At this writing, many details of the debt ceiling deal wrangled out over the weekend remain fuzzy. One thing is clear, unfortunately: The national security of the United States is going to suffer greatly.
That will be so no matter how much is taken out of the defense budget as a result of the not-so-grand bargain struck by congressional leaders. If approved by both houses, it would reportedly cut $350 billion from "security" spending as part of a first tranche of deficit-reduction. Then, the Pentagon (and possibly the Homeland Security and State Department budgets) will be wacked by as much as half of the $1.5 trillion more that an as-yet undesignated congressional "super-committee" is supposed to come up with by Thanksgiving.
Put simply, these initiatives will treat national and homeland security as a bill-payer for deficit reduction.
The trouble is that - even if no further reductions were made in the spending allocated to defending our people and interests around the world - we will see ominous reductions in the capabilities needed to meet those vital responsibilities. That will be because of the more than $400 billion already cut from our national security investments over the past few years.
The warnings of what will befall our military and country as a result are beginning to accumulate. President Obama's first defense secretary, Robert Gates, put down repeated markers as he headed for the door to the effect that we risked once again "hollowing out" the armed forces if anything like the sorts of cuts Mr. Obama has proposed ($400 billion), let alone those called for by others (up to $1 trillion), are forthcoming.
Senior military officers, including the new chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey and Admiral James Winnefeld, respectively, are making plain the repercussions would be far-reaching. Adm. Winnefeld told Congress at hisconfirmation hearing: "...As we get to a higher and higher number [of defense cuts], we're going to find that the strategies that we currently have are going to reach inflection points where we're just going to have to stop doing some of the things that we currently are able to do because what we can't afford is to have any kind of a cut result in a hollow force. We can't afford to have a cut result in irreversible damage to our industrial base."
Last week, the Lexington Institute's Daniel Goure observed that these officers were hardly alone: "The Vice Chiefs [of Staff of the four armed services in congressional testimony] described a military worn out by continuous combat or allowed to age out as the result of a defense buildup that failed to adequately modernize the force. Each of the services has been plagued by readiness problems that, in some cases, have interfered with their ability to deploy forces."
Responsible legislators are expressing concern as well. For example, last week the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, declared that cuts of the magnitude now in prospect, "would have a disastrous impact on our military and we wouldn't be able to carry out our missions."
Earlier last month, the Senate's Number 2 Republican, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, took to the floor of the Senate to challenge a remark by President Obama to the effect that we had to protect our government's "core commitments" like food stamps at the expense of national security spending. Sen. Kyl observed that there is no core commitment that supersedes the obligation to provide for the common defense, the first business of the federal government.
Yet, President Obama, congressional Democrats and at least a few Republicans aredetermined to make the sorts of reductions that will prevent us from assuring the common defense. Some, particularly in conservative circles, are doing so out of a conviction that only a strong economy can make possible a strong military.
Jamie Fly of the Foreign Policy Initiative reminded us recently of a remarkable statement byRonald Reagan in which he addressed precisely this point: "In a December 1992 address to students at the Oxford Union Society, in a passage that is eerily relevant to today's debate, [the former President declared]: ‘It is a fashionable assertion in these troubled times that nations must focus on economic, not military strength. Over the long run, it is true, no nation can remain militarily strong while economically exhausted. But I would remind you that defeats on the battlefield occur in the short run. As the tragedies ofBosnia, Somalia, and Sudan demonstrate all too well, power still matters. More precisely, economic power is not a replacement for military power.'"
History has taught us a painful lesson that we are poised to learn all over again. Cutting "security spending" in a dangerous world is an invitation to enemies - actual and prospective - to make it much more dangerous for Americans and their vital interests. It invariably proves to be a false economy, and the costs are measured in lives as well as immense amounts of dollars.
We literally cannot afford to make this mistake. Those responsible will surely be held accountable - later, if not sooner. They may never be forgiven, however.