US Foreign Policy
Commentary

Anticipating the National Security Priorities of the 112th Congress

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By Matthew Leatherman, Rebecca Williams, Elizabeth Cutler and Hans-Inge Lango – Republicans look set to win back the House and make
significant gains in the Senate.  This switch has major implications for a
number of domestic issues – but it says surprisingly little about the 112th
Congress’ national security priorities.  In this area more so than any
other, ideology creates divisions within the two parties as much as between them.

This is not a new phenomenon. Both parties have various factions that see
defense and foreign policy, and thus spending, in different ways. The terms
“libertarian” and “exceptionalist” or “realist” and “Wilsonian” mean far more
in this debate that the party labels of Republicans and Democrats.

Take for example two of 2010’s bipartisan panels, the ongoing Presidential
deficit reduction commission and the recently-concluded independent assessment
panel for the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).  Both panels should share
roughly the same perspective if individuals reflected predictable party
positions.  Nothing of the sort happened,
though.

In the case of the Independent QDR panel, Republicans and Democrats
unanimously exclaimed that “America
has no choice but to play a strong international role,” to include
“guarantee[ing] access to global commerce; freedom of the seas, international
airspace, and space; and maintain[ing] a balance of power in Europe and Asia.”

Contrast that with comments from members of the equally-bipartisan deficit
reduction panel.  Democratic co-chairman Erskine Bowles expressed that “I
personally am not crazy about being the world’s policeman, nor do I think we
can afford to be.”  Republican Senator Tom Coburn, co-chair of the panel’s
discretionary spending working group, likewise lamented that “today, an ethic
continues to predominate in the Pentagon that consistently paints an inaccurate
picture – one that is biased in the same, unrealistic and ultimately
unaffordable direction.”

These are the distinctions of ideological schools rather than partisan
affiliation, offering ties that can bind bipartisan panels together just as
they can divide members of the same party.  The 112th Congress
will struggle with this irrespective of which party wins the majority, making
it difficult to predict how it will handle the question of national security
priorities.

Our most significant spending cuts in national defense over the years have
been led largely by Republicans.  Eisenhower managed a 21% decline in the
military’s resources in just three years following the Korean War’s FY1953
peak.  Nixon, and later Ford, reduced the Pentagon’s budget by 33% between
FY1969-76 relative to the high point
in 1968.  And nearly 40% of the cuts to defense implemented in FY90-98
occurred in the George H.W. Bush administration (12% real cut by FY92; 31% real
cut by FY98).

A swing toward Republicans does not mean that past will be prologue this
time around, though. A major “X” factor in the 2010 equation is the tea party
movement. Although founded on the principle of a smaller government and less
spending, defense spending remains a contested area of policy in the grassroots
movement.

On one side individuals such as Representative Ron Paul are strongly
noninterventionist and opposed to the enormous costs of an expansionist foreign
policy. In June, Politico reported that several key Tea Party players, on and
off the Hill, are willing to support Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ plans
for defense savings.

There are, nonetheless, strong players within and around the movement that
strongly oppose any cuts to defense spending, arguing that it would make the U.S. less safe.
Tea Party-favorite and potential 2012 candidate Sarah Palin has stated that everything
but defense spending needs to be cut and is seemingly trying to steer the Tea
Party away from across-the-board budget cuts. Rep. Paul Ryan, often described
as a libertarian, favors taking “the scalpel” to the Pentagon to remove waste,
but still supports a “big cap” on defense spending.

Some Republicans are trying desperately to steer the tea party debate in the
hopes that the larger party will follow.  Most recently, neoconservative
heavy-hitters Arthur C. Brooks, Edwin J. Feulner, and William Kristol
underlined their orthodoxy of cutting everything but defense in a Wall
Street Journal
op-ed.  They clearly are focused more on the tea party
debate than their Democratic opponents, arguing that while the deficit has grown
far too big, defense spending is not to blame for this, and cutting the DoD
budget will make the U.S.
less safe and less prosperous.

The phrase “known unknown” comes to mind when stepping back from all this
and returning to the original question of the 112th Congress’
national security priorities.  This year’s campaign season is not shedding
much light on how this priority-setting fight will turn out, but that fight is
coming – our ongoing withdrawal from Iraq
and, if the administration is to be believed, imminent departure from Afghanistan
assures it.

Originally published on October 13, 2010. See related panel discussion with Steve Clemons, Jen DiMascio, Tom Gjelten, and Josh Rogin, moderated by Gordon Adams

For more analysis on this and other Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense topics, visit The Will and the Wallet.

 

Photo Credit: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Thomas Hawk, Horia Varlant: http://www.flickr.com/photos/truthout/4995090651/

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