How Syria Will Affect the Sequester Fight

Republicans say we’re starving the military of necessary funds. Experts are less convinced.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
Sept. 5, 2013, 4:15 a.m.

Sen. James In­hofe of Ok­lahoma, the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee’s top Re­pub­lic­an, says the United States can’t af­ford to get in­to a con­flict with Syr­ia giv­en the dra­coni­an budget cuts that are due to hit the na­tion’s mil­it­ary.

The Pentagon faces more than $500 bil­lion in spend­ing cuts over the next dec­ade un­der auto­mat­ic fed­er­al spend­ing cuts known as se­quest­ra­tion, $54 bil­lion of that is sched­uled to hit in 2014. That’s above and bey­ond the $487 bil­lion in cuts that already planned in the Pentagon’s budget for 2013.

“Our mil­it­ary has no money left,” In­hofe said in a re­cent state­ment. “As Sec. [Chuck] Hagel, Adm. [James] Win­nefeld, and I have dis­cussed be­fore, we have a fin­an­cial crisis in our mil­it­ary,” In­hofe ad­ded. “We have a starving mil­it­ary.”

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans have echoed that sen­ti­ment. Rep. Buck McK­eon, R-Cal­if., chair­man of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, made the case Monday on CNN: “We can­not keep ask­ing the mil­it­ary to per­form mis­sion after mis­sion with se­quest­ra­tion and mil­it­ary cuts hanging over their heads.”

Gor­don Adams, a de­fense budget ex­pert at Amer­ic­an Uni­versity who served in the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, re­cently told the Los Angeles Times that cut­ting mil­it­ary costs could be done simply by re­du­cing mil­it­ary per­son­nel and con­tract­ors in ad­min­is­trat­ive jobs. And mil­it­ary of­fi­cials have ar­gued that the cost of fir­ing cruise mis­siles at se­lect Syr­i­an tar­gets can be “re­l­at­ively eas­ily ab­sorbed.”

So, what gives?

Pres­id­ent Obama has said he won’t put “boots on the ground in Syr­ia,” but mil­it­ary plan­ners are still pre­par­ing for any pos­sible “con­tin­gen­cies,” as un­der­scored by their de­cision to dis­patch the USS Nim­itz car­ri­er strike group to the Red Sea. The pro­spect of deep­er mil­it­ary in­volve­ment in Syr­ia fol­low­ing a strike may well raise ques­tions about wheth­er se­quest­ra­tion should con­tin­ue as planned.

In­volve­ment in Syr­ia would bol­ster the ar­gu­ment for find­ing sav­ings else­where, ac­cord­ing to Thomas Mann of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “I think an af­firm­at­ive vote on an au­thor­iz­a­tion to use mil­it­ary force in Syr­ia would cla­ri­fy the ir­ra­tion­al­ity of the se­quester,” he ex­plained, “and strengthen the ar­gu­ment for re­pla­cing it with a more de­fens­ible set of spend­ing caps phased in as the eco­nomy more fully re­cov­ers, mod­est ad­di­tion­al sav­ings in Medi­care, and tax in­creases.”

Steve Bell, seni­or dir­ect­or of the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter, isn’t con­vinced that al­ter­ing the con­ver­sa­tion will be ne­ces­sary. “Quite frankly, the way we hear it out­lined, [the cost] will prob­ably be able to be sub­sumed as the Libya activ­ity was with­in the cur­rent budget.”

He adds, “Un­less we’re talk­ing about something like a no-fly zone or ‘boots on the ground,’ then I think they’ll be able to do this with­in their budget now, and se­quest­ra­tion will not have an im­pact.”

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