Senior Pentagon officials and defense hawks in Congress have railed against potentially devastating consequences from sequestration on military readiness and the industrial base. A majority of 58 percent of Insiders agree that the $85 billion in cuts, divided between defense and non-defense spending, will really harm U.S. national security if they take effect March 1.
"Sequestration will create real harm to national security, but not because of the size of the cuts," one Insider said. "The real harm is the absence of priorities for the cuts." Sequestration's "meat cleaver" approach to the federal budget is exactly the wrong remedy for the government's budgetary woes, another Insider said. "It speaks to the bankruptcy of our political process and our politicians that they can't lead the nation to a responsible fiscal solution and preserve critical elements of our national security at a time of rapid geopolitical and social change."
An across-the-board cut — with military personnel accounts protected — falls harshly on operations and maintenance accounts, which include civilian personnel, one Insider said. "The targets can be met with some pain, but the automatic, across-the-board application — especially during a continuing resolution — will be very tough." Sequestration, one Insider added, will shift remaining dollars away from readiness, training, and research.
Part of it is an image problem. Sequestration, one Insider said, "will create an impression of disarray and retreat that will discourage our friends and embolden our adversaries." Politicians' failure to avoid sequestration, another added, "risks diminishing our global influence just at the time when that influence is required to assure a semblance of political and economic stability in the world."
Fourty-two percent are less convinced sequestration will be devastating. "It will be painful in the short-term but we will adjust and survive," one Insider said. "People throw out phrases that we'll become a second-rate power; I would ask who would be the first-rate power?"
Sequestration might not be so bad, another Insider said, because "it might scare everyone enough to move ahead in a more responsible manner."
Separately, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said they supported a plan by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then-CIA Director David Petraeus to begin arming Syria's rebels last year. With that knowledge, Insiders were largely split on the issue, with 52 percent saying the U.S. should start supplying weapons for the fight against Bashar al-Assad. "Better late than never," one Insider quipped.
"We should have done so long ago when we had a chance to influence the outcome and the types of groups that could be entrusted with power in Syria," one Insider said. "Now we find ourselves at a point where we have to thwart the designs of both al-Qaida-related groups and Iran, Assad's long-time ally. But, we must supply arms to some of the rebels if we are to preserve our ability to influence developments in the Middle East." Another Insider said that it would not be enough to provide arms alone, suggesting that Washington train and direct rebels to make them a more effective and disciplined fighting force. This strategy, the Insider said, would bring "the conflict to a swifter end and [make] it perhaps more possible for a stable post-Assad Syria to emerge. It is a possibility, not necessarily a likelihood."
A 48 percent faction disagreed. "Arming the Syrian rebels would create the conditions for a larger war in Syria after Assad falls, and do much more harm than good," one Insider said.
"This is a fight among Syrians within Syria and it should be resolved by Syrians without U.S. involvement," one Insider said. "Having just spent $3 trillion on two losing wars, and facing near-bankruptcy at home, it's time for the U.S. to start focusing on domestic problems instead of getting involved in more wars in the Middle East and Africa."
1. Will sequestration, if it takes effect, really harm U.S. national security?
- Yes 58%
- No 42%
"Radical surgery may be necessary, but we are breaking the glass and grabbing the sledgehammer because it is the only tool left in the OR. That's not clever; that's butchery."
"Sequestration will create real harm to national security, but not because of the size of the cuts. The real harm is the absence of priorities for the cuts. What is not discussed is that cuts without priorities only applies for Fiscal Year 2013. DOD and OMB are ignoring the far greater challenge, which is complying with the statutory defense-spending caps for FY 2014-2021. As with 2013, they continue to fail to plan for lower numbers because of the hope that the cuts won't be maintained."
"To the extent that it reinforces the perception across the globe that the US continues to descend into governing malaise, it emboldens our adversaries."
"We will simply encourage our enemies to believe we are in decline, prompt potential partners to keep away from us, and give allies reason to conclude we are unreliable."
"Cuts are easy to make. Recovery from them is painful, long, and costly in the long run."
"This Congress is so new they have no idea what wrath they will unleash once these cuts really take force. After 12 years of blood, sweat, and tears, our military deserves better. What's surprising is House Republicans don't realize they are doing it to their own 'red' states primarily."
"Disastrous both in effect and in global perception of how sclerotic and partisan governance in Washington has become."
"But not nearly as much as has been suggested by recent posturing."
"The damage will take decades to repair since the civil service will lose many of its most talented people and will find it harder to recruit talent since it can no longer use stability as an inducement."
"Unplanned and undisciplined cuts will inevitably create irrational outcomes in how our government works. Don't we have enough of that already?"
"Well of course.... I may lose my job!"
"It's not devastating per se, but it is a ridiculously suboptimal way of cutting defense spending."
"Cuts in spending are needed."
"Because of our significant reliance on the military-industry complex as a jobs program we are far more likely to have domestic economic challenges versus any real national security challenges."
"Chopping the DOD budget will force the services to prioritize and the administration to fashion a grand strategy more in tune with the resources available. It would be best to do this in a coordinated fashion, but that is not Washington's way."
"As with most questions, however, the answer is 'depends.' It depends on whether DOD and other security agencies are granted flexibility from the White House to cut lower-priority spending as opposed to everything equally. The answer to the question rests entirely with the president."
2. Now that we know several of Obama's close advisers proposed arming Syria's rebels in August, do you believe the U.S. should start supplying weapons for the fight against Bashar al-Assad?
- Yes 52%
- No 48%
"It is time. And we know who they are. And others will help."
"The longer the conflict continues, the stronger the jihadi forces fighting with the FSA become — and the more at risk Syria's chemical weapons and biological weapons stockpiles, among other advanced weaponry, become. This is a disaster in the making that we are doing little to avert, influence, or shape. We will inevitably be placed in a highly problematical reactive mode when/if these weapons fall into al-Qaida's hands."
"The emerging picture of White House decision-making on this issue takes the concept of 'leading from behind' to a whole new level."
"Arms should be provided only if we fully know the opposition and share their vision of a post-Assad Syria."
"We should have done this ages ago. We supposedly have provided non-lethal aid to the opposition. Presumably, that was to that portion of the opposition that was not Islamist. In which case we should have problem giving arms to the same people."
"The key is to support the guy we want to come out on top in the post-Assad power struggle. He may be an SOB, but he'll be our SOB. Should have been done earlier."
"Our goodwill and political support won't win the day in Syria. This country is the key to disarming Iran in the Middle East and when all is done, Syria must not be either an Iranian puppet or a new Afghanistan. 'Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.' "
"Extremely limited kinetic/lethal technology should be provided in only surgical deployments supplemented by significant C4ISR technologies and products that will allow for better command and control of rebel efforts."
"The president has 'overlearned' the lessons of Iraq and has allowed his concern that conflict could harm his prospects for reelection to obscure national priorities. Neglect in this case has been immoral and contrary to our interests. With more than 60,000 dead so far, American avoidance has only allowed the situation to deteriorate to nobody's benefit. Even some Europeans are willing to be bolder than the president. His handling of this has been a strategic blunder."
"We should also have U.S. Green Berets there advising them so we can control where weapons go and how to use them."
"The problem at the U.S. end is that the goals and policy objectives for Syria have not yet been laid out. Supplying weapons should be one of the set of steps that the U.S. would take AFTER the goals and policy objectives have been determined."
"We would be arming our enemies."
"The review process worked; the White House nixed the proposal for good reason. Injecting more munitions into that civil war will neither hasten its end nor buy the United States lasting influence in a future Syrian political order."
"Too late. Arms are already flowing fom others."
"The administration should announce and implement a no-fly zone over Syria."
"Not unless we have a faction worth supporting. Unclear that is the case. Can't just be anti; must have something to be FOR."
"There are too many snakes in this pit already — some of them with the al-Qaida brand. We should offer humanitarian assistance now and nation-building assistance to the rebels should they seize power, but refrain from arming them."
"Arm whom? To what end?"
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign policy experts. They include:
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel “Sandy” Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, 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, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, 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, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, 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, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.
This article appears in the February 26, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.