Defense Takes Another Hit

Defense Takes Another Hit
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President Obama has vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), extinguishing the one real opportunity this year – and possibility for the rest of his administration – to reverse the decline in American power that is undermining the foreign policy of the United States throughout the world.

Four years ago, the president signed the Budget Control Act, which cut a trillion dollars over ten years from the defense budgets which then Secretary of Defense Bob Gates had proposed early in 2011.  The effect has been so profound, and so negative, that last year an Independent Panel appointed to review the condition of the military unanimously concluded that the armed forces were becoming a “high risk” force, and that a return to the Gates’ budget was the minimum necessary to enable them to carry out their future missions.

The NDAA is a step, albeit a very small one, in the right direction.  It contains many important reforms of the Pentagon’s acquisition and compensation systems.  It also authorizes an additional $38 billion in military spending for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) – money that could be used to restore the readiness of the military and buy greater quantities this year of vital new inventory, like the F-35 fighter. 

The president cannot deny the money is necessary.  He asked for it in his budget, though he wanted the money in the form of a budget increase rather than through OCO, which is what Washington calls “one time money.”  A budget increase, and at a vastly higher level than the president requested, would have been far preferable, but that is no reason for vetoing this bill at a time when the armed forces are in such stress.

An employee who needs, but doesn’t get a salary increase, shouldn’t for that reason turn down a bonus. 

Yet the president vetoed this bill because Congress is not giving him the increase in nondefense spending he wants.  In other words, he is doing exactly what he blamed Republicans for doing when they threatened to withhold funding for the Department of Homeland Security to protest his executive order on immigration.  He is linking two unrelated policies and holding the one hostage to the other. 

Of course the administration is not saying it is holding defense hostage to other parts of the budget.  Secretary of Defense Ash Carter put the administration’s case this way in written testimony to Congress:

“The president has said that he will not accept a budget that severs the vital link between our national and economic security, because that principle – matching defense increases with non-defense increases dollar for dollar – was a basic condition of the bipartisan agreement we got in 2013, (and) the president sees no reason why we shouldn’t uphold those same principles in any agreement now…”  (emphasis supplied).

Secretary Carter put his finger on the underlying issue:  “[T]he president sees no reason” for urgency.  In the president’s mind, nothing about the international situation is sufficient to justify any unusual steps to mitigate the effects of the defense sequester his own administration has rightly described as “devastating” to America’s armed forces and national security.

Evidently Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not a reason, nor is the growing danger of Russian aggression against NATO allies in Eastern Europe.  China’s ongoing military buildup, cyberattacks against the United States, threats to American naval vessels, and aggression against American rights and allies in the East and South China Seas, do not constitute a reason either. 

ISIS is not a reason. The metastasizing Sunni/Shia conflict in the Middle East is not a reason.  The Syrian civil war, which has spread to Iraq, threatens to destabilize Jordan and Turkey, and has begun to engulf Israel in a wave of violence, is not a reason.  The spread of terrorism, and the killing of Americans in our homeland by radicalized Muslims, is not a reason.  The resurrection of the Taliban’s strength in Afghanistan is not a reason. Iran’s and North Korea’s growing sophistication in ballistic missile technology is not a reason.

The fact that our Army is shrinking to pre-World War II levels, the Navy is struggling to maintain a global presence, the Air Force is smaller and flying older aircraft than at any time since the inception of the service, the Marines lack amphibious capability, America’s space assets are old and vulnerable, the strategic arsenal must be modernized, there is a serious backlog in maintenance and training in all of the services – in the president’s mind, none of these is a reason to accept the OCO money, pitifully small as it is, as a compromise that would stop some of the bleeding in the armed forces until his successor takes over in 16 months.

I did not defend this year’s congressional budget when it was passed. I won’t defend it now.  The sequester caps which have so mesmerized the Congress are no answer to the structural debt problem, and they are an ongoing disaster for the armed forces.  But the OCO funding was at least a small step in the right direction.  Since the president “sees no reason” to accept it, it is all the more incumbent on him to take real responsibility for the military he commands and engineer a better solution in the budget negotiations with Congress between now and the end of the year.

Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator from Missouri. He is a senior fellow and director of the National Security 2020 Project for the American Enterprise Institute.

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