After a month’s respite, in which the major political events have been the emergence of Cowboy Rick Perry in the GOP race and some sniping at President Obama for spending a week at Martha’s Vineyard, Congress will return to Washington next week. Like everyone else, I can hardly wait. Neither can your friends and neighbors at the Pentagon, where the power point presentations must be gathering furiously.
The ”highlight” (lowlight?) of the resumed session will be the fight over the budget. Most of the activity will concentrate on 2012 election year posturing, of course, but the Congress has set itself up by including the provision for draconian cuts to be triggered automatically after Thanksgiving unless the Supercommittee does the unexpected and comes up with a viable compromise solution to bringing the deficit under control. Given the constituency of the committee, one should not hold one’s breath on that one, especially given that all six GOP members have signed Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge and that virtually every responsible adult in the United States understands that the process cannot possibly achieve anything like balance without additional revenues. The only chance is that the committee can come up with some convincing euphemism by which new taxes and are called something else, but even the ideological fanatics of the right will probably see through that. The prospects for the system working this out are, in other words, not very good.
Enter the Pentagon. If the automatic trigger goes into effect, the Department of Defense takes it in the knickers, as, of course, does everyone else. Defense planners have already stated that the additional cuts the automatic reductions would impose, about $.5 trillion over a decade or roughly $50 billion a year, will seriously compromise the national defense and thus must be avoided. The power point writers have undoubtedly been fervently at work building the case for the Apocalypse should this occur, and they can be counted upon to share their concerns with anyone who will listen.
In the past, DOD has been very successful in dodging budget bullets. Their key weapon, however, has been the existence of a reasonably clear and present threat that needed blunting. The Russian bear (or the Chinese dragon, or both) could always be dragged out of the closet to frighten the public and assure that Congress would not apply the blade to the DOD budget during the Cold War, and Osama bin Laden has provided the same kind of valuable service for the past decade. But the Russian bear is mostly a Mafiosi now, the dragon stocks our local Wal Mart, and bin Laden is dead. It is not clear who can play Freddie Kreuger and scare the bejusus out of us now to defend high levels of defense spending. The threats may be there, but they are more subtle, less convincing and, quite frankly, less compelling.
If one is defending the defense budget, this leaves one with four arguably Devil’s Choices. One can defend no taxes, high defense budgets, and thus really deep cuts in social services–a position that has traction with the GOP right that has been an historic ally of defense. The problem is that this solution attacks the large constituency who receives social benefits that get pared back radically under these solutions. This constituency is only beginning to become aware of the consequences of this strategy for them, and Democrats will help them fill in the details. When they figure out what Paul Rand-Ryan(Rand as in Ayn Rand) really has in mind for them, they are not going to be happy. And, by the way, they vote in higher proportions than just about any other voting group.
Second, they can play good soldiers, and accept the sacrifices of being full participants in deficit reduction without additional tax revenues. At the abstract level, this has some appeal. It seems patriotic, but it leaves the military with less than they truly believe they need, and playing their traditional guardian role requires resources: patriotism thus cuts both ways. Most military/defense intellectuals consider themselves conservative and thus lean Republican, but other than contractors, they are not among the uber wealthy who benefit the most from this solution.
Third, they can join the chorus that argues that some sacrifice is necessary, but deep cuts are unacceptable, and that the only solution is increasing taxes, some of the revenue from which will defray additional cuts in defense. From a strict calculation of self-interest, this is probably the optimal solution, but it is a tough one to swallow if one believes, as many defense types do, in very limited government that does nothing opulently except for funding national defense. The problem is that no one is really pushing this position: it is essentially libertarian, but Ron Paul, the darling of the libertarians, is also an ardent isolationist (he of course does not call himself that) who essentially wants to withdraw to the shorelines, which can be defended at considerably smaller costs than now being incurred (which is one reason he favors that posture).
The fourth option, of course, is to continue things as they are: large budget deficits. While a short term case can be made for this solution, one thing the Tea Party right has successfully done is to take this option off the table.
The net result of all this is to leave the defense establishment in a pickle of sorts. They believe in fiscal responsibility but generous resource allocation for defense. They generally oppose additional taxes, but they also oppose running what many of them join other conservatives in decrying as ruinous deficits. The problem is they cannot have it both ways. Anybody who believes that the outcome of this whole process is going to be the gutting of entitlement programs to defend an opulent defense budget must suffer from a dangerous belief in the Tooth Fairy: despite the wildest dreams of the Tea Party (which is almost certain to fade rapidly as the social consequences of its advocates are fully understood), this simply is not going to happen. Defense can only be resilient and funded at levels with which it is comfortable by raising taxes. It is really as simple as that, and anyone who tells you different is either a chronic liar or a delusional fool. While I understand this describes a large number of the current membership in Congress, it is nonetheless true.
Welcome back to Washington, Congress! Citizens, on the other hand, beware!
Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations, and national security topics. This essay first appeared at his blog What After Iraq?.