February 25, 2013

The New York Times suggests, “With Congress unlikely to stop deep automatic spending cuts that will strike hard at the military, the fiscal stalemate is highlighting a significant shift in the Republican Party: lawmakers most keenly dedicated to shrinking the size of government are now more dominant than the bloc committed foremost to a robust national defense, particularly in the House.”

Leon Panetta
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images)

The Times provides no statistical information on the voting patterns of members to support this claim, which ignores that House leaders and committee chairmen, including Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), have tried to shield defense from the budget ax.

That said, the near-certainty that sequestration will commence (in lieu of a deal to include a tax hike), and thus fall disproportionately on defense spending, is powerful evidence that national security is taking a back seat to fiscal sobriety. The question is: Why?

To begin with, whether prudent or not, our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is winding down. While the plethora of other threats remain, the absence of an ongoing major military engagement has weakened the claim for defense resources. By failing to rebut the claim that wars were the cause of the deficit, defense hawks have left themselves open to the argument that we can now eliminate “unnecessary” defense. The potential for a peace dividend is so tempting that it will carry the day, unless it is strenuously resisted by the explanation that we have many other threats and challenges.

In addition, support for continued or increased defense spending is fueled in part by the lack of faith in this president that he will use any money wisely, even defense dollars, or that he intends to use military action in a fulsome way. Why pay for something the president neglects, and why continue to give the president any funds, anywhere in government? That’s the thinking among a growing group of conservatives. This goes to a greater loss of faith by voters in national security policy under two presidents.

Moreover, defense hawks have misplayed their hand. Rather than insisting on much needed reforms (and taking on some of the military brass who never want to give up anything) and a Pentagon-wide audit, they continue to insist that there is no further waste and fraud to eliminate, or at least none in meaningful amounts. They understandably object that defense has already been cut while domestic funding as soared, but they have done a poor job of making the best case.

They have neglected to humanize military personnel (recall then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton’s brilliant plea for body armor?): to explain how cuts will affect them and to translate the cuts into tangible consequences. For the average voter, and even the congressman, a reduction of $5 billion is less meaningful than the length of deployments, housing shortages or other hardships. Likewise, repeating that we will have the smallest Navy since World War II is less effective than explaining how that translates into threats from China and the Middle East.

National defense has also suffered from a lack of courage from civilian leaders. Does anyone ever resign out of principle these days? Had Defense Secretary Robert Gates or Gen. David Petraeus quit over the failure to fund the Pentagon adequately and/or the lack of support for our troops, it would have gone a long way toward elevating the concern about defense funding. So long as respected leaders like these simply go along with the program of slashing defense, it will be hard for politicians and others to sound the alarm. And what signal does it send about the importance of defense when uber-hawk Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won’t fight to keep an incompetent Pentagon chief from waltzing in?

In the end, however, if those favoring a robust defense want adequate support in Congress, they are going to have to recruit and elect pro-defense representatives like Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a freshman and a Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran. Cotton told me recently that because the military, and national security more generally, don’t touch the lives of most ordinary voters, these issues require more adept and forceful leadership. He’s right. And it requires that pro-defense advocates do what fiscal and social conservatives have done — find, support and help elect pro-defense candidates from both parties.

National security does not exist in a rarified realm exempt from politics; those who care about it should cease complaining that it is the poor stepchild of the budget and go elect superstar defenders of defense.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.