There is a yawning gap in the presidential primary between Republican internationalists (Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rick Santorum) and Republican anti-internationalists (they resent being called “isolationists”) when it comes to defense spending. What is surprising is that Newt Gingrich, one of the most vocal figures on the war against jihadism and a devotee of both Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill (to whom he likes to compare himself), hasn’t cast his lot with the Republican presidential candidates, lawmakers and experts who have been trying to sound the alarm on our aging military and the danger of further cuts. At a critical moment when Romney is calling for sequestration to be stopped and Perry is calling out the defense secretary, Gingrich is AWOL.
Perry went so far in the last debate to call for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to resign if the president accepted the sequestration of defense funds, a move Panetta warned would undermine our national security. I couldn’t agree more, and not just because I made the same suggestion the previous day. Panetta made a principled stance, sounding the alarm that sequestration of defense funds, in addition to the cuts already enacted, would be dangerous and undermine national security. If he shrugs his shoulders and simply stands at his pot once the cuts are enacted, what credibility would he have? A think-tank hawk put it best in an e-mail to me on the prospects of a Panetta resignation on a matter of conscience: “That would be a rare profile in courage, I realize, but for him to accept such cuts would be a huge profile in cowardice.”
On the subject of defense cuts, Perry previously took the view that we should not be cutting any further. Romney went one better, suggesting increases in defense spending were needed to keep weapons systems and personnel critical to our international commitments and interests. He’s called on President Obama to stop the defense sequestration.
Meanwhile, there is no surprise that Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and Jon Huntsman favor big cuts in defense spending. If you think, as Paul does, that we needn’t worry about Iran getting the bomb, or, as Huntsman does, that we can arbitrarily pull out our troops from Afghanistan, defense cuts are no big deal.
But what about Gingrich, who has always fancied himself as a big thinker on foreign policy and an internationalist? He’s refused to say. In the last debate, when asked about putting defense on the chopping block, he went into a riff on Pentagon bureaucracy. For hawks, that’s a familiar dodge that many fiscal conservatives take to signal their willingness to let defense be slashed. And in a past debate Gingrich has described himself as a “cheap hawk,” which is meaningless when our Navy, Army, and Air Force are aging and atrophying. Silence at this point is assent to the defense-cutting mania.
I tried to get answers from the Gingrich camp on his positions. The conversation via e-mail went like this. Me: “Does Gingrich support an increase in defense spending? Does he have a specific level of defense spending (% of budget or of GDP) in mind? Does he believe we need to expand the U.S. Navy?” Spokesman RC Hammond: “In what context am I answering?” That one threw me for a loop since he’s a presidential campaign spokesman and I’m a journalist. So I responded that I was asking in his capacity as a campaign spokesman to ascertain Gingrich’s position on defense issue. Hammond e-mailed back, “Try again.” (This is a campaign that has absorbed its candidate’s complete contempt for the media.) I replied that I wanted to know his positions on the issues, was doing a piece on national security and these were the sort of questions other candidates had addressed. He then asked to call me but never did.
This is not a campaign that seems serious or brave or thoughtful about defense spending. Perhaps Gingrich is trying to cater to the Ron Paul contingent. Maybe he (this would be typical) has broad pronouncements but few concrete policy proposals.
In any event, conservative hawks should be wary and should press Gingrich for specific answers. Is he with Huntsman or Romney? Paul or Perry? And if he thinks we’re going to squeeze enough savings out of Pentagon “reform” to pay for the needed weapons system and personnel, he is delusional.