Obama's fiscal cliff stubbornness dangerous for military

U.S. Army (Flickr)

More than 1,600 paratroopers drop on Sicily Drop Zone during the 15th Annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop at Fort Bragg, N.C., Dec. 8, 2012.

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  • For nearly a year and a half, sequestration has been the law of the land. But few treated it that way. @MEaglen

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  • With less than 1 month to go before the deadline & no fiscal cliff deal in sight, the White House has changed its tune.

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  • The White House guidance to prepare for the fiscal cliff is the latest signal that the likelihood for a deal is fading.

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For nearly a year and a half, sequestration has been the law of the land. But few treated it that way, including the White House.

The Obama administration was supposedly so confident sequestration would never happen that the Department of Labor encouraged defense manufacturers to ignore another law leading up to the election … and sequestration with the WARN Act. This basically mandates 60 days' notice in advance of predictable mass layoffs for certain larger companies.

Then the Pentagon went so far as to offer and foot the bill for contractors if they followed the government's advice and subsequently were sued by their laid-off employees. While Pentagon leaders never had the authority to bind the hands of a future Congress's spending, leadership of these major companies took Obama's Cabinet at its word.

Finally, President Obama dismissed the prospect of sequestration during the final presidential debate, saying flat-out, "It will not happen."

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, now with less than one month to go before the Jan. 2 deadline and no deal in sight, the White House has changed its tune. The Office of Management and the Budget has officially directed all federal agencies, including the military, to begin detailed sequestration planning.  

The problem now is two-fold: No amount of planning makes sequestration any more palatable to execute, and the very act of planning makes sequestration more acceptable and therefore more likely.

Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale testified this fall before the House Armed Services Committee noting that no amount of planning and creativity could get around the fact that sequestration would leave the military a "less-capable, less-modern, less-ready force and [risk] creating a hollow military."

The White House guidance to prepare for the fiscal cliff is only the latest signal that the likelihood for a deal of any kind is fading. Despite their dire consequences for America's military, sequestration or partial sequestration appears inevitable.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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