Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

The North Korean threat in an age of Pentagon cuts

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 11, 2013 19:48 UTC

It may not feel like it, but we are closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The temptation to dismiss the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as a cartoonish figure of fun belies the real and present danger his samurai sword rattling presents. A strange time, then, for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to set out on the most thorough reappraisal of our defense spending since the end of Vietnam.

It is no secret that Hagel relishes the chance to slim the armed forces to a more affordable size. It is what commended him to President Barack Obama. He has already commissioned a wholesale “strategic choice and management review” of the Defense Department, which has been told to think the unthinkable in terms of cutting spending. This week, before defending his vision before the House Armed Services Committee, he offered a glimpse into what he has in mind: a slimming of the desk-bound middle management whose pay and perks cost more than the value of their contribution to the nation’s defense; a clearheaded look at the generous health and retirement benefits the nation’s military and veterans enjoy; the abandonment of expensive advanced weapons that may not be necessary; and an unsentimental assessment of the need for all of our domestic military bases.

Hagel invited “change that involves not just tweaking or chipping away at existing structures and practices but, where necessary, fashioning new ones” because “left unchecked, spiraling costs to sustain existing structures and institutions, provide benefits to personnel and develop replacements for aging weapons platforms will eventually crowd out spending on procurement, operations and readiness.” The American military is too large, Hagel argued. “How many people do we have,” he asked, “both military and civilian? How many do we need? What do these people do? And how do we compensate them for their work, service and loyalty with pay, benefits and healthcare?”

Until recently, such a radical approach to military spending would have been greeted with a chorus of disapproval, not just from those whose constituencies include the military bases that provide a vote bank for those who argue for the maintenance of high defense spending, but also from the united Republican leadership. Until George W. Bush left the White House, protecting the strength of the military was a top priority for the GOP. Maintaining high spending on the military, come what may, was a key policy difference with the Democrats to be played up at every turn. Since Eisenhower, all Republican presidents have spent like drunken sailors on the military to counter fiscal conservatives in their ranks who demanded that the federal government be put on a diet. Lavish spending on our forces was used as a counterweight to fiscal conservatism: backdoor Keynesianism to pump money into a flagging economy.

Now all that has changed. Fiscal hawks from the Tea Party rule the roost, and it is hard to find a military hawk prepared to come out in the open and argue his case. The fiscal hawks are behind allowing the sequester to take effect. For defense, this means $47 billion in largely arbitrary cuts by September to forces’ pay, to reducing flying hours for air patrols, to canceling the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf, to cutting army and marine training, and other hastily arranged improvised savings that will hamper our ability to respond to events like the craziness emanating from Pyongyang. The fiscal hawks find these hasty, careless, risky, reckless cuts to the military acceptable simply because the sequester shrinks the deficit and shrivels the size of government. In a battle between fiscal rectitude and patriotic military preparedness in today’s GOP, balancing the books wins every time.

Has military Keynesianism come to an end?

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 15, 2013 15:34 UTC

The outcome of the sequester ultimatum appears to have taken everyone by surprise. Two long summers ago, when the president and House speaker John Boehner conjured a prospect so terrible that even spending on defense would be deeply cut, they both assumed Congress would buckle rather than approve such a blow to the nation’s pride. According to Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics, Boehner said, “Guys, this would be devastating to Defense. This is never going to happen.”

But neither man appears to have taken account of the clearly stated views of the Tea Party. There are few better ways of appreciating how the Republican Party has transformed in the last two years from a party of defense hawks to a party of deficit hawks than tracking how the sequester has turned from a threat to the nation’s defenses to an unparalleled opportunity to bring the government to heel.

If Obama and Boehner had taken heed of the strident voices offstage, they might have guessed their ostensibly idle threat to the Pentagon would be taken as a chance to reduce the size of the federal government. They didn’t, and the sequester is upon us, promising, according to the Central Budget Office and IMF, to throw 750,000 out of work and slow down already anemic economic growth by 0.6 points. No surprise there: If you take money out of an economy, activity flags and the economy shrinks.

The real reason Obama wants Hagel

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 8, 2013 16:58 UTC

You might imagine the president has quite enough trouble on his hands with the looming battle with House Republicans over extending the debt ceiling without opening a second front over the appointment of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. Although a distinguished former Republican senator, Hagel has already attracted venomous opposition from his old colleagues who think, among many other complaints, he is not sound on Israel and has been too critical of American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Does the president really need more aggravation? Isn’t it a golden rule of politics not to spend your political capital all at once, as the president did in his first term when he pressed through healthcare reform to the detriment of an effective plan to reshape the wayward financial institutions? Having achieved a partial victory in the fiscal cliff negotiations by raising taxes on the super-rich, does Obama really need to take on the House and Senate at the same time?

The Republican charge list against Hagel is long, starting with the accusation that he is not really a Republican at all. Hagel, who believes “the Republican Party has come loose of its moorings,” might argue with conviction that it is the Republican Party that has deserted him, not the other way around, but he has certainly relished tweaking the noses of his old pals. In short, he thinks they are not up to snuff. “When you ask the question, Has [the Republican approach] worked? I don’t think many people will say it has worked,” he said. “God knows, I would never question the quality of our elected officials. That’s why I’m so popular with many of them.”

  •