The sequester threat is not the only thing at work here. It is, rather, the precipitating factor, at the end of a long period without a federal budget. The uncertainty about defense funding could hardly be more comprehensive at this point.
It was stupid of the Republicans to allow themselves to be set up for the current stand-off, in which they have to trade national-security capabilities – at precisely the wrong moment in history – for the party’s survival as a credible political opponent. The GOP’s credibility must survive this showdown; John Boehner isn’t wrong about that. The Republicans in Congress must be able to stop Obama’s spending plans, or at least slow them down, for the next four years. The “sequester” framework, foreordained when it was cobbled together in November of 2011, means that the Republicans’ hope of doing that now lies in a willingness to let the sequester happen.
But it is unconscionable of Obama to handle the sequestration threat the way he has. The sequester was, we should remember, Obama’s idea. Republicans have offered him flexibility in tailoring the cuts to minimize the worst impacts on defense, and Obama has rejected the proposal. The president also declined in September 2012 to meet the sequestration plan’s deadline for reporting out on how the cuts would be taken in the federal departments. According to official testimony in July 2012, DOD had been given no directive to plan for the cuts imposed by the sequester. This was months after Leon Panetta described the sequestration cuts, in November 2011, as “devastating” to the military – suggesting a minimal competence question, at the very least, regarding the Obama administration.
But even aside from the sequester itself, the military’s readiness is being leached away by continuing-resolution budgeting. Uncertainty serves quite as well as cuts signed off on, to delay or cancel operations and maintenance.
The lack of a budget since fiscal year 2010 means that there has been no ordered, unifying declaration of national strategy or priorities since then. A budget is a political accountability document as much as anything else; the lack of one is a boon to anyone who wants to spend without accountability, and that’s what Obama and his Congresses have been doing. The Obama plan for DOD, in the years since 2009 (when the 2010 budget was passed), might as well have been little Brittany’s Christmas wish list, for all the accountability there is in reconciling it with the continuing resolutions.
Do the funds actually allocated in those years track the defense priorities outlined in the Obama administration’s budget proposals for 2011, 2012, and 2013? There has been no mechanism to guarantee that. It’s not certain that we can tell. What we do know is that an aircraft carrier’s nuclear recore has now been deferred indefinitely, and that our force posture in CENTCOM has now been reduced below the level at which the president can order a strike on Iran without asking for emergency funds from Congress.
The president has had the authority all along to guard the defense capabilities he considers most important, and Congress has offered to bolster – even expand – that authority. If the ability to credibly threaten Iran is not one of those priorities, I don’t know what is. No one wants to attack Iran, but a key component of the strategy to avoid doing it is to ensure that the threat is credible. Today, it’s not. Obama is playing too many games of “chicken” – and he hasn’t been guarding defense capabilities. What that means is that at the moment, vis-à-vis Iran, he’s not carrying a big stick.
Originally published at the Optimistic Conservative.