At a recent discussion in Washington, a Democratic strategist said that President Obama’s speeches were like a Rorschach test. You can read into them anything you want to. He was referring to the president’s statements on economic policy, but the same can be said of this president’s foreign policy.
From Kabul, the president announces a strategic accord with Afghanistan, pledging a long-term commitment to that country’s future while he simultaneously talks about ending the war and focusing on nation building at home.
His surrogates question whether Governor Romney would have had the guts to order the operation that killed Osama bin Laden at the same time that administration officials imply that Obama’s Republican rival is a reckless warmonger for arguing that time is running out with Iran.
But it is the issue of defense spending on which this dichotomy has been perhaps the most apparent. From his first year in office, the president has consistently raided the Pentagon, not domestic cabinet agencies, to find savings to fund his expansive domestic agenda.
Now, so-called sequestration, an unfortunate product of last summer’s debt-limit negotiations, is set to take effect on January 1, 2013. Unless Congress and the president agree to reverse the cuts, a total of $109 billion of discretionary spending will be cut across the board in FY 2013, half of which must be defense, and a total of roughly $500 billion of defense spending over the next ten years. And that’s on top of the $487 billion in cuts over the same period in President Obama’s recent budget.
Yet Obama-administration bureaucrats and uniformed military officials have railed about sequestration. Secretary of Defense Panetta has said sequestration would be akin to “shooting ourselves in the head.” Last week, the vice chiefs of the military services warned that the impact on military personnel would be devastating. General Joseph Dunford, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, told a Senate hearing that “we would absolutely not be able to keep faith with our people.”
Despite these warnings, President Obama and Senate Democrats have shown little willingness to address the problem. During a week in which the House of Representatives voted to fix the first year of sequestration, staving off massive cuts to the defense budget in FY 2013, Senate majority leader Harry Reid tweeted, “Sequester’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a balanced approach to reduce the deficit that shares the pain as well as the responsibility.”
A “balanced approach,” newspeak for raising taxes, is also what the White House repeatedly states will be necessary for any bipartisan deal to avert sequestration. The president’s interest in avoiding the cuts, however, is superficial, as Senate Republicans have pleaded with the White House to respond to their proposals and back a bipartisan plan to avert sequestration, all to no avail.
As a result, there is little sign the Senate will act before the November elections, forcing the Pentagon to begin to plan to implement what was once considered a harmless political trigger that would force the two parties to compromise.
Until now, the Republican response to the president’s all-things-to-all-people approach to national security has tended to be to cede the field, abandoning the GOP’s traditional advantage on these issues. Some Republicans, such as Senator Rand Paul and his allies in several tea-party organizations, have actually gone to the left of the president, advocating even more drastic defense cuts as a way to reduce the deficit.
But sticking our heads in the sand in the hope that the world will allow us to resolve our fiscal challenges at a cost to our security will only increase the risks America faces. House Republicans have commendably chosen a different path, voting last week to support the Ryan budget’s efforts to put defense once again at the top of our priorities. In his Path to Prosperity plan, Chairman Ryan highlighted the fact that “letting budgetary concerns drive national-security strategy means choosing decline.”
Given this, Republicans would be foolish to concede to the Democrats on defense spending, despite the fact that, this year, many voters are focused on the economy, and not foreign-policy priorities. Americans must realize that they are electing not just a job-creator-in-chief, but a commander-in-chief as well.
Even after the death of Osama bin Laden, the world is still a very dangerous place. A nuclearizing Iran, an erratic nuclear-armed North Korea, an Afghanistan struggling to fend off an insurgency, a rising China, terrorist safe havens in Yemen and Somalia, and uncertainty in the Middle East will all face the next president in January 2013. An adequately funded military is key to meeting all of these challenges.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran a campaign that delivered a devastating critique of malaise at home and weakness abroad. He could have ignored national security and focused solely on America’s economic woes. Instead, referencing what he called the “make-believe, self-deceit, and — above all — transparent hypocrisy” of the Carter administration, Reagan laid out a forward-looking agenda of the “rebirth of the American tradition of leadership at every level of government and in private life as well.”
House Republicans did just that last week. If President Obama and Senate Democrats are serious about staving off devastating cuts to our national defense, it’s time for them to do the same.
— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.