Sequester, and Begin Anew

With the “fiscal cliff” looming, the $1.2 trillion automatic budget cuts, also known as sequestration, will trigger on 1 January 2013, as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act.  The Department of Defense will bear 41% of this burden, cutting $492 billion over 10 years.

Although these cuts aren’t actually cuts at all, but merely decreases in the rate of growth, neither political party has the will or the want to let them go into effect.  Politicians on both side tell us sequestration will cut our Navy to its smallest size since WWI, and cut our ground forces to their smallest size since WWII.  Our Department of Defense, however, currently consumes 20% of the federal budget and 5% of the US economy.  At $707.5 billion, the 2012 Defense budget is more than double its $291.1 billion size in 2001, before our modern wars began.  Having technically ended a war last year, and currently drawing down in another, what exactly are we spending our money on?  How do we, every year, spend more on defense than we did the year before?  Instead of sheltering the Department of Defense from spending cuts, perhaps it should be the first place we look.

(Look closely, I’m in the picture.  Mombasa, Kenya, 2005)

For starters, it’s estimated the United States has over 350,000 of its 1.5 million military personnel deployed abroad.  The Defense budget also funds hundreds of thousands of government civilians and contractors abroad.  At the time of this writing, 37% of our Navy is deployed, with 107 of our 287 ships underway.  We are not investing in defense capability as much as we are maintaining military capacity, and fortifying the Military Industrial Complex President Eisenhower warned us about.

Why do we keep doing this?

For too long I blamed our government; I now believe something larger is afoot.  According to Pew Research Center, public support for the war in Afghanistan has been upside down since December 2010.  Hawkish politicians in both the Executive and the Legislative Branches, however, keep getting reelected.  Although our population does not support the wars we wage, our culture allows it, due to a couple of psychological errors on our part.  We are falling victim to a normalcy bias, or a “new normalcy bias,” if you will – that we are now at war because we’ve always been at war.  We are living through a national groupthink, even if we disagree with our national defense posture.

Both parties in Congress allowed the Executive Branch to unilaterally intervene in Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, and Uganda, although Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution explicitly states that “Congress shall have the Power To declare War.”  It is our culture that is to blame for this usurpation of power – not the politicians, who are answering their constituency.  There simply has not been enough of an outcry to be heard.

While the CIA is militarizing and beefing up its armed Drone fleet by 30% in 2013, the American population is largely silent.

While our Afghanistan War effort has gone through 11 commanders in 11 years, proving it is impossible to lead effectively, the American population is, again, largely silent.

While the Benghazi debacle has drawn attention to the Obama Administration’s handling of intelligence and security, we still are not asking whether our presence in Libya is necessary at all.

What’s more, it’s quite telling that it has taken a sex scandal, engulfing CIA Director General David Petraeus and Commander of Afghanistan Forces General John Allen, for national security and privacy issues to finally garner our attention.

So is distracted leadership at both the CIA and in Afghanistan to blame for our recent national security miscalculations?  Or could it be we were all distracted?

Asked another way, is America apathetic about warfare in general?  As only 1% serves in the military, most of America is detached from the sacrifices being made on their behalf.  As Drones increasingly take the place of personnel in the battlefield, our population is becoming even more detached.  Also, as opposed to all other wars, we did not raise taxes, but actually cut taxes in 2001, and again in 2003, to “spur the economy,” as it was sold to us.  In fact, a 2001 report by the Heritage Foundation predicted these acts, known as the Bush Tax Cuts, would effectively eliminate the US Debt by 2010.  Whereas the public debt was just under $6 trillion in 2001, and is careening towards $17 trillion in 2013, that prediction has proven to be demonstrably false.

Our debt, though, is too large to be addressed by mere tax increases.  Eliminating the Bush Tax Cuts would barely cover one month’s deficits.  There’s simply not enough wealth in the population to cover spending; therefore, we must cut spending.  While the capabilities argument is valid, the economic argument against cuts – that cuts will cost the US jobs – is problematic.  As Chris Preble of Cato Institute points out:

“Government spending takes money out of the private sector in the form of taxes or debt (which is simply taxes on future generations) and redeploys that money in the public sector. Granted, the Pentagon represents a special part of the public sector, one that, ideally, creates a genuine public good— safety. But much of what Americans spend on their military doesn’t actually defend them — it goes to defending people in other countries who have chosen not to defend themselves. Americans are growing increasingly aware of the unfairness of the current system, and they’re tired of it.”

Dr. Preble sums it up by saying: “Simply put, Pentagon spending cuts can be expected — all other factors being equal — to generate greater economic activity elsewhere.”

With $40 trillion in unfunded liabilities, the US government is running record trillion dollar deficits, and borrowing $4 billion per day to pay for our massive spending hikes.  As a result, the federal government has no other option but to flood the market with low-rate Treasury Bonds, 61 percent of which our Federal Reserve is purchasing at auction, quickly approaching its 70 percent self-imposed limit.

Before we add another dollar to the deficit for the Department of Defense, we should ask honest questions about our military power projection:

  • Should we have troops in nearly 150 countries?  Should we have 294 embassies around the world, in places like Benghazi, Libya, if we don’t have the intelligence capability to properly staff them with security?
  • Should 37% of our Navy be deployed?  Should our Navy randomly board and search foreign ships in international waters?
  • Should the Congress allow the Executive Branch to unilaterally pursue its perceived national security interests?  Should the Executive Branch utilize a Kill List or “Disposition Matrix” to perform classified signature strikes, sometimes on American citizens, who are sometimes underage?
  • Should the President have the ability to indefinitely detain Americans captured on American soil, without due process, as was codified in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act?

These are not isolationist or pacifist arguments.  These are Constitutional arguments and pragmatic questions about our missions at home and abroad.  This is not a call for a smaller military; subjectively, I would like to have more ships in our Navy, but we can’t afford a bigger Navy that is deployed at the current rate without adding to the debt.

We should not assume that simply because we have lived through a decade of warfare that we should continue living through prolonged warfare state.  Therefore, until we can break the grip of our groupthink and get a handle on our national security posture, let’s let the automatic budget cuts, including Defense Department cuts, trigger, so we can begin anew.

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