Skip to main content

Who's to blame for defense spending cut threat?

By Doug Wilson, Special to CNN
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue August 7, 2012
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says that the sequestration defense budget cuts, if triggered, would threaten national security.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says that the sequestration defense budget cuts, if triggered, would threaten national security.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Doug Wilson: GOP distorting reality behind Pentagon cuts that could be triggered in January
  • "Sequestration" will start $1.2 trillion in cuts, with half of that in defense
  • Wilson: GOP blames looming disaster on Obama, but it was a delaying tactic by Congress
  • Obama doesn't want these harmful sequestration cuts and has alternative plans, he says

Editor's note: Doug Wilson served as assistant secretary of defense, the Pentagon's senior spokesman and communications strategist, from February 2010 until March of this year. He is a national security adviser to the Obama campaign.

(CNN) -- This past week, at "town hall" meetings in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire, a group of Republican senators sounded alarms about disasters that will befall local economies should the threat of more than $500 billion in defense cuts over the next decade become a reality in January.

To his credit, the group's leader, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, admitted that Congress should take some of the blame for creating this situation. But that was a rare recognition of reality at town halls that were more like a Republican version of the mythical Potemkin villages: fake towns hastily put together by Russian Minister Grigory Potemkin to impress the visiting empress.

The real purpose of the GOP's Potemkin town halls? To redefine Congress' unfinished task of deficit reduction as an Obama administration leadership failure that has put both national security and swing-state jobs at risk by playing games with defense spending.

Doug Wilson
Doug Wilson

The road to these town halls began in Washington a year ago with a congressional vote that was needed to raise the debt ceiling and avoid U.S. default on a debt that has skyrocketed since 2000. House Republicans, shackled by a tea party ball-and-chain, turned the vote into a heated debate on spending cuts. The ensuing legislative battle led not to meaningful deficit reduction but to the Budget Control Act of 2011. It's an 11th-hour "Hail Mary" legislation that raised the debt ceiling -- and kicked the deficit can down the road by one year.

The Budget Control Act mandated $917 billion in federal spending cuts over a 10-year period, including some $487 billion in defense cuts. But that wasn't all.

The centerpiece was a different kind of act: A high-wire act called "sequestration." Sequestration is a trigger.

Graham: 'We do dumb things in Congress'
GOP blames Obama for defense cuts
Rogoff: No certainty about fiscal cliff
Raise taxes or cut defense spending?

It's scheduled to be pulled in early January -- unleashing $1.2 trillion in additional cuts, half in defense, half in other domestic spending, unless Congress agrees on an alternate plan. Almost no Democrat or Republican wants to make these sequestration cuts because they will have significant and negative consequences for national security and for domestic spending, affecting millions of Americans. In fact, almost no one who voted for this legislation ever thought these cuts would actually be made.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 was intended to provide breathing space and to buy time. Sequestration was added to force a congressional "supercommittee" to come up with a deficit deal late last year, "or else." But the supercommittee was as divided as the Congress that created it; Congress couldn't come up with a solution, and it was no real surprise that the supercommittee couldn't either.

McCain and his swing-state town hall team were right in framing the consequences: If the trigger is pulled, sequestration will have immediate and negative impact on millions of Americans.

This includes not just U.S. troops, defense industry civilians and local bases. It also includes schools and Head Start participants, struggling families for whom child care support is critical, unemployed workers who need job training programs -- all would lose out in the nondefense portion of sequestration.

But the senators were disingenuous in exhorting their audiences to "demand presidential leadership" to avoid falling off the fiscal cliff in January -- and wrong to imply that the president has been AWOL on the issue, leaving national security and jobs at risk.

President Barack Obama has made clear he doesn't want to see these cuts happen next year. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has repeatedly declared that sequestration defense cuts -- coming on top of the 10-year, $487 billion in defense cuts that start next year -- would have disastrous consequences for our national security.

Obama has been at the table since last summer trying to prevent this by reaching a bipartisan agreement on deficit reduction. He laid out a detailed plan to reduce the deficit by more than $4 trillion over the next decade -- a plan that would bring annual domestic spending to its lowest level as a share of the economy since President Dwight D. Eisenhower and would require less in defense cuts than recommended by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission.

But the president calls for a balanced approach that includes spending cuts and investment revenue. His proposed spending cuts outweigh the proposed additional revenue by more than double. But it's the investment revenue which has been the deal-breaker for most Republicans.

In fact, that's the major reason that sequestration includes the $500 billion in defense spending cuts: Faced with their own Hobson's choice of putting at risk either the defense budget or continued tax breaks for the wealthy, Congressional Republicans grimaced -- and threw defense into the cauldron to protect the tax breaks.

It seems clear that the political brinksmanship will continue until Republicans and Democrats in Congress figure out how to do what military and civilian leaders at the Pentagon had to do this past year in addressing the initial $487 billion in defense cuts: Namely, tie spending to the national interest and do so recognizing "we're all in this together."

Obama ordered the Pentagon to devise a plan ensuring that national security priorities would guide and frame spending decisions, rather than the other way around; and ensuring that the U.S. military would remain the strongest and best in the world to protect and defend U.S. national interests.

The generals, admirals and civilian leaders did just that. All had a stake in the outcome and recognized the world had changed. All were involved throughout in shaping the plan. All recognized that pet projects and sacred cows had to meet the tests of commonly defined national security priorities or be reduced or jettisoned.

All understood that to succeed in keeping the country safe and secure, they needed not just to cut in some areas but to invest in others, and that having the best and strongest military in the world was not really synonymous with continuing to spend unlimited billions.

All made difficult individual decisions in the belief that they were all in this together, and they have spoken publicly and privately in support of the strategic framework they developed to guide defense spending decisions over the next decade.

Maybe instead of holding political Potemkin town halls in swing states about the dangers that sequestration poses for the Pentagon, we should ask congressional leaders to take lessons from the Pentagon on how to work together to prevent it from happening.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Doug Wilson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT