Hawks Lose It Over Supercommittee

Mass hysteria in Washington over the possibility of real belt-tightening for the Department of Defense reached a fever pitch this week when the secretary of defense suggested the country could be attacked if Congress cut his budget.

If the so-called supercommittee fails to come up with the prescribed deficit-reduction measures by Turkey Day, then it will trigger major cuts in the growth of spending for the Pentagon. Those are the rules put into place by Congress last summer. If the worst happens, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Thursday, it will weaken the armed forces to the point it would embolden our enemies.

“In effect, it invites aggression,” he said in a news conference Nov. 10. The National Journal’s Yochi Dreazen called it “arguably the strongest rhetorical weapon in his arsenal.” That is a nice way of saying it was classic Dick Cheney: say the enemy will attack unless you get what you want.

Dreazen also noted this was Panetta’s “last — and strongest — card in his deck.” But certainly it won’t be the last time we hear it. Not with an army of self-interested congressmen backed by a gaggle of right-wing think tanks, which, even in struggling economic times, always seem to have limitless resources to host myriad luncheons in their pricey downtown digs to talk about such matters as whether public school teachers are overpaid, why not everyone deserves affordable health care, or why Iran and China are the next fronts in the Global War on Terror.

The mere prospect of losing any of that grease sliding through the massive defense industry apparatus in Washington has Republicans running around like Chicken Littles, saying the most extraordinary things.

“I’m convinced that if this so-called supercommittee fails and sequestration is triggered, it will mean undoing the greatest military force in the history of humanity,” Rep. Trent Franks, R-Arizona, exclaimed recently.

Warning against more potential cuts, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, seemed to suggest to a Hudson Institute audience on Nov. 9 that we aren’t sacrificing enough of the rest of the budget to pay for our superior military.

Here’s the point: Other nations face economic and fiscal challenges just like we do. Yet they are making the investments in military capabilities they think they need.

China still has hundreds of millions of people in poverty, yet it’s made huge investments to upgrade its military forces. Iran has been willing to endure years of economic sanctions in order to pursue its nuclear weapons program. And North Korea has literally been starving its own people to feed its own military-industrial complex.

How many eyebrows were raised in the room after that invocation we’ll never know.

“I hope the supercommittee works, but if it fails let’s don’t destroy the Defense Department,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, one of the military’s biggest surrogates in the Senate.

“We’re talking about securing America’s future — as we pull back from that, you’re going to see other countries take our place. And as other countries take our place, you’re going to see our economic role diminish as well as our military role,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, who joined fellow members of Congress, including Graham and Sen. John Kyl, R-Arizona, in a September event on the Hill sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Foreign Policy Initiative, a think tank founded in 2009 by Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, and others closely associated with the Bush war policy.

The three groups say they have formed a joint effort called “Defending Defense,” but it  sounds like they’re just defending the status quo, which almost everyone in the Washington defense establishment is trying to do. These guys are just more overt about wanting to “sustain America’s preeminent military position in a dangerous world.” They are the most vocal about ratcheting up the aggression toward Iran and China. Steep budget cuts at the DoD would certainly not jibe with their long-term strategy goals in the Middle East or Asia.

Not surprisingly, members of Congress who have depended on these right-wing groups to get where they are today have come out swinging against budget cuts they know so little about. Rep. Allen West, R-Florida, a celebrity among the far right, has his own ( mixed) military record to stand on, but he seems to have little more than rhetorical flair when it comes to understanding the budget, and even that is wanting.

“Not just so much from a strategic level, but also from a tactical level, through the operational level, back up to the strategic level, we have to go back and start developing a strategy first and foremost before we start looking to the military and basing the military upon the budget, or basing the military upon the numbers,” he told his Defending Defense audience.

Mitt Romney has become a favorite of the Washington Republican establishment crowd, particularly neoconservatives still haunting the halls of political power. Alas, he has enlisted one of the most connected apologists for the Bush-Cheney war policy — Eliot Cohen — as a top national security adviser.

Here’s what Mitt had to say about the prospects for budget-cutting at the Pentagon in his major foreign policy speech on Oct. 7:

As president, on Day One, I will focus on rebuilding America’s economy. I will reverse President Obama’s massive defense cuts. Time and again, we have seen attempts to balance the budget by weakening our military only lead to a far higher price, not only in treasure, but in blood. …

I will reverse the hollowing of our Navy and announce an initiative to increase the shipbuilding rate from 9 per year to 15. I will begin reversing Obama-era cuts to national missile defense and prioritize the full deployment of a multilayered national ballistic missile defense system. I will order the formulation of a national cybersecurity strategy, to deter and defend against the growing threats of militarized cyber-attacks, cyber-terrorism, and cyber-espionage.

Romney’s “plans” sound ill-informed, supercilious, and drafted by committee, which they probably were. We know that because the speech was littered with tons of shopworn clichés and hand-me-down hubris (can we even afford that these days?), familiar trademarks of his newfound friends in the right-wing foreign policy community.

Otherwise, would he really be saying stuff like this?

I am here today to tell you that I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: this century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world. …

America must lead the world, or someone else will.

But nothing says hyperbole like Frank Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy. Interestingly, Gaffney, who has spent the last several years engaging in Islamophobic fearmongering — even at one point spreading a rumor that the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was being taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood — was given a soapbox last weekend on C-SPAN.

The issue: defense budget cuts. Gaffney’s message: we’re doomed.

“I think he’s understating the danger,” Gaffney said of Panetta’s recent warnings. “I’m really concerned, I have to tell you, that we are approaching the point that we’re looking at eviscerating the military, not just hollowing it out.” He continued:

This isn’t simply happening in a vacuum … it’s happening against a backdrop of a world that is becoming, I believe, vastly more dangerous by the day. Indeed, I think there is a very high probability that before the next election we’ll see a major regional war breaking out in the Middle East, the next war for the survival of the state of Israel, I think.

If we are in fact inviting aggression, as the secretary said, by taking steps that make us appear to be a paper tiger or at least unable to defend our interests or protect our allies … that does make this dynamic that is already in evidence in particular in the Middle East, and in various other places around the world, vastly more dangerous.

Best take a chill pill, Frank. But he won’t. As Winslow Wheeler, who has been watching this Washington fan-dancing for more than 30 years, says, these think tanks and Washington pols are programmed to hyperventilate anytime the growth of military spending is questioned.

And this is the first time in many years that the defense budget has come under any real scrutiny at all.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” said Wheeler, director of the Strauss Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. “Nothing else explains the wild rhetoric and data-cooked claims that industry and the politicians in the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, and ‘think’ tanks are yelling from the rooftops.”

Here Is What We Know

The deficit-reduction plan passed by Congress and signed into law in August called for $1 trillion in federal budget cuts, including $450 billion in reductions from the DoD budget over 10 years. A supercommittee was created, split down the middle with Democrats and Republicans. They are to find an additional $1.5 trillion in reductions by Nov. 23 or their failure to do so will trigger automatic cuts, including an additional $600 billion to the military, beginning in 2013.

So far no one — including Panetta — has said how the current reduction scheme, an approximately 7 to 8 percent drop from the annual current budget trajectory of $700 billion a year, will be implemented. In fact, aside from some “guiding principles” outlined in an interview with The New York Times this week, Panetta has said that a more elaborate plan will not be unveiled until December at the earliest.

Using those broad guidelines, Panetta told the Times that the Pentagon may consider additional base closures, bringing a number of troops home from Europe, and reducing the nuclear arsenal, which it is already bound to do under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the Russians.

He also noted that there might be room to reform the military’s retirement benefits program, including the TRICARE health care benefits for active-duty personnel and retirees. TRICARE spending has nearly doubled to $50 billion a year over the last 10 years while the program has not been changed in the last century, say experts, who suggest that more than $1.5 trillion could be saved over the next 25 years if TRICARE is reformed. Much of that would be bringing patients’ fees and co-pays up to private industry standards.

Already, ground forces are supposed to decrease by a modest 30,000 for the Army and 15,400 for Marine Corps. Panetta said they might consider more reductions — a plan, by the way, which is fully endorsed by the military’s favorite think tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which says in a recent report [.pdf] that the demand for those forces is shrinking as the wars wind down and future needs are more focused on Special Forces, Air Force drones, and the Navy. CNAS, however, also says the military would be at “high risk” if it went over $550 billion in cuts in 10 years.

By the way, Panetta also said he would be maintaining if not increasing the budget for drones and Special Forces. According to a detailed column by invaluable defense writer Walter Pincus on Nov. 1, Special Forces are supposed to increase from 2,600 to 3,600 over the next three years, with a 7 percent budget increase over fiscal 2011. Doesn’t sound like much of a “hollowing out” — the new buzz phrase for the anti-cutting crowd — to me.

In fairness, without a final number on the cuts the Pentagon will be forced to make, it is difficult for Panetta to be clearer. He may not have to make those difficult decisions anytime soon, however. Sens. Graham and John McCain, R-Arizona, have vowed to pass a law to stave off the effects of the “trigger” on the defense budget if the supercommittee does not come up with a plan on time (which looks increasingly likely).

That hasn’t stopped Panetta from acting like a Cassandra everywhere outside The New York Times editorial board conference room.

“What we’re seeing is an Indonesian shadow play on the debate over defense,” said Gordon Adams, foreign policy professor at American University. “The reality behind the shadow play is the defense budget is going down.

“This is called a ‘build-down.’ If you look at the history of our experiences with build-downs, build-downs happened and we survive them,” he said at a recent CNAS conference, pointing to military spending decreases in both the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration. “And we survived that build-down. The military that survived that build-down was the same force that used Saddam Hussein as a speed bump.’’

Wheeler points out that if the “trigger” stays in place and the deepest cuts are implemented, it will merely take the budget down to 2007 spending levels. “I do not recall anyone declaring our national security being ‘imperiled’ at that spending level in 2007,” Wheeler wrote.

“In fact, that level of spending for the ‘base’ (non-war) Pentagon budget was a 16-year high — calculated using ‘constant’ Defense Department dollars intended to compensate for inflation. Not exactly the result of ‘hacking away.’”

But it makes for better soundbites, no? There is no telling how long this will all drag on, perhaps until after the 2012 election. Which is good for the think tanks and pols — and bad for the voter who’s heard this hysterical warbling too many times before.

Follow Kelley Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.