There is currently an undercurrent of disagreement among conservatives about the defense sequester and, more broadly, the importance of funding the armed forces at a time of mounting federal debt. That disagreement was reflected in the speeches given by Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Rand Paul in response to the State of the Union address. Senator Rubio condemned the defense sequester as “devastating” and assigned primary responsibility for it to the president. He was right on both counts. The sequester is devastating — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs compared it to “shooting ourselves in the head” — and the president, as commander-in-chief, is primarily responsible for it, whether he sponsored it or, as he claims, simply agreed to it.
Senator Paul did not condemn the defense sequester in his speech. His sole comment regarding the defense budget was that “Republicans [should] realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud.” He’s right in the narrow sense. The Pentagon, like all agencies of government, wastes money. But focusing on that now, given what is happening to America’s armed forces, is like sending a letter to George Washington at Valley Forge telling him to save money on pencils.
Moreover, talking about the budget crisis in terms of defense funding simply helps the president avoid confronting the main challenge to the government’s solvency. Anyone who looks at the federal budget can see that the problem is the structural gap between the revenue collected for entitlement programs and the cost of those programs. That gap is growing and is crowding out everything in the discretionary budget, including funding for the military. Cutting the defense budget is not the answer to the fiscal crisis facing our nation; it is a symptom of it.
Conservatives in Congress are admittedly in a difficult position regarding the defense sequester. They have to work to reform the federal budget; they can’t do that unless the president actually presents a comprehensive plan; and tolerating the sequester in the short term may be the only way of inducing him to do that. But that doesn’t make the damage to American security any less real, and it will increase the importance — if and when a budget agreement is reached — of repealing not only the sequester but also the cuts that preceded it, and returning at least to the level of military funding that Secretary Gates recommended before he left office in 2011.
In that same Townhall interview, Bill Buckley freely acknowledged that, like many conservatives, he had a strong libertarian streak. The interviewer, Bill Steigerwald, followed up by asking why he had feuded so often with libertarians. Here is his response:
I suppose the most important argument is the dogmatic character of libertarian conservatism.
I once wrote an essay on the subject in which I said that if I were at sea on my boat and saw a light flashing I would not worry deeply whether the financing of that light had been done by the private or public sector. This became a kind of playful debate with the [University of] Chicago [economists]. By and large it has to do with the tenacity with which some libertarians tend to hold on to their basic [principles].
To turn Buckley’s illustration into a metaphor, the United States is now sailing in a sea of growing danger and seems to have lost sight of the light on the shore. China is flexing its muscles in support of its national ambitions. Iran and North Korea are advancing their nuclear and missile programs. Al-Qaeda and its allies are expanding their bases of operation. And in an age of nuclear and cyber and biological weapons, the oceans no longer protect the United States.
The answer to these challenges is not to plan on sending American troops into combat around the world. Senator Paul makes that point often, and he’s right. The surest (and cheapest) way of protecting America is to deter these threats before they ripen into war. That requires, first and foremost, a robust military. Conservatives may disagree about a lot of things, but they should agree on that. In fact, liberals should agree, as well. President Kennedy was able to prevent the Soviets from putting missiles into Cuba, without a shooting war, because the United States had a strong Navy. And as Ronald Reagan used to say, “Of the four wars in my lifetime, none came about because America was too strong.”
— Jim Talent served on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a member of the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, and an appointee to the Independent Panel that will review the next Quadrennial Defense Review of the Department of Defense. The views expressed in this article are his own.