Deficit debate drags military into political fray

The Pentagon is understandably nervous that the congressional deficit-reduction super committee will fail, automatically triggering as much as $1 trillion in cuts to defense spending.

The debt-ceiling agreement reached by the Obama administration and Congress essentially released the hostage of America's good faith and credit, only to replace it with the Defense Department. Now U.S. military leaders have gotten a good look at the faces of their captors, and the fact they recognize once reliable friends hasn't altogether eased their fears.

The Pentagon is understandably nervous that the congressional deficit-reduction super committee will deadlock in November or its compromise deal will be voted down, automatically triggering as much as $1 trillion in cuts to defense spending over the next decade.

Defense hawks who could traditionally be counted on to protect the military's interests are in relatively short supply on the committee, revealing a growing rift between pro-defense and anti-tax advocates in the Republican Party and the focus of a more liberal Democratic caucus on protecting entitlements. Meanwhile, by forcing uniformed leaders to plead for a preferred outcome to the impasse, lawmakers have dragged the U.S. military into the middle of a partisan political argument, ground from which it rarely emerges unscathed.

In unusually blunt terms, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen argued recently that the automatic trigger would essentially amount to shooting the hostage.

"The chiefs are gratified that an agreement was struck to raise the debt ceiling, and we believe the terms of that deal are, at least in the near term, reasonable and fair with respect to future cuts," Mullen said at an August 4 press conference, referring to roughly $400 billion in cuts over 10 years already contained in the initial debt-ceiling deal. "But the chiefs, to a one, share a concern about the devastating impact of further automatic cuts should the Congress fail to enact additional deficit-reduction measures.… We've looked into that abyss, if you will, and it is the service chiefs' view that it is very dangerous for the country."

With all 12 lawmakers now named to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, however, some experts are giving even odds to the possibility of a deadlock that triggers the automatic cuts. Despite including a number of lawmakers supportive of a strong national defense, the committee is weighted more toward anti-tax Republicans and Democratic defenders of entitlement programs than toward reliable "defense hawks."

As the scope of the automatic cuts becomes clearer in the months ahead, however, they are likely to cause unease among both Democrats and Republicans. As commander in chief, Barack Obama has fought hard to shield his administration and party from criticisms that they are "soft on defense," for instance, a charge that could gain resonance in an election season if the automatic trigger on cuts is pulled.

"I think the debt deal contains a poison pill for both parties, because I don't think Democrats can afford to be indifferent to automatic cuts that would gut national defense and possibly impact the paychecks and health care of thousands of troops on their fourth or fifth combat deployments," said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a former commander of U.S. Southern Command. "The whole deal is a sham exercise by a Congress that has proven incapable of the compromises necessary to do its job and provide for the national defense."

Certainly, congressional Republicans will be put into an increasingly awkward position in the coming months. Ever since Ronald Reagan's peacetime defense buildup in the early 1980s reversed the "hollow force" legacy of Jimmy Carter, the Republican Party has built its brand on a platform of low taxes and a strong defense. As it emerged in the last moments before an unprecedented national default, the debt-ceiling deal seems configured to force Republicans into a Sophie's Choice between the two. Understanding this, the Republican chairmen of the House Armed Services, Budget and Defense Appropriations panels sent a letter to the White House last week demanding that the administration spell out the national security implications of the automatic cuts.

"President Obama is trying to frame this debate as a choice between tax hikes or massive defense cuts, because he knows that conservatives hate both and thus might blink," James Carafano, a defense analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, told National Journal. "Conservatives aren't stupid. They know exactly what the administration is trying to do. However, I'm not sure what the Republicans' super-secret plan is for trying to thread this needle."

Absent such a plan, there is plenty of recent evidence suggesting that Republicans on the super committee might not blink on tax revenues, triggering the across-the-board cuts aimed disproportionately at the Pentagon. That's in keeping with the view of experts who say that the anti-tax and pro-defense planks in the Republican platform were never equally weighted.

"I remember talking to [former Republican House Speaker] Newt Gingrich during the 1990s Republican Revolution, and I asked him whether the party was more supportive of tax cuts or a strong national defense, and he didn't hesitate to say `tax cuts,'" said Richard Kohn, professor emeritus of history and peace, war and defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "And that was a dozen years ago, before anyone heard of a tea party that now probably outnumbers defense hawks two-to-one in the Republican Party."

Loren Thompson is president of the Lexington Institute, a defense consulting firm. "The Republicans named to the super committee are a perfect illustration of the growing fissure in the national party between the anti-tax and pro-defense wings, because on the one hand you have a reliable defense hawk like Senator Jon Kyl [R-Ariz.], and on the other you have an anti-tax stalwart like Senator Patrick Toomey [R-Pa.]," he told National Journal. The Defense Department's problem is that the energy in the Republican caucus has shifted towards the tea party's anti-tax positions, he said, even as a more liberal Democratic caucus is focused like a laser on defending threatened entitlement programs. "That's why my gut feeling tells me this deal was thrown together quickly, and that few members of Congress even grasp how massive the cuts will be on the Pentagon if sequestration is triggered."

Holding the Pentagon hostage to an eventual bipartisan debt agreement holds other risks. Such brinksmanship drags the U.S. military squarely into the middle of a hyper-partisan political argument, for instance, a no-win position for an institution that relies on the support of both parties. "I think military leaders can publicly state the case that sequestration is incompatible with even the minimal requirements of our national defense, period. That would be proper and useful," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst with the Brookings Institution. "If they venture into describing what that deal looks like or sketch out its parameters, however, that crosses over the line."

Yet as the Thanksgiving deadline approaches, U.S. military leaders will have little choice but to echo and amplify Adm. Mullen's warning that compromise is essential and triggering across-the-board cuts out of the question. Republicans might construe that as public pressure to raise taxes, and they will be right. That's why negotiators have long considered hostage standoffs a worst-case scenario: They are unpredictable by nature, typically a sign of desperation, and the hostages often end up as collateral damage regardless of the eventual outcome.