Debt ceiling deal threatens national security

James Carafano Director, Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
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Conservatives had a number of goals in pursing a debt deal: protect our defenses; decrease spending (including entitlement spending); keep taxes down; and protect the country’s creditworthiness. To date, none of those objectives has been met.

The deal cut over the weekend will force conservatives either to eat big defense cuts or accept huge tax increases in the out years. Forcing a choice between national security and economic growth is no “achievement.”

Conservative leaders in the House have calculated that they’ll be able to thread the needle over the long-run — protecting defense spending and holding off big tax increases until after the 2012 elections. Then, if they realize the gains they hope to make at the polls, they will revisit the entire debt issue and come up with a better plan.

That’s the theory. And liberals envision a similar rosy scenario that gratifies their hopes. Both sides know what the other side is up to, as they play Russian roulette with our economy.

The problem, of course, is that if the conservatives don’t win, we all lose.

The deal calls for a bipartisan committee to agree to a second round of spending cuts this fall. Most entitlement programs are off the table. But the Pentagon budget is up for grabs. And if the committee can’t agree on cuts, then automatic 20% cuts go into effect.

Defense cuts of any kind — much less 20% — cannot be sustained over time. Readiness will collapse. We’ve already seen signs of that, and further disinvestment in our military will only encourage our enemies to stir up trouble.

Our defense forces already are on a glide path to “hollowing out,” thanks to already-agreed-upon cuts in procurement and other military spending. We will have to ramp up defense spending in the future, regardless of what political deals are cut this year. But the bigger the defense cuts enacted now, the greater future costs will be. And if that greater investment must be made in the context of a stagnant economy strapped down by high taxes, our position will be like that of Britain in 1939. But who could bail us out?

Even the Pentagon has awakened to the reality that national security could be the biggest loser if the wrong side wins this debate. Senior Pentagon officials, in and out of uniform, are starting to sound the alarm that cutting hundreds of billions from defense to balance the budget would be crazy.

In a hearing last week, senior generals acknowledged that the armed forces are already on the verge of a readiness crisis. As Heritage defense expert Mackenzie Eaglen noted, “The vice chiefs also painted a grim view of the military’s inability to surge if needed. The ever-increasing need for military resources in the Central Command region has left other combatant commanders lacking the capabilities they need in order to support America’s strategic interests elsewhere.” Another half-trillion or more in cuts will knock the military off the rails.

It is good that the Pentagon is starting to realize that too many in Washington are prepared to abandon their constitutional responsibilities to “provide for the common defense” in order to protect open-ended entitlement spending from budget discipline.

The next step for Pentagon leaders is to stop giving the White House a pass on its defense-cuts-are-no-biggie talk. Admiral James Winnefeld, the president’s nominee for vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently suggested that cuts could be accommodated simply by cutting back on missions and capabilities. “We’re just going to have to stop doing some of the things that we are currently able to do,” he told Congress.

The problem is that, when you cut back on capabilities, you create weaknesses. And our enemies will inevitably exploit our weaknesses. After all, they get to decide where and when they will make trouble for us. As soon as the U.S. stops defending itself somewhere — or allows some other vulnerability to develop — you can bet some enemy will exploit that choice.

Some in Congress, however, just don’t get it. When Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) says we’ll “have to make tough funding choices, and we will need our military’s best advice on how to reduce spending that realistically manages risk in ways that adequately address our top national security challenges,” he’s just not listening. After a parade of senior military officials have said cuts are going to cripple the military and if we cut more we’ll get less defense, Levin’s answer is: Okay, so where do we cut?

The Pentagon needs to do more to get Congress to recognize the terrible risks they create by cutting defense spending. And Congress needs to pay attention to what the experts are telling them.

James Jay Carafano is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.