The fight over the best form of defense
With Europe on the brink of a shooting war over Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, it may seem an odd time to propose a sharp reduction in the size of the U.S. Army. But that is what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will do Tuesday when President Barack Obama’s new budget request to Congress is published.
Hagel wants to reduce the Army to its smallest size since 1940 — before Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into World War Two. Hagel’s plan would see the Army shrunk to 450,000 regulars, slightly less than the 479,000 troops we had in 1999, before we rapidly expanded after the 2001 al Qaeda attacks and we embarked as well on the optional war to free Iraq from the despot Saddam Hussein.
Obama’s appointment of Hagel, a former moderate Republican senator from Nebraska, was canny. Democrats have often employed Republicans in Defense to disguise what is often regarded as a weakness on military matters by the Democratic Party, which has become the natural home to the nation’s pacifists.
Democratic presidents, however, have been the most bellicose throughout U.S. history — from Woodrow Wilson taking America into World War One, Franklin D. Roosevelt entering World War Two, Harry S. Truman leading the charge in the Korean War, John F. Kennedy embroiling us in the Vietnam War and Bill Clinton bombing Kosovo.
The isolationists of the last century — from both parties — opposed the expansion of our armed forces not merely to stay out of what President George Washington labeled “foreign entanglements,” but because they resented the high cost of war. The divide between those who insist the United States should take a lead in the world, through military means if necessary, and those who insist we must keep spending to a minimum has long been with us.
Hagel is well-placed to execute the well-ordered diminution of our defense forces. His Republican label helps in deflecting criticism from GOP neo-conservatives, who assert that deep reductions will make us ill-equipped in the event of another military emergency. He also approaches the question of where the fat can be trimmed from his unique position as the first defense secretary to have come up through the ranks.
Obama, who spoke out against the Iraq war and who pulled back from the edge when Russia attacked its former republic of Georgia and when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, is now hesitating about how to counter the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He also now sees an unprecedented opportunity to cut defense spending. Obama senses, correctly, that Americans are weary of conflict, having waged two foreign wars simultaneously.
He knows, too, that there is a popular head of steam to reduce public spending and cut the deficit.
With painless economies in federally funded pensions and healthcare hard to find, Obama must hope that by having Hagel make the proposed military cuts he will satisfy both demands.
There will, of course, be the usual bartering — as lawmakers with military bases in their constituencies join with defense industry lobbyists and military and veterans’ groups to resist the cuts. He is confident, however, that a bargain will be struck and that defense spending can be considerably reduced.
There is another political benefit Obama is hoping to enjoy. He is fully aware of the profound division in the Republican Party between the neo-cons, ever eager to intervene in foreign conflicts to advance the cause of America and democracy, and the fiscal conservatives-cum-libertarians, who wish to shrink the size of the state and withdraw expensive U.S. troops that are policing the world.
We have seen from the battles over the sequester, the automatic deep cuts to welfare and military spending, that many libertarians are happy to see the size of the state shrink — even if it means inflicting unnecessary misery on both the most patriotic public servants who put themselves in harm’s way and the most needy Americans. GOP neo-cons have unanimously condemned the intemperate measure.
Hagel’s defense cuts are therefore a win-win-win for Obama and are likely to be profoundly embarrassing for Republicans. We can expect in the coming months to witness some sharp exchanges between traditional GOP hawks like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.) and their budget-slashing America-first colleagues Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
While Democrats are more or less united on the need for defense spending to be curtailed, Republicans are split on the issue. While the nation’s center of gravity on defense is to the left of center, the dividing line on the issue is straight down the middle of the increasingly right-leaning GOP.
Watching Republicans tussle over the future of the nation’s defense — an issue they have traditionally owned – will be an alternative attraction this year to watching incumbent Republican old timers defend their voting records to avoid being ousted in a primary by Tea Party candidates.
The future of defense spending cuts to the heart of the internal debate over the soul of the Republican Party. Should the party of Lincoln continue to aspire to be the natural governing party, the party of reasonable conservatism, good governance and a responsible foreign policy supported by a strong military? Or should it become a libertarian party devoted to Hayekian economics, dismantling the federal government and turning a blind eye to the world’s problems?
Commenting on this defense-hawk versus fiscal-hawk division in his party, the conservative Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator and aspiring GOP presidential candidate, put it succinctly: “I can tell you, the [Rand] Paulistas [are] not interested in the Republican Party as it now exists. They are interested in a very different kind of model.”
When listening to the arguments surrounding Hagel’s defense cuts, then, we can expect two parallel threads. One is the usual battle between the administration and vested interests over where the axe will fall and which communities and businesses will suffer as spending is reduced.
The second is less predictable, more emotionally charged, and even more significant in the long term: What sort of Republican Party will emerge from the internecine battles between conservatives and libertarians? A neo-con party, as it has been until now, or a libertarian party — closer to Barry M. Goldwater than Dwight D. Eisenhower?
Most pressing for Republicans, however, is another question often ignored in the lofty ideological arguments over dry conservative theory: Which will help Republican Party candidates win?
PHOTOS: A F-16 fighter jet from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., prepares for aerial refueling during Exercise Razor Talon at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, in this February 7, 2013 handout photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Shane A Cuomo/Handout
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle assigned to the 174th Fighter Wing prepares to take off from Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield at Fort Drum, N.Y. in this October 18, 2011 USAF handout photo obtained by Reuters February 6, 2013. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Ricky Best/Handout