Former George W. Bush speechwriter and current slightly-right-of-center pundit/gadfly David Frum posted a Tweet a few hours ago that referenced his article "American Hawks: Behaving Badly" in Canada's National Post. It caught my attention, as I have recently been deluged by questions from those on the left of the seeming hypocrisy of the GOP, claiming to be pro-defense while at the same time participating in a process that will so clearly weaken the military. Seeing David Frum pick up this line of argument is not surprising to me, as he appears these days to make his bread from a continuous string of articles and appearances that can best be summed up as saying "Republicans would be much better off if they thought and acted like Democrats".
said, Frum (and others) raises a good point, one that has to be
addressed. Why would GOP legislators be prepared to allow the sequester
to continue and accelerate the ongoing hollowing of the U.S. military?
Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) Answer: Because the new breed of "Defense Hawks" see the path the country is on as a greater threat to our national security than
myriad traditional threats previously addressed by the decades-long
national security consensus--that appears to have disappeared. These
Republicans are still very much "pro-defense", they are simply
prioritizing other threats while assuming additional short term risk.
The current situation is ludicrous, irresponsible, and under virtually
any set of sane circumstances, inadvisable. The sequester WILL make our
military less ready and it WILL increase risk virtually across the
Stipulated: No political party
has a monopoly on patriotism. Most politicians of both parties are very
patriotic and have the advancement of the interests of the American
public squarely in mind as they form their views. Where differences
occur is in the identification of those interests, and that process is
invariably at least partially a function of ideology.
here we are, in a situation in which the sequester has been ordered, a
process that will invariably lead (at least in the short term) to an
increase and acceleration of the hollowing of the military. Where Mr.
Frum and my Democratic friends have erred is in their understanding of
the 21st century national security consensus, contemporary American
politics and especially, the Republican Party.
Dr. Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute
and I recently had a conversation in which he put forward the following
notion: that the broad, bi-partisan national security consensus that
has dominated American politics for seven-plus decades, is dead. I
don't know if he has written more extensively on this subject, so I
won't attempt to lay out his argument here (in case he is writing
something on the subject). I will simply accept that it is true, or
perhaps refining the metaphor a bit, state that it is on life support,
waiting on the Death Panel to administer the final blow.
my view, what made that consensus viable was 1) the presence of an
existential threat and in its absence, 2) broad agreement on the role of
the United States in the world 3) an economy that could support an
array of domestic social programs and strong, expeditionary Armed Forces
and 4) processes and customs in the legislative branch that contributed
to compromise and consensus. None of these conditions exists today in
anything like the degree to which they did in past decades. And the
consensus has diminished as a result. With the loss of the consensus,
politics and ideology have grown more powerful in policy influence.
from the decline of the guiding national security consensus, one then
considers the state of contemporary American politics and the role the
Republican Party plays in it.
Whether or not President
Obama and the Democratic Party are actually trying to alter the
relationship between the government and the governed while increasing
the scope of the welfare-state, a broad cross-section of voting
Americans believe they are--and this group tends to vote for the modern
Republican Party. They have sent a group of legislators to Washington
to represent their interests, and at a high level of abstraction, these
people have told their legislators the following:
"The present state of our economy and the trajectory we are on with respect to government spending but especially
entitlement spending, represents the most important threat to our
long-term national security. We understand the requirements of
citizenship and that taxes are the price we pay for a civil society, but
we are increasingly uncomfortable with the growth of what government
does and provides with the money we give it. We are the Party of a
strong and rational national defense, and to that end, we have
prioritized the threat. The threat is fiscal insolvency, and it must be
addressed. We must retain a strong military, but not at the cost of a
And to these people, the
"cost" cited in the previous sentence is at the heart of the grand
bargain the President is using the sequester to leverage--and that is,
higher taxes and more spending designed to alter the relationship
between the government and the governed while increasing the scope of
the welfare state.
Therefore, this Republican Party is for
the time being, willing to assume more risk in virtually all other
threats to US national interests in order to address the one that they
prioritize. There is no hypocrisy here--these are "defense hawks" as
Frum would term them, but they have chosen to re-define and prioritize
against that which they seek to defend.
most of the life of the former national security consensus, voices such
as these on Capitol Hill could have been marginalized, leveraged into
submission by the existence of nearly dictatorial Committee Chairmen and
the carrot and stick attractions of earmarks. Congressional reforms of
decades past and Party driven term-limits have down-sized the power and
authority of the Committee Chairmen, and the much over-done evil of
earmarks removed an effective tool for intra-and
And so we find ourselves in the
time of the super-empowered Capitol Hill individual, where there is
always a camera and a microphone to amplify one's views, and where the
only responsibility a legislator has is to his/her conscience and
constituents. Loyalty to party leadership is a nice to have, and
probably makes one's life on the Hill easier, but it is not required for
job security nor for popularity with the folks back home.
in mind--these conditions apply equally to liberals and Democrats. And
because both sides have diminished payoff from compromise and
cooperation, less of it happens.
Which brings us back to the sequester.
are where we are because the consensus has failed and because the ways
of obtaining and sustaining consensus are more rare. No longer do some
Republicans see external enemies or capabilities as the most likely and
imminent threat to our safety and security.
commentators fail to grasp that the magnitude of the sequester is not
nearly so injurious as its implementation scheme. Had the various
departments any real flexibility in how to arrive at the cut levels,
this would be little more than a bogey drill--a difficult and meaningful
bogey drill, but a bogey drill nonetheless, one that would in virtually
all cases make the impact of the cuts less onerous. Because the cuts
are horizontal across virtually all accounts, there is little ability to
prioritize and almost no ability to reprogram. For instance, those who
criticize the Navy for decisions to curtail current operations simply
don't understand the degree to which the Service's hands are tied in
being able to move money from one account to another.
complaining about the mindlessness of implementation won't get anything
done, so there have been moves in both chambers to address the problem
of flexibility, while maintaining the magnitude of the sequester. There
have also been moves to remove DoD from the sequester entirely.
Mr. Frum sees as acting against their own interests--have championed
these initiatives, in both cases acting according to their interests and
hopefully, Mr. Frum's understanding of those interests. In both cases,
however, the President has declined their offer. In doing so, he has
reinforced for many Republicans the wisdom of going through with the
sequester. That is, the President has played directly into the logic of
their intractability. Whereas they have come forward with plans that
would alleviate some of the pain of the sequester in ways that would
impact military readiness less while cutting spending more, the
President insists on hewing to the path that results in MORE pain in
order to gain political leverage designed to pursue policies (taxing,
spending) that Republicans already see as a greater threat than a
So when Frum and others wonder aloud
where the Defense Hawks have gone, they're right there in front of their
noses, in the Republican caucus. Their desire to defend the country is
no less than before--they simply see new threats.
UPDATE: Welcome Ace of Spades and thank you for the link!
Cross-posted at Information Dissemination