kicks the can down the road–not very far down the road–for about two months. For those of us who focus on defense policy, the good news is that the Senate at least agreed to address the looming sequester, something that looked unlikely as recently as a few days ago.

According to this report in the Washington Post, “The last last piece of the puzzle to fall into place was the sequester, which would be delayed until early March under an agreement to raise $12 billion in new tax revenue and $12 billion in fresh savings from the Pentagon and domestic programs.” Presumably that means that the cost of turning off the sequester for two months is about $6 billion in extra defense cuts. That’s much better than $50 billion in cuts, which would have hit if sequestration had occurred, but given how much the Defense Department has been cut already (remember that the budget deal of 2011 slashes some $500 billion over 10 years), while entitlement spending (the main driver of our debt) has not been cut at all, there is scant justification for cuts of any size. At least on the merits.

As a matter of political necessity, there is little doubt that, whatever comes, the armed services will suffer more pain–seeing their resources cut while their missions continue to multiply. The only question is how much pain? Assuming the kick-the-can compromise passes the House, that question will be answered in March. Or not. There is actually little reason to think that lawmakers will suddenly be able to bridge their differences in two months. So yet another temporary, 11th-hour fix may be ginned up. Is this any way, I wonder (in common with most Americans), to run a superpower?

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Obama Sets Stage for Conflict

Just as it looked like a fiscal cliff deal was coming together, President Obama gave a partisan, sarcastic speech this afternoon that seemed intended to set back the entire process. As Jonathan wrote, Republicans have good reason to think the president’s goal is to go over the cliff. But they also suspect the White House is preparing to push for further tax increases, in addition to the hikes on individuals making over $400,000 (and families making over $450,000) a year.

“What they’re telegraphing to me is that when Republicans ask for spending cuts, [Democrats are] gonna say ‘You’re not getting those unless we get more tax hikes’,” said one Republican Senate aide after the speech.

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Just as it looked like a fiscal cliff deal was coming together, President Obama gave a partisan, sarcastic speech this afternoon that seemed intended to set back the entire process. As Jonathan wrote, Republicans have good reason to think the president’s goal is to go over the cliff. But they also suspect the White House is preparing to push for further tax increases, in addition to the hikes on individuals making over $400,000 (and families making over $450,000) a year.

“What they’re telegraphing to me is that when Republicans ask for spending cuts, [Democrats are] gonna say ‘You’re not getting those unless we get more tax hikes’,” said one Republican Senate aide after the speech.

According to Senate GOP sources, there is no more debate on the deal to raise taxes on those making over $400,000, which is necessary to avert automatic across-the-board expiration of the Bush tax cuts. But Republican leadership is balking at the White House demand to delay sequestration without corresponding, targeted spending cuts.

“Not only was [Obama’s speech] unhelpful and antagonistic (as pretty much every journalist on Twitter and even Ezra Klein recognized), the tax part of negotiations is done,” another Republican aide said in an email. “There’s already an agreement there. The sticking point is Democrats trying to turn off the sequester cuts. Republicans aren’t going to agree to simply set spending cuts aside.” 

One big concern is that the White House will demand additional tax increases down the road, in return for spending cuts. Some also say the current tax deal will impact more Americans than initially thought. According to a Senate Republican source, the tax increase on individuals/families making over $400,000/$450,000 a year is not enough to reach the $600 billion in tax revenue included in the potential deal, even if you include hikes on capital gains, dividends, and phased-out personal exemptions and itemized deductions. In other words, those making well under $400,000–and as low as $250,000 a year–could also end up paying higher taxes under the deal.

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Sequestration’s Defense Cuts Loom

The newspapers are full of articles about negotiations over tax hikes and spending cuts as Congress and the White House face the impending “fiscal cliff.” There is much less said about another consequence of our mindless budgeting: the very real possibility that our armed forces will face devastating cuts on January 2. That is less than a month away but, given how little attention sequestration is receiving, it feels as if we’re sleepwalking toward disaster.

This, in spite of the fact that there is bipartisan agreement that sequestration will have dreadful consequences for our military readiness, requiring an across-the-board cut of roughly 10 percent in all spending, no matter how important. That will amount to $500 billion over the next decade–on top of the nearly $500 billion already enacted in 2011. Even those such as retired Admiral Mike Mullen and retired Senator John Warner, who think that it’s OK to cut the military budget judiciously, oppose the sequestration approach. As Warner said at an event in Washington: “You cannot take a sledgehammer [to the Pentagon budget]… We can and should reduce it. But it has to be done carefully. … You cannot break defense and hope to glue it back together the next day.”

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The newspapers are full of articles about negotiations over tax hikes and spending cuts as Congress and the White House face the impending “fiscal cliff.” There is much less said about another consequence of our mindless budgeting: the very real possibility that our armed forces will face devastating cuts on January 2. That is less than a month away but, given how little attention sequestration is receiving, it feels as if we’re sleepwalking toward disaster.

This, in spite of the fact that there is bipartisan agreement that sequestration will have dreadful consequences for our military readiness, requiring an across-the-board cut of roughly 10 percent in all spending, no matter how important. That will amount to $500 billion over the next decade–on top of the nearly $500 billion already enacted in 2011. Even those such as retired Admiral Mike Mullen and retired Senator John Warner, who think that it’s OK to cut the military budget judiciously, oppose the sequestration approach. As Warner said at an event in Washington: “You cannot take a sledgehammer [to the Pentagon budget]… We can and should reduce it. But it has to be done carefully. … You cannot break defense and hope to glue it back together the next day.”

Yet the sledgehammer is about to swing–unless Congress acts to stop it in the next weeks. Time is running out and the signs do not look good. If sequestration does go through and is not immediately reversed, it would do more damage to our military readiness than any foe that our troops have fought in decades.

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Rumsfeld and Ground Force Cuts

On November 19, I published an item taking issue with current calls to cut the ground forces. We should not repeat the mistake that Donald Rumsfeld almost made before 9/11, I argued, when he was planning to cut two divisions from the army. Now Rumsfeld has taken strong exception to my article, writing, “That is flat wrong. There was not any plan to cut the size of the U.S. Army that I was ever aware of. No such plan was ever presented to me. Further, I would not have supported it if such a plan had been brought to me.”

I was startled by Rumsfeld’s denial of what was commonly reported both at the time and since. See, for example, this Wall Street Journal article from Aug. 8, 2001, by ace military correspondent Greg Jaffe. He reported:

Aides to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are calling for deep personnel cuts to the Army, Navy, and Air Force in order to pay for new high-tech weaponry and missile defenses that are cornerstones of President Bush’s plan to “transform the military.”

The proposal to reduce manpower—part of a congressionally mandated defense review due next month—calls for the Army to trim as many as 2.8 of its 10 divisions, or about 56,000 troops. …. Mr. Rumsfeld and top generals of each military service were briefed on the recommendations for the first time yesterday.

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On November 19, I published an item taking issue with current calls to cut the ground forces. We should not repeat the mistake that Donald Rumsfeld almost made before 9/11, I argued, when he was planning to cut two divisions from the army. Now Rumsfeld has taken strong exception to my article, writing, “That is flat wrong. There was not any plan to cut the size of the U.S. Army that I was ever aware of. No such plan was ever presented to me. Further, I would not have supported it if such a plan had been brought to me.”

I was startled by Rumsfeld’s denial of what was commonly reported both at the time and since. See, for example, this Wall Street Journal article from Aug. 8, 2001, by ace military correspondent Greg Jaffe. He reported:

Aides to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are calling for deep personnel cuts to the Army, Navy, and Air Force in order to pay for new high-tech weaponry and missile defenses that are cornerstones of President Bush’s plan to “transform the military.”

The proposal to reduce manpower—part of a congressionally mandated defense review due next month—calls for the Army to trim as many as 2.8 of its 10 divisions, or about 56,000 troops. …. Mr. Rumsfeld and top generals of each military service were briefed on the recommendations for the first time yesterday.

A report on the same meeting can be found in Cobra II, the meticulously researched history of the early days of the Iraq War by New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon and retired Marine General Bernard Trainor. They write, “Shortly before September 11, Rumsfeld had presided over a meeting at which [close aide Stephen] Cambone laid out several options, including one to reduce the Army by as much as two divisions.”

Could it be that Jaffe and Gordon—two of the most respected defense correspondents in the business—were wrong and Rumsfeld was right? For further clarification I called up Jack Keane, a retired four-star army general who was at the time the Army vice chief of staff (and subsequently an architect of the surge in Iraq which Rumsfeld opposed). He told me:

It is a fact that during the 2001 QDR [Quadrennial Defense Review] the staff recommendation that was on the table, because I was at the briefing, was to reduce two army divisions from the active force and four national guard divisions. I took umbrage with that at the meeting, and I told Secretary Rumsfeld who was sitting at the end of the table. I asked his permission to take a briefing to his deputy, Secretary Wolfowitz and the Vice Chairman, Gen. Myers, the next day, outlining the Army’s position (presented by then BG Ray Odierno, now, Chief of Staff).  As such, Secretary Wolfowitz agreed with the Army’s position and Secretary Rumsfeld overruled his staff’s recommendation.

As Keane notes, his vociferous opposition and that of other Army leaders convinced Rumsfeld to drop the idea of major cuts in the army end-strength. Perhaps I was overstating the case a bit when I wrote that Rumsfeld was actually “planning” to cut army end-strength. It might have been more accurate to say he was “seriously considering” cuts. But Rumsfeld is rewriting history when he now asserts that no plan to cut the army was ever presented to him.

He is also misleading readers when he claims that he has always been a champion of bigger ground forces, writing that he was in favor of “increasing the size of our ground forces as necessary. Indeed, in 2004 and 2006, we increased the end strength of both forces by tens of thousands of troops.” He did approve small, temporary increases in army end-strength, which brought the active duty force from 477,862 when he took office to 502,466 when he left office.

But he did so grudgingly and only when it was obvious that the army was horribly overstretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even so, he never came close to undoing the post-Cold War downsizing that cost the army a third of its end-strength. (The active-duty Army was 710,821 strong in 1991.)

And he constantly stressed the need to keep the army as small as possible. For instance on Aug. 6, 2001, the Chicago Tribune reported, “Despite growing strains on the U.S. military, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted Tuesday that the Pentagon needs to exhaust every alternative before asking Congress to increase the size of the active-duty force.”

Rumsfeld may well be right that he never said “technology is a substitute for troops”—but then I never claimed that that was a direct quotation. It is, however, an accurate summary of the views he held while in office. See, for example, his essay in the May/June 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs, “Transforming the Military.” In it he touts his “transformation” agenda and justifies dropping the “two-war” standard that had long governed American defense planning—meaning he decided it was no longer necessary to have armed forces large enough to simultaneously fight and decisively defeat two major adversaries. He wrote:

We decided to move away from the “two major-theater war” construct, an approach that called for maintaining two massive occupation forces, capable of marching on and occupying the capitals of two aggressors at the same time and changing their regimes… [B]y removing the requirement to maintain a second occupation force, we can free up new resources for the future and for other, lesser contingencies that may now confront us.

When Rumsfeld speaks of “occupation forces” he is of course referring to ground-combat forces. This Foreign Affairs essay is just one example of many that shows how skeptical Rumsfeld was of the utility of a large, active-duty army. As books such as Cobra II document, he acted on this prejudice by pressuring commanders to keep forces as small as possible in Afghanistan and Iraq—which had tragic consequences for both countries because it allowed the development of a power vacuum in which armed, anti-American extremists could come to the fore.

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