After the Super-Committee: Putting the Sequester in Perspective

November 21, 2011

With the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction poised to close up shop with no recommendations, the discussion has turned to the sequester and what it will mean for military spending. Gordon Adams, former associate director for national security and international affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, tells NSN to “expect endless garment rending over the impact of a sequester, but do not expect a sequester. It is mostly for show. Managing a build down is still the issue, and it will be the issue after the election.”

Bipartisan support for “going big,” including defense, fails to move Super Committee. The New York Times reports today, “With the hours ticking away toward a self-imposed deadline, Congressional leaders conceded Sunday that talks on a sweeping deficit agreement were near failure and braced for recriminations over their inability to reach a deal… By law, the special Congressional committee’s inability to reach an agreement will trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over 10 years to the military and domestic programs, to start in 2013…” Last week, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle urged the Super Committee to look at everything, including defense, to find an agreement. As Christian Science Monitor reported at the time, “On Wednesday, a bipartisan group representing 45 senators and more than 100 House members rallied to urge the super committee to go big – that is, aim for a $4 trillion package of deficit reduction – with everything on the table, even if it means breaking with fixed partisan positions.” Lawmakers will now have to look to next year’s budget to start to make responsible changes that safeguard our security and fiscal health. [New York Times, 11/20/11. Christian Science Monitor, 11/18/11]

Super Committee misses opportunity to strengthen foundations of U.S. security and take a strategic look at what military capabilities the U.S. needs. “‘It was a huge opportunity missed,’ Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a Democratic member of the committee, said in an interview on Sunday. Representative Jeb Hensarling, Republican of Texas, who headed the committee with Mrs. Murray, of Washington, agreed. ‘As a nation,’ he said, ‘I am not sure how long we have to put America on a sustainable path,’” according to the New York Times. The Super Committee missed a historic opportunity to match budgets with a more disciplined national security strategy. Gordon Adams explains: “As Bernard Brodie, one of America’s great strategic thinkers, put it more than fifty years ago: ‘Strategy wears a dollar sign.’ A disciplined approach to both will produce budgetary savings and ensure that our military capabilities and global leadership remain powerful and well focused on core missions. This means making choices linked to a realistic assessment of risks, defining missions better connected to a more coherent strategy, and doing so within constrained resources.” [New York Times, 11/20/11. Gordon Adams, 7/7/11]

Next steps in perspective:  sequester would return defense spending to FY 2007 levels;. Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense for the Reagan administration explains, “Sequestration would mean that the Pentagon would have to absorb $600 billion in reductions over the FY 2013-2021 period compared to projected levels. Adding in the $400 billion in reductions it is already planning to make would bring the total to about $1 trillion over the next decade. But… the baseline defense budget was projected to grow by 26 percent from $554 billion in FY 2012 to $696 billion in FY 2021, and that total (non-war) spending would be $6.2 trillion over this period. A $1-trillion reduction would mean spending ‘only’ $5.2 trillion but would still result in a defense budget increase of almost 20 percent. In other words, there are no reductions. Defense would still grow, but not as fast. Moreover, sequestration will return defense spending in real terms to its FY 2007 level, the next to last year of the Bush administration, when no one was complaining about devastating levels of spending.” [Lawrence Korb, 11/17/11]

Many commentators believe a sequester is unlikely, which makes a strategic conversation about our real defense needs even more vital. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial board suggests that the sequester is “hardly the nightmare of Washington dread.” It writes, “Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warns that the cuts ‘would do catastrophic damage to our military, hollowing out the force and degrading its ability to protect the country.’ But he is referring to cuts across the entire decade. In 2013 CBO says the defense budget would be $83 billion below the Pentagon baseline for that year and $61 billion below current funding. If a 2013 sequester truly imperils U.S. security, Congress should pass a supplemental bill to restore some of the reductions.” Russell Rumbaugh, a former Senate Budget Committee aide now with the Stimson Center told The Hill, “Only twice has a sequester taken place without Congress changing it and once it was so small it was less than two-thousandths of a percent of funding. Even if the supercommitee fails sequester isn’t likely to occur.” [Wall Street Journal, 11/21/11. Russell Rumbaugh via The Hill, 11/19/11]

What We’re Reading

The New York Police Department arrested Jose Pimentel, an American-born Muslim apparently influenced by the late al Qaeda militant Anwar al Awlaki, on charges of plotting bomb attacks throughout New York City.

Egyptians protesting the continued rule of the interim military administration clashed with military forces in Tahrir Square over the slow transition to civilian rule.

The Arab League is rejecting proposed changes by Syrian president Bashar al Assad to a cease-fire agreement with Syrian opposition forces, who allegedly bombed the Baath Party headquarters.

Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari is under increased pressure to investigate claims that Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, had sought American aid in reining in the Pakistani military.

The Obama administration plans to impose fresh sanctions against Iran, targeted at barring foreign companies from doing business with Iran’s petrochemical industry by threatening to ban them from U.S. markets.

Libyan officials have detained Saif Islam Qaddafi, son of deposed leader Muammar Qaddafi, and Abdullah Sanoussi, Qaddafi’s chief of intelligence.

Spain’s conservative Popular Party won a majority of seats in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, seen as a referendum on the Socialist party and the Spanish eurozone economic crisis.

Ethiopian troops crossed into Somalia with armored personnel carriers, heavy artillery and tanks, opening a new front in an intensifying international offensive against the Shabab militant group.

South Sudanese rebel leader George Athor Deng says peace talks with the country’s ruling party have broken down and that his forces are prepared to continue fighting.

Burmese political leader Aung San Suu Kyi announced she will run in a parliamentary special election after the ruling military government dropped its objections to her candidacy.

China is portraying President Obama’s recent visit with Asian nations as an attempt by the United States to counter China’s new prominence in the world.

Commentary of the Day

The Washington Post editorial board supports the presidential veto threat over the defense authorization bill if controversial detention provisions remain.

Marc Lynch writes that now is the time for the Egyptian political elite to unify — Islamist and non-Islamist, elite and popular — around clear demands for a speedy political transition to civilian rule.

Mosharraf Zaidi explains how the Pakistani electorate may help soften the outcome of the expanding controversy over the leaked memo asking for U.S. aid against the Pakistani military.

James Traub writes that Republican presidential hopefuls have a pretty clear idea of who they think America’s enemies are. But what about its friends?

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