Correction: An earlier version of this story misreported the dollar amount of the defense budget request. The correct number is $614 billion.
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., took direct fire for saying on Thursday that he doubted the U.S. military’s top commanders truly support President Obama’s $614 billion defense-budget request that they presented to Congress this year.
It is a serious allegation. Generals and admirals are supposed to give their honest “best military advice” to Congress, even if that advice is in disagreement with their civilian leadership in the administration.
But it would be unfair if Ryan is the only one to come under attack for expressing a sentiment that is essentially the foundation of the defense-spending positions held across the Republican Party. Presidential candidates Mitt Romney, whom Ryan endorsed on Friday, and Rick Santorum, as well as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who endorsed Ryan’s budget, and John McCain, of Arizona, the leading GOP defense voice in the Senate, all want a bigger defense budget than the Pentagon requested.
All of them have spent months blasting President Obama’s defense budget – for leaving Iraq, for continuing to promise an Afghanistan drawdown, for shrinking the size of the Army or delaying plans to expand the Navy, and for leveling off defense spending as a post-war correction -- all with scant criticism of the generals supporting him
None of those Republican leaders have softened their criticism or held their rhetorical fire now that senior U.S. military leaders and commanders have made their rounds on Capitol Hill, testifying in support of the defense budget. They did not back down after Jan. 5, when every member of the Joint Chiefs and the service secretaries lined up behind the president at the Pentagon podium in an unprecedented show of support for the strategy.
"We don't think the generals are giving us their true advice. We don’t think the generals believe that their budget is really the right budget,” Ryan argued at Thursday’s National Journal Live budget-policy summit.
At this point, either you believe that the five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chairman Martin Dempsey, and the military’s nine combatant commanders (the top ranking officers in the combat chain of command), are truthful about their full-throated support for the budget and strategy, or they're not.
If you believe those 14 senior-most ranking officers are not feigning support, then they are being honest, which means that according to the unbending GOP message the commanders are just wrong. All of them.
Ryan’s spokesman later claimed his remark actually meant that President Obama’s administration had forced the military to accept a White House-dictated spending cap. That's the so-called “strategy-first” criticism that has been repeated forcefully by the conservative establishment.
Romney has pledged to increase military spending to 4 percent of GDP and the size of the force far above what the Pentagon requested.
“President Obama has placed our military commanders in the difficult position of having to fit a military strategy to deep and arbitrary defense cuts,” claimed Romney campaign spokesman Andrea Saul, in an e-mail arguing the party narrative.
Santorum also has said he would “absolutely not cut one penny out of military spending,” which goes against the generals’ advice. His campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
The story goes, last April, that the White House surprised the Pentagon with a request to begin finding an additional $400 million in savings. That part's true. Conservatives claim that was an order the generals and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates did not want, but have dutifully fulfilled.
But Democrats argue it was September’s Budget Control Act passed by Congress that set the budget limit, not a White House request. The military, they argue, was given nearly six months to complete a new strategic guidance before agreeing on a budget request.
Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz argued last month the budget process was “very participatory.”
“I am 100 percent on board with the strategy,” he told defense reporters at a breakfast. “We also had to deal with the Budget Control Act, I mean it’s a fact of life. Would it have been simpler and perhaps less painful had our economic circumstances as a country been different? Of course. But the reality is we’ve got trillion-dollar deficits and DOD’s going to play in this.”
On Thursday, Dempsey couldn't have been clearer, saying, “I stand by my testimony.… We started with a strategy. We mapped it to a budget.”