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Insiders Say Defense Sequester Likely to Take Effect

Predict European debt crisis will have big impact on NATO contributions


Aerial photograph of the Pentagon.(DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway, U.S. Air Force)

With no sign of compromise on Capitol Hill for a deal on the budget deficit and debt, National Journal's National Security Insiders are hedging on whether the across-the-board defense cuts that Pentagon officials have warned would be devastating to the military's capabilities will actually happen.

Amid talk that members might punt a budget deal into next year, 49 percent of Insiders said the so-called sequester mandating $600 billion in cuts over the next decade is "somewhat likely" to take effect.


"Washington will work hard to avoid a sequester that no one wants. If the financial crisis deepens and spreads, however, there may be little politicians can do to stop it," one Insider said.

Others were less sure of Congress's capabilities--and doubted its commitment to finding a solution. "The current Congress has consistently shown an inability to perform even the most basic tasks of governing. Both sides seem content to score points and [settle] scores rather than solving problems," one Insider said. "Sequester would be devastating, but I have no confidence in the Congress and the administration's capacity to fix it."

Twenty percent said that sequestration is very likely. "Until the votes are there to change it, sequestration is the law, and it will kick in before a fix gets the needed votes," one Insider said. "The usual congressional action, punting, will result in a debt-rating downgrade, and increased interest rates are worse than sequestration."


Thirty-one percent of Insiders said that the sequester is unlikely to take effect, with many counting on the lame-duck session for a temporary solution to stave off the deepest cuts and leave decision-making to the next Congress. That could leave a $57 billion cut hanging over the Pentagon’s head.

Both the defense industry and the Pentagon have to notify their workers no later than Nov. 2 -- just four days before the election -- if there will be layoffs due to the sweeping cuts. "All but the dimmest politicians in the safest seats will recognize that they must kick the sequester can down the legislative road for at least another year," one Insider said.

Separately, 71 percent of Insiders said that the European debt crisis will have a big impact on Europe's capacity to shoulder military obligations as part of NATO. "The United States has been shouldering the financial and physical costs of ensuring European security since WWII. The Euro crisis and drawdown in Afghanistan give NATO partners a great excuse to reduce Europeans' contributions to NATO," one Insider said.

Strong economies are essential to the security of NATO, another added. "Expect the financial crisis to lead to a significant restructuring of military obligations."


Others were less sure about the degree of impact. "With or without money, the Europeans will NOT spend it on defense."

1. What is the likelihood of the defense sequester taking effect? 

(55 votes)

  • Somewhat likely 49%
  • Unlikely 31%
  • Very likely 20%

Somewhat likely

"Never underestimate the capacity of the Congress to kick the can down the road. That said, the implications of the blowback of the public should drive their behavior."

"The Senate is very good at blocking things. And in this case, 'blocking things' means creating things: defense cuts. The administration wants to blame Congress, and Republicans, so it won't take any steps to push Democrats to cooperate here."

"DOD has proven incapable of properly managing a 4 percent budget increase. How do you think they will do with a double-digit decrease? Right."


"No way, Jose."

"Congress doesn't have the guts to follow through on this."

"Expect a deal or extension to take place between Election Day and Jan. 20."

"Too many congressmen depend upon the defense industry--a few even have national-security concerns."

"No one will want to assume any risk of being charged with gutting national defense."

"There's lots of movement on Capitol Hill to prevent a defense sequestration, but concrete steps to do so will only achieve results after the November elections. Intense lobbying by key industry groups as well as a realization that a defense sequester would do considerable harm to military readiness and the Defense Industrial Base lead to the conclusion that a defense sequester is unlikely."

Very likely  

"Congress is so dysfunctional, how will they reach an agreement on reversing the path to sequestration? The damage is already done as DOD units and contractors are paralyzed and not taking any decisions due to the specter of sequestration."

"Until the votes are there to change it, sequestration is the law, and it will kick in before a fix gets the needed votes. The usual congressional action, punting, will result in a debt-rating downgrade, and increased interest rates are worse than sequestration. The fix is not hard: If we had a secret-ballot vote, Simpson-Bowles would pass."

"Some form of sequestration will happen. We are already seeing the first waves hit the beach as programs and contracts are being shut down in anticipation of cuts."

"Congress is unable to avert; may kick down the road a year, but this is just a postponement."

2. How much impact will the European debt crisis have on Europe’s capacity to shoulder military obligations as part of NATO?

(55 votes)

  • Big impact 71%
  • Small impact 27%
  • No impact 2%

Big impact

"For the past two decades, European states in NATO have shirked their collective responsibilities without an excuse. Now they have an excuse to continue doing so."

"Stagnating and declining GDPs in a number of countries, including Italy and Spain, will cause spending to drop in all areas of government. Even Germany could reduce its spending if it decides to do more to bail out weaker eurozone members."

"For the last 10 years, NATO member spending per soldier has increased, as forces have been cut faster than overall spending. That pattern will not survive this crisis."

"It's not as if Europe was spending all that much on defense to begin with. The Europeans have a better quality of life than Americans do, because they have been free-riding on defense for decades. Now they will have a new excuse for avoiding their NATO obligations."

"Socialized Europe will sacrifice security and international responsibility before it ever sacrifices welfare."

"Contraction in military spending will be the least of the consequences if the E.U. fails to stabilize its institutions and rekindle growth."

"In budgetary terms, the impact may not be so great--in political and psychological terms, it will be huge. A year ago, the Europeans pushed hard for intervention in Libya--that would be almost inconceivable today."

"Sharing NATO costs is already a challenge for Europe."

"Europe has consistently lagged behind the United States in the proportion of its GDP that it contributes to the NATO mission and the military. The debt crisis makes it clear that the Europeans will never increase their expenditures for defense. That deals Obama administration efforts to get the Europeans to share a greater portion of the defense burden a big blow."

"Europeans already see little threat to their security, and debt crisis will provide cover to reduce military funding."

"Look for increased use of 'pooling' of national assets [e.g. France and the U.K.] by additional nations, such as Italy, as a cover to reduce defense budgets. Unfortunately, such a plan will not survive the first crisis. Look for NATO [to] continue its slide toward irrelevance."

Small impact

"The lion's share of the burden already rests on the shoulders of the stronger European nations and the U.S. Until the economic crisis begins to impact them, effects will be minimal."

"Also likely to see a U.S. impact from U.S. budget problems."

"It depends on when and where the sequence of events leading to collapse of the eurozone ends. If contained small impact. Contagion will make all else irrelevant."

"Financial stringency will add to what already was a meager political capacity to assume military burdens."

National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts.

They are:

Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Tamara Wittes, and Dov Zakheim.

This article appears in the June 26, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.

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