Insiders: Pentagon's budget cuts are pragmatic for changing times

Andy Dunaway/AP

Three-quarters of National Journal’s National Security Insiders said the Obama administration’s plan to cut the Pentagon budget was a smart decision driven by the end of the Iraq war and the nation’s current fiscal crisis, dismissing criticism by defense hawks who maintain that chopping nearly $500 billion over 10 years could undermine the military’s capabilities.

After months of deliberation, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey late last month revealed details of the first tranche of reductions.  A strong majority -- 74 percent -- of the pool of national-security experts agree with the top military leadership that these cuts are pragmatic during a national economic crunch and will help the U.S. adapt to evolving threats.

“Smart, strategically based reductions will provide adequate defense for the next generation of threats,” one Insider said. Another added: “Our defense strategy and supporting budget are based on countering potential enemy capabilities. Far too much rhetoric flies around the nation on this issue. In five years, there will be new developments that will require changes.”

However, many Insiders are uneasy at the prospect of sequestration -- the additional $600 billion in reductions to Pentagon accounts due to the super committee’s failure to reach an agreement on the deficit. Even as Panetta blasts the across-the-board cuts as a “doomsday mechanism,” he has sided with President Obama in saying that Congress cannot devise a way to evade sequestration, but instead must find a way to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion as mandated under the August debt deal.

“The plan is pragmatic, as it is written,” one Insider said. “Sequestration, though, would trigger a messy process that would be among the worst possible ways to cut defense.”

Siding with loud GOP criticism already blaring on Capitol Hill, 26 percent of Insiders said they believe the already-announced cuts are a shortsighted move which could threaten U.S. national security. “The budget cuts coupled with talk of a ‘pivot’ to Asia have alarmed Europeans in particular,” one Insider said. “The view of America as weaker because of its determination to withdraw forces from Afghanistan is simply reinforced by the cuts.”

Seventy percent of Insiders said NATO should stick to its 2014 deadline to end the combat mission in Afghanistan, disagreeing with France’s announcement it would withdraw troops sooner than planned. Fueling the Insiders’ responses to the poll was Panetta’s surprise announcement last week that the U.S. would end its combat mission in 2013, a year earlier than expected.

“The announcement to move up the end to U.S. combat operations to 2013 in Afghanistan is a blatant political move in an election year that will have dangerous operational consequences,” one Insider said. Another added: “Speeding up the departure will increase the risk of a Taliban takeover. The Afghans will not be ready in 2013.”

One Insider cautioned that NATO should “stay the course unless conditions in Afghanistan support early reductions.”

Thirty percent of Insiders said NATO should accelerate its plans to wind down the long Afghan war. “Another year is not going to buy either more security or a less corrupt Afghan government,” one Insider said. “Apparently, the Obama administration is also in agreement,” another added.

Reflecting the growing tensions within NATO about whether the war is worth the human and financial cost, one Insider described the alliance’s “Herculean efforts to enhance security” in Afghanistan but said there is “too little self-sustaining momentum after a decade to believe that a few more years of expensive engagement will change the dynamic.”

“If we're not going to extend it for decades, which even hard core COIN [counterinsurgency] fans admit we shouldn't, it should have ended a long time ago,” one Insider said. “We're throwing good money after bad.”

As one Insider put it, the heated debate over one year in the war effort is moot. “Doesn't really matter,” the Insider said. “Neither is long enough.”

Click here to view the results of the poll on National Journal.

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