Saturday, March 2, 2013

Why the GOP is Sticking to Its Guns on Sequestration

***WARNING FOR INFORMATION DISSEMINATION READERS*** This post will invariably explore the nexus between politics and national security.  It is likely that such exploration will be biased by my personal political views.  Those prone to bouts of dyspepsia or other agues as a result of exposure to  the horrors of my blogposts are encouraged to stop reading and proceed to more healthful activities.***

Also, it rambles a bit, but many of you think that's the only way I can write anyway.


Former George W. Bush speechwriter and current slightly-right-of-center pundit/gadfly David Frum posted a Tweet a few hours ago that referenced his article "American Hawks: Behaving Badly" in Canada's National Post.  It caught my attention, as I have recently been deluged by questions from those on the left of the seeming hypocrisy of the GOP, claiming to be pro-defense while at the same time participating in a process that will so clearly weaken the military.  Seeing David Frum pick up this line of argument is not surprising to me, as he appears these days to make his bread from a continuous string of articles and appearances that can best be summed up as saying "Republicans would be much better off if they thought and acted like Democrats". 

That said, Frum (and others) raises a good point, one that has to be addressed. Why would GOP legislators be prepared to allow the sequester to continue and accelerate the ongoing hollowing of the U.S. military?

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) Answer:  Because the new breed of  "Defense Hawks" see the path the country is on as a greater threat to our national security than myriad traditional threats previously addressed by the decades-long national security consensus--that appears to have disappeared.  These Republicans are still very much "pro-defense", they are simply prioritizing other threats while assuming additional short term risk. 

Stipulated: The current situation is ludicrous, irresponsible, and under virtually any set of sane circumstances, inadvisable.  The sequester WILL make our military less ready and it WILL increase risk virtually across the board.

Stipulated:   No political party has a monopoly on patriotism.  Most politicians of both parties are very patriotic and have the advancement of the interests of the American public squarely in mind as they form their views.  Where differences occur is in the identification of those interests, and that process is invariably at least partially a function of ideology.


So here we are, in a situation in which the sequester has been ordered, a process that will invariably lead (at least in the short term) to an increase and acceleration of the hollowing of the military.   Where Mr. Frum and my Democratic friends have erred is in their understanding of the 21st century national security consensus, contemporary American politics and especially, the Republican Party.

Dr. Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute and I recently had a conversation in which he put forward the following notion:  that the broad, bi-partisan national security consensus that has dominated American politics for seven-plus decades, is dead.   I don't know if he has written more extensively on this subject, so I won't attempt to lay out his argument here (in case he is writing something on the subject).  I will simply accept that it is true, or perhaps refining the metaphor a bit, state that it is on life support, waiting on the Death Panel to administer the final blow.

In my view, what made that consensus viable was 1) the presence of an existential threat and in its absence, 2) broad agreement on the role of the United States in the world 3) an economy that could support an array of domestic social programs and strong, expeditionary Armed Forces and 4) processes and customs in the legislative branch that contributed to compromise and consensus.  None of these conditions exists today in anything like the degree to which they did in past decades.  And the consensus has diminished as a result.  With the loss of the consensus, politics and ideology have grown more powerful in policy influence. 

Moving from the decline of the guiding national security consensus, one then considers the state of contemporary American politics and the role the Republican Party plays in it.

Whether or not President Obama and the Democratic Party are actually trying to alter the relationship between the government and the governed while increasing the scope of the welfare-state, a broad cross-section of voting Americans believe they are--and this group tends to vote for the modern Republican Party.   They have sent a group of legislators to Washington to represent their interests, and at a high level of abstraction, these people have told their legislators the following:

 "The present state of our economy and the trajectory we are on with respect to government spending but especially entitlement spending, represents the most important threat to our long-term national security.  We understand the requirements of citizenship and that taxes are the price we pay for a civil society, but we are increasingly uncomfortable with the growth of what government does and provides with the money we give it.  We are the Party of a strong and rational national defense, and to that end, we have prioritized the threat.  The threat is fiscal insolvency, and it must be addressed.  We must retain a strong military, but not at the cost of a weakened country."

And to these people, the "cost" cited in the previous sentence is at the heart of the grand bargain the President is using the sequester to leverage--and that is, higher taxes and more spending designed to alter the relationship between the government and the governed while increasing the scope of the welfare state.  

Therefore, this Republican Party is for the time being, willing to assume more risk in virtually all other threats to US national interests in order to address the one that they prioritize.  There is no hypocrisy here--these are "defense hawks" as Frum would term them, but they have chosen to re-define and prioritize against that which they seek to defend. 

Throughout most of the life of the former national security consensus, voices such as these on Capitol Hill could have been marginalized, leveraged into submission by the existence of nearly dictatorial Committee Chairmen and the carrot and stick attractions of earmarks.  Congressional reforms of decades past and Party driven term-limits have down-sized the power and authority of the Committee Chairmen, and the much over-done evil of earmarks removed an effective tool for intra-and inter-party-compromise.

And so we find ourselves in the time of the super-empowered Capitol Hill individual, where there is always a camera and a microphone to amplify one's views, and where the only responsibility a legislator has is to his/her conscience and constituents.  Loyalty to party leadership is a nice to have, and probably makes one's life on the Hill easier, but it is not required for job security nor for popularity with the folks back home.

Keep in mind--these conditions apply equally to liberals and Democrats.  And because both sides have diminished payoff from compromise and cooperation, less of it happens.

Which brings us back to the sequester.

We are where we are because the consensus has failed and because the ways of obtaining and sustaining consensus are more rare.  No longer do some Republicans see external enemies or capabilities as the most likely and imminent threat to our safety and security. 

Many commentators fail to grasp that the magnitude of the sequester is not nearly so injurious as its implementation scheme.  Had the various departments any real flexibility in how to arrive at the cut levels, this would be little more than a bogey drill--a difficult and meaningful bogey drill, but a bogey drill nonetheless, one that would in virtually all cases make the impact of the cuts less onerous.  Because the cuts are horizontal across virtually all accounts, there is little ability to prioritize and almost no ability to reprogram.  For instance, those who criticize the Navy for decisions to curtail current operations simply don't understand the degree to which the Service's hands are tied in being able to move money from one account to another. 

But complaining about the mindlessness of implementation won't get anything done, so there have been moves in both chambers to address the problem of flexibility, while maintaining the magnitude of the sequester.  There have also been moves to remove DoD from the sequester entirely.

Republicans--those Mr. Frum sees as acting against their own interests--have championed these initiatives, in both cases acting according to their interests and hopefully, Mr. Frum's understanding of those interests.  In both cases, however, the President has declined their offer.  In doing so, he has reinforced for many Republicans the wisdom of going through with the sequester.  That is, the President has played directly into the logic of their intractability.  Whereas they have come forward with plans that would alleviate some of the pain of the sequester in ways that would impact military readiness less while cutting spending more, the President insists on hewing to the path that results in MORE pain in order to gain political leverage designed to pursue policies (taxing, spending) that Republicans already see as a greater threat than a diminished military.

So when Frum and others wonder aloud where the Defense Hawks have gone, they're right there in front of their noses, in the Republican caucus.  Their desire to defend the country is no less than before--they simply see new threats.

Cross posted at The Conservative Wahoo

Bryan McGrath

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