After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, prominent neoconservatives within the administration of George W. Bush won the internal argument on foreign and defense policy within the Republican Party, and America went looking for dragons to slay. High on the neoconservative hit list ever since the Gulf War of 1991 was Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
Add in the myriad tragedies and controversies of the Iraq War, a Great Recession and the accumulated baggage of another decade of partisan warfare, and you arrive at a postwar political landscape in Washington that looks eerily familiar. That suggests that the flight of the defense hawks could be partly cyclical, a natural phenomenon in periods of postwar military retrenchment. However, the fact that the two parties are fighting the same ideological battles over the same bitterly contested national-security turf more than two decades after the end of the Cold War could also mean that forging a consensus on America’s role in the world, and the military required to support it, is simply beyond Washington’s grasp.
Consider that a Republican Party in opposition that is home to most of the remaining reliable defense hawks is once again fighting an internecine war between its libertarian and neoconservative wings, for instance, even as it opposes a Democrat in the White House at nearly every turn. Downsized committee chairmen are even less able to buck leadership and protect national-security fiefdoms. The abandonment of “earmarks” has decreased the allure of serving on defense-related committees, where in the past largesse from the Pentagon budget could be more easily funneled to home districts. The two parties are even more polarized on Capitol Hill, with prodefense Southern conservatives having largely disappeared from the Democratic Party, even as liberal internationalists and probusiness realists from the Northeast and West Coast have largely left the Republican Party. Once again, a war-weary American public is demanding a peace dividend.
And, once again, traditional defense hawks have taken flight before a shockwave election.
WHEN REPUBLICANS swept back into the majority in the House in 2010 on the crest of a populist Tea Party wave, everyone understood that these small-government revolutionaries would pull the party to the right on domestic issues. The question on the minds of foreign-policy and defense experts in Washington was on which side of the traditional Republican Party divide between neoconservatives and realist internationalists the Tea Partiers would fall. Traditional defense hawks hoped that the “Don’t Tread on Me” pugnaciousness and nationalism of these new members would translate naturally into support for a strong defense and muscular foreign policy. To date, they have been sorely disappointed.
In the budget battles between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans that ensued, it soon became clear that in their fervor to rein in spending and shrink the size of the federal government, Tea Party Republicans were perfectly willing to target the Defense Department for disproportionate cuts.
“It’s perplexing to someone accustomed to Republicans who tended to bend over backward for business, but perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a GOP which sees big government as a threat might also view a big military posture and big defense companies as a manifestation of that threat,” said Loren Thompson, a defense consultant and chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute. Indeed, much of the GOP’s populist energy has come from new lawmakers who firmly believe that the United States should stop being the world’s policeman and social worker, and focus on fixing what’s broken at home. On those points, and perhaps only on those points, the Tea Partiers share a common view with many Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Indeed, when the White House proposed sequestration in 2011 as a way out of a bitter impasse over raising the debt ceiling, it did so with the mistaken expectation that prodefense Republicans would stop the caucus from pulling the trigger on across-the-board reductions of more than $500 billion in defense spending (on top of $500 billion in cuts already imposed by the Obama administration over ten years). According to Bob Woodward’s book The Price of Politics, White House staffers sold the idea to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid by reasoning that a sequester would be so destructive that nobody would allow it to happen.
The idea embedded in the Budget Control Act was that a “supercommittee” would find $1.2 trillion worth of cuts over a ten-year period, split between “security” and “nonsecurity” spending (entitlements exempted), and thus avoid automatic, across-the-board cuts of the same magnitude. Perhaps sensing which way the political winds were blowing—with Tea Party challengers successfully defeating reliably conservative Republicans by running to their right in primaries—the Republican leadership failed to assign to the supercommittee prominent prodefense lawmakers who might have protected the Pentagon’s interests. In fact, not one of the six Republican or six Democratic lawmakers appointed to the supercommittee served on the Senate or House Armed Services Committees. Republican leaders decided that small-government, tax-cutting stalwarts and Tea Party favorites such as Jeb Hensarling and Pat Toomey took priority. Not surprisingly, the bipartisan supercommittee failed to reach a consensus, sequestration was triggered and the Defense Department took the brunt of the blast.
THE DEFENSE cuts associated with sequestration have been criticized by top U.S. military leaders in terms that in previous times would have been considered alarming in the extreme, and yet no one seems to be listening. Lifelong Republicans and Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Chuck Hagel have both raised the alarm, with Hagel recently warning that they put at risk “America’s traditional role as a guarantor of global security, and ultimately our own security.” General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that U.S. military forces are on a path of steep decline that, unless reversed, will reach a point where “it would be immoral” to use that force. One defense hawk who takes such warnings seriously is Representative Buck McKeon, chairman of the once-powerful House Armed Services Committee. He recently noted that the bipartisan budget deal reached by Senator Patty Murray and Representative Paul Ryan averted for two years the “arbitrary gutting” of the armed forces, but it will still require a $45 billion cut to the military.
“I share the broad dismay about the shrinking might of the military reflected in this budget,” he said in response to the Defense Department’s most recent budget submission, which will produce the smallest U.S. Army since before World War II, and doesn’t even try to stay within the sequester caps that remain the law of the land, and which kick in again in 2016. While McKeon believes the buck for the Pentagon’s predicament ultimately stops on President Obama’s desk, he also knows that Republicans have been complicit in the rapid decline in the Pentagon’s fortunes. “If we don’t like the tough choices on the table, then shame on us as Republicans for following the President down this path,” he said in a statement.
As if to drive home how out of step such prodefense sentiments are in today’s Republican Party, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal said “defense hawks” like McKeon “exaggerate how severe the cuts [in military spending] are,” and it criticized him for leading a “rebellion” of said hawks in an “act of masochism” that threatens the cherished sequester spending caps.
For his part, McKeon is retiring at the end of his current term, as are Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Senator Saxby Chambliss, ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; and Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. All these men were reliably supportive of a strong defense and assertive U.S. global leadership. Until recent years, this faction also included notables like Joseph Lieberman, Jim Webb, Richard Lugar, Bob Bennett, Ike Skelton and Norm Dicks.
Whether it’s the diminished power that comes from wielding a chairman’s gavel in the modern Congress, the tilt of both parties away from the center and toward their respective extremes, or the increased levels of partisan vitriol and the government gridlock that goes with it, there is clearly something about politics in Washington today that is driving away many serious lawmakers. They take decades of expertise and institutional memory out the door with them, in many cases in the realms of defense and national-security policy. To understand why they might find politics as currently practiced in Washington distasteful, consider last year’s confirmation hearings for former senator Chuck Hagel, nominated to serve as secretary of defense. During the hearings, Tea Party favorite Senator Ted Cruz implied that Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran and recipient of two Purple Hearts, might be taking speaking fees from extremist groups or foreign governments like North Korea. He offered no evidence.
AFTER YEARS in the political wilderness as a result of their close association with the Iraq War, Republican neoconservatives, whose view of America’s role in the world most closely comports with a prodefense agenda, were poised to make a comeback with the election of Mitt Romney as president in 2012. At the suggestions of hawkish advisers, Romney espoused Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of peace through military strength, proposing to maintain wartime levels of ground forces, accelerate modernization of the air force and significantly expand the size of the navy. To pay for this military buildup, Romney promised to spend at least 4 percent of GDP on defense each year, which would have added more than $2 trillion in defense spending over Obama’s plans for the next decade.