As House Republicans debate whether to support the Boehner debt-limit package, one key issue is getting overlooked in the debate: Unlike the alternatives presented by Democrats and bipartisan commissions, the Boehner plan avoids significant defense cuts, making it the best option for conservatives concerned about U.S. national security.
For decades, Republicans have been viewed by voters as the party of national security. Voters have come to trust the Grand Old Party to keep Americans safe and maintain America’s defenses. In the 1980s, President Reagan bucked political pressure to cut defense, instead conducting a defense buildup that led to victory in the Cold War and pulled America out of what he called Carter’s “world of make-believe.” Pres. George H. W. Bush helped orchestrate the emergence of a Europe whole and free, and ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
In contrast, significant cuts to the defense and intelligence budgets by President Clinton in the name of deficit reduction left the United States unprepared for the challenges posed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently said at his confirmation hearing, the Clinton approach “might not have been the best way to achieve those savings.”
After generally refusing to play politics with national security for much of the last two years, some Republicans now appear to be tempted to compromise the party’s national-security credentials and follow Clinton’s approach.
The “Gang of Six” plan, released last week and backed by several Republicans, called for a stunning $886 billion in cuts to security spending. This is more than double the $400 billion in cuts proposed by President Obama in April.
The plan currently on offer from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid embraces these cuts. House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon recently highlighted the fact that the Reid plan would cut “$868 billion in defense cuts over ten years when weighed against the FY11 budget request,” thus having a “disastrous impact on our military.”
Conservatives are right to focus on the dire state of the economy and the need to slash government spending. But these efforts should not and need not require Republicans to turn their back on the party’s traditional support for a policy of peace through strength.
The percentage of federal spending devoted to the core defense budget — excluding contingency spending in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — has actually declined over the last ten years from 15.6 percent to 14.6 percent. Baseline defense spending as a percentage of GDP in recent years has been at a level lower than any time since 1940 except for the Clinton administration’s “procurement holiday,” which extended through the Bush administration’s pre-9/11 budget.
As Ronald Reagan put it in a December 1992 address to students at the Oxford Union Society, in a passage that is eerily relevant to today’s debate: “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 of Bosnia, Somalia, and Sudan demonstrate all too well, power still matters. More precisely, economic power is not a replacement for military power.”
The American people will not reward President Obama if our defense capabilities are not maintained and he tries to abdicate his role as leader of the free world. Neither will they reward Republican members of Congress and presidential candidates who are willing to sacrifice our national security rather than make tough political decisions about runaway domestic discretionary spending and entitlement programs.
National-security conservatives should rally behind the Boehner plan. By focusing on the real drivers of our deficit, Speaker Boehner’s plan ensures that Republicans will remain the party that strengthens, not weakens, our national security.
— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.