Sequestration, the election hangover

DoD/Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy

President Barack Obama addresses service members and their families during a visit to Ft. Bliss, Texas, on Aug. 31, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • .@MEaglen: “The cost of being too strong is far less than the cost of weakness.” #sequestration

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  • While there is generic hope in Washington this will eventually be worked out, a sequestration deal isn’t inevitable.

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  • Removing the sequestration threat while working to reduce debt would give Americans a reason to have faith in policymakers.

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Former President Bill Clinton cited the U.S. defense budget as a campaign issue at the Democratic National Convention. He noted that Republicans “want to actually increase defense spending over a decade $2 trillion more than the Pentagon has requested, without saying what they’ll spend it on.” President Barack Obama is now running TV ads in battleground states, saying that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney wants to increase military spending.

Beyond these numbers, the key difference between the defense plans of Obama and Romney is their priorities.

Obama emphasizes a shrinking military — relying on high-tech investments, “small footprint” solutions and a pivot to the Asia-Pacific at the expense of other regions. Pentagon highlights from his almost four years in office include a focus on canceling weapons systems, efficiencies, green and alternative energy, climate change, withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq and expanding the civilian bureaucracy but shrinking the Army and Marine Corps.

If Obama wins a second term, we can expect these priorities to continue — including further reducing the defense budget and the number of troops in Afghanistan. The president also is likely to build off the New START Treaty and aggressively pursue greater reductions in our strategic arsenal, including tactical nuclear weapons. Projects like the Navy’s “great green fleet,” more energy-independent bases and environmental security cooperation with foreign militaries would surely continue. A base closure round would eventually move forward.

Obama may also re-examine America’s “war on drugs” and the military’s role in counter-drug missions abroad and at home, Marc Ambinder reported in July for GQ. This could include less military aid for countries like Mexico and more civilian money, a change in emphasis for U.S. Southern Command, as well as reduced helicopter fleets and efforts to eradicate marijuana at home.

Romney has said he will focus on rebuilding U.S. military strength if elected. He insists U.S. leadership requires a resurrection of President Ronald Reagan’s vision of “peace through strength.” Investing in hard power capabilities is not about a penchant for using them in war. Rather, the priority will be to secure national policy objectives without fighting.

"The ability to robustly defend our interests, along with regional allies, is based on having certain military capabilities, superior training and education and a professional fighting force." -Mackenzie Eaglen Under Romney, the military would most likely invest and use power projection capabilities to favorably shape and influence friends, allies and foes, while successfully empowering diplomatic and other “whole of government” efforts. For this to work, U.S. power has to be credible, which means that the scale and scope of our military capabilities must be able to engage effectively and decisively.

Eliot Cohen writes in Romney’s foreign policy white paper, “the easiest way, for example, to become embroiled in a clash with China over Taiwan, or because of China’s ambitions in the South or East China Seas, will be to leave Beijing in doubt about the lack of depth of our commitment to long-standing allies in the region.” U.S. military power should match the commitments that America’s military is expected to keep. The ability to robustly defend our interests, along with regional allies, is based on having certain military capabilities, superior training and education and a professional fighting force.

In a Romney administration, these capabilities would receive sustained investment with a focus on output, to compensate for years of underfunded maintenance, deferred modernization and a broken acquisition system. At the top of the list would be to increase naval capabilities, broaden the missile defense program, increase readiness and halt the exit of 100,000 active-duty ground forces from service.

Rebuilding, restoring and fully modernizing the military is a more expensive proposition than Obama’s current defense budgets allow. While Obama has focused on the size of the defense budget in contrast with Romney, a fundamental difference between the two is about what those defense capabilities can do for the nation, our allies and peace and stability around the world. Planning is never perfect, and the cost of being too strong is far less than the cost of weakness.

No matter who wins in November, an urgent priority will be to address the specter of sequestration looming over the military, government and our entire economy. Reasonable people can differ as to the best path toward a long-term solution. But it is now clear that the status quo is unacceptable.

The hangover of uncertainty due to the ugly resolution — if there is one — of expiring taxes and automatic spending cuts, and possible recession, is what is most concerning investors, business owners, communities and families across the country.

While there is a generic hope in Washington that this will eventually be worked out, a sequestration deal is not inevitable. If it comes down to Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in a room again, markets have no reason to expect wildly different outcomes like a grand bargain the next time around. But removing the threat of sequestration while working to reduce our debt would give the American people reason to once again have faith in our policymakers.

That would be welcome under a President Obama or a President Romney.

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

 

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