We consider these details not to identify or criticize “pork” or earmarks, but rather to note the attention that Congress lavished on certain aspects of the defense portion of the continuing resolution. Had Congress sought to ensure that sequestration would not harm national security — or to prevent the military from grandstanding on behalf of the White House — one simple provision would have done it: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the secretary of defense shall have the authority to transfer monies from any other defense account into the operations and maintenance account of any of the several services if it is his judgment that such transfer is essential to preserve the current combat capability of the active and reserve elements of the armed forces of the United States and following his formal notification to Congress of his intent to do so and the reasons for the transfer.” There is no such provision in the continuing resolution — nothing like it, in fact. On the contrary, its language reflects a business-as-usual approach to the defense budget that has left the secretary of defense and the uniformed leadership severely constrained in their ability to mitigate the impact of sequestration on the military’s readiness to fight.
None of which is to say that either the civilian or the military leadership of the Defense Department has acted perfectly. As my colleague Mackenzie Eaglen has written, DOD’s consistent refusal (reportedly driven at least in part by White House guidance) to plan for sequestration and accordingly adjust its spending during the first part of this fiscal year has unquestionably magnified the damage sequestration has caused. It is possible — indeed, likely — that creative ways to get the Truman to the Persian Gulf could have been found.
And our discussion should not lose sight of the fact that the president remains the commander-in-chief and is ultimately personally responsible for all decisions regarding the deployment of American military personnel, aircraft, and vessels. There is no public evidence to suggest that he was sufficiently concerned about the cancellation of the Truman’s deployment to demand any action, from the Defense Department or Congress, to avert it. It is hard to imagine that if the White House had asked Congress for a short bill transferring the money required to support the Truman’s deployment from one bucket to another within the DOD budget, Congress would have refused to pass it. It is equally hard to imagine that if Congress, on hearing of the impending cancellation, had itself initiated and passed such a bill, the president would have vetoed it. All parties are to blame for this national-security debacle, and no one has benefited from it except, possibly, our enemies.
Our discussion has gone deep into the defense-budget weeds because that is where decisions are made about how defense money is actually spent. But we should also give brief consideration to the context within which $500 billion is to be cut from the Defense Department over the next nine years because of the sequester. Alone among major government agencies, DOD did not benefit from any of the stimulus spending at the start of the Obama presidency — despite the fact that the overwhelming proportion of money spent on defense flows directly back into the American economy, via projects many of which were “shovel ready” in January 2009. On the contrary, defense spending has been cut by $965 billion since 2010 (over a ten-year window) without counting sequestration. That is a sum nearly twice the yearly DOD budget. Sequestration would bring that total to nearly three full years’ worth of defense spending. No other major government agency or program will suffer anything approaching that level of immediate and longer-term budget cuts under any of the plans now under consideration. Even with all of these defense cuts, moreover, budgeteers on both sides of the aisle are scrambling to find much greater sums of money through either tax increases or major cuts to entitlement programs in order to bring the federal deficit and national debt under control. And so they must, for, as my colleague Nick Eberstadt has pointed out, even if we eliminated the defense budget entirely, growth in entitlement programs would make up the difference within four years.
One need not accuse any of the characters in this tragedy of malevolence in order to explain their actions. Sequestration is being allowed to harm American national security severely because the attention of policymakers and elites is elsewhere. The United States is putting itself, its allies, and the world order that serves America so well at great risk in a fit of absentmindedness. It is past time to start paying attention again to the consequences of this policy on our security.
– Mr. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.