Left and right unite to blast sequester-imposed defense cuts

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Brendan Bordelon Contributor
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A bipartisan panel of defense scholars rejected the options presented in the Defense Department’s new plan for tackling the sequester, arguing that the proposed cuts would severely curtail America’s ability to respond to multiple threats simultaneously.

Michael O’Hanlon of the liberal Brookings Institution and Mackenzie Eaglen of the conservative American Enterprise Institute were responding to last Wednesday’s release of the Strategic Choices and Management Review, a Pentagon report laying out how the DoD would restructure the U.S. military should the full ten years of sequester-mandated cuts – totaling $500 billion – go into effect.

While critical of the Pentagon’s plan, the scholars reserved most of their ire for the sequester itself, which they said forced the Defense Department to consider such drastic action in the first place.

“At the time [of its enactment] sequestration seemed better than doing nothing,” O’Hanlon remarked. “Now I think it’s worse than nothing. It’s a bridge too far.”

Eaglen argued that the Pentagon is being unfairly targeted compared to other federal agencies.

“Roughly $1 trillion was taken out of current, planned or future DoD spending in the last four years before sequestration,” she said. “In many of these other departments, they’re coming off a budget wave from the stimulus.”

The panelists agreed with some aspects of the SCMR, including eliminating redundant office staff, closing old or inefficient bases and even cutting compensation for American soldiers.

O’Hanlon said these moves would bring about $125 billion in ten-year savings. Add to that a further $75 to $100 billion he believes can be retained by “cutting muscle,” and the amount of cuts the scholars are comfortable with comes to a bit over $200 billion.

“The Pentagon seemed to arrive at a similar place,” O’Hanlon noted. “But then it had to keep going.”

The scholars bemoaned proposed cuts to the Army, which would take the force from 500,000 troops down to 420,000 or less. O’Hanlon believes that would leave the military hopelessly ill-prepared to fight on two fronts at once.

“We’ve made that kind of mistake before as a country,” he said, citing threats from Iran and North Korea in addition to other, less apparent dangers. “We shouldn’t make that mistake now.”

He was especially concerned over cuts beginning in fiscal year 2014, calling the looming $52 billion in spending reductions “horrible for our armed forces.”

Eaglen said that a proposed reduction in Air Force bombers and the planned retirement of three Naval aircraft carriers would make the Pentagon’s new strategy – “an emphasis on Asia with a toehold in the Middle East” – impossible to maintain.

“There’s no scenario where the Department can continue to hue to it, even though that’s the emphasis at the Pentagon right now,” she said.

The scholars both repeatedly emphasized that the sequester is a politically-driven issue that doesn’t take strategic concerns into account.

“It seems to me we are having strategy determined up on The Hill by people who don’t have a clue of what strategy is all about,” said moderator Marvin Kalb, to vigorous nods of agreement by both panelists.

But neither believes the sequester impasse will be broken anytime soon. “They may add cuts to the back end [of the next ten years],” O’Hanlon explained. “That won’t change the basic logic of sequestration, but will soften the blow in 2014.”

Eaglen wishes policymakers would address the key issue surrounding defense budget decisions.

“Defense policy is the child of the parent called foreign policy,” she said. “There’s been this coalescence of a defense policy debate, but what we’re really talking about is foreign policy issues.”

Eaglen and O’Hanlon both believe that by slashing the military’s budget, politicians are advocating for a reduction in America’s global role without explicitly stating their intention.

“We’re changing foreign policy without really talking about it,” she concluded. “It’s through the back door, and that’s why it’s being done so inefficiently and so dangerously.”

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