Last week, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana became the latest prospective GOP presidential candidate to deliver a defense-policy speech. Jindal’s remarks are in tune with an emerging trend among GOP presidential hopefuls: the belief that a strong national defense should be a defining issue in the 2016 fight for the White House.
In addition to Jindal, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Rick Perry have all put forward policies in recent months that promote their version of Reagan’s “peace through strength.” To be sure, there is a political component to these speeches. The Russia reset policy, the perceived alienation of allies like Israel, and the failure to leave behind forces to stabilize Iraq are among the Obama policies that are well-established Republican targets. With the administration widely viewed as mishandling (or inviting) global tumult, a Republican push for reasserting American strength is hardly surprising. What is noteworthy is that Jindal’s speech — like Ryan’s and Rubio’s — chooses to approach Obama’s national-security failures from the angle of national defense.
Moreover, GOP hopefuls like Jindal increasingly believe that advocating a program to rebuild our national defenses is not only sound policy, but good politics too. This is one of those all-too-rare instances where it appears that good policy translates into good politics. Though it’s too early to predict with certainty that national defense will be a politically relevant point of contention between the parties in the presidential election, the Jindal speech was definitely testing those waters (notice how he tied Hillary Clinton to Obama’s national-security policies).
And this concern about the deterioration of our military capabilities, or what Jindal calls “tools of hard power,” is gaining increasing currency among Republicans. Defense hawks have long warned of the risks posed by sequestration and the dramatic defense cuts proposed by President Obama and adopted by Congress. Significantly, presidential hopefuls like Jindal have internalized these warnings, concluding that of all Obama’s mistakes, the weakening of our military is “the most dangerous.”
Part of the reason these Republicans are focusing on Obama’s defense policy is that it’s an ill whose cure can be prescribed in tangible terms and with a concrete program. Campaign operatives like policies that differentiate between the candidates and that enjoy support from third-party validators. Thus, Jindal, like Rubio, anchored his proposals in the recommendations the National Defense Panel issued earlier this year. Following the fundamentals in the Defense Panel’s report, Jindal called for, among other policies, the defense budget to return to the 2011 Gates baseline. This is the budget that preceded the Budget Control Act and sequestration; it includes an increase in the shipbuilding program, funding to restore military readiness, and a reversal in the reductions of the size of the military.
In justifying the need for increasing defense budgets after a decade in which we funded two wars, Jindal demonstrates that he has done his homework by explaining that the defense budgets of the past decade weren’t used to modernize the military; instead, they financed the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, under President Bush, was ambivalent as to the wisdom of putting modernization on hold, Secretary Gates embraced the policy of putting the entire Pentagon on a war footing. Whether or not that was the right call, it’s quite clear that sustaining a full-spectrum military and modernizing the force never happened. Add to that the Obama era of constrained and declining defense budgets (Jindal does an excellent job of explaining where the $1 trillion in cuts came from) and the new demands on the military resulting from the current situations in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, and you have a military in crisis.
For Jindal, ending this crisis is priority number one. Though he calls sequestration “ridiculous” and “foolish,” he did not in this speech explicitly call for its end. However, ending the sequester presumably has to be the first step in restoring our military strength and returning to the Gates-era budgets that preceded the Budget Control Act. While congressional Republicans can’t drive national-security policy or direct the military fight against ISIS, they do control the purse strings. And if Republicans win the majority in the Senate this November, Jindal’s rebuilding project may not have to wait until 2016. A Republican Congress could send the president defense-appropriations bills that would remove the sequester’s budget caps and end the era of austerity afflicting our military.
Yet, to date, the call for rebuilding the military and adopting the bipartisan recommendations of the National Defense Panel has been heard only from Republican presidential hopefuls. Republican leaders in Congress have yet to fully embrace the proposals, with some still openly praising sequestration. Perhaps, with the emergence of ISIS, defense policies like the one articulated by Governor Jindal will resonate more with congressional leaders after the midterm elections. Let’s hope so: 2016 may be too late.
— Roger I. Zakheim is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was deputy staff director and general counsel for the House Armed Services Committee from 2011 to 2013. You can follow him on twitter @Rogerreuv.