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Keep America at Peace: Keep the Pentagon Sequester


Folks who think that (at the very least) we should be allowed to experience a few years of peace before launching the next military adventure are on the cusp of a major victory in Washington. All we have to do to win this historic victory is maintain the "sequester" cuts to the Pentagon budget that are already planned in existing law. And if we win the next round — if we avoid any kind of "grand bargain" one more time — we will likely win forever, because the Pentagon cuts will be an accomplished fact, and when everyone sees that the Earth is still spinning on its axis, we'll all realize that cutting the Pentagon budget is no big deal. The Pentagon will be smaller, the sun will come up in the morning, and life will go on.

Democratic and Republican Members of Congress are talking about a new budget plan. Ostensibly, the purpose of this discussion is to come up with an agreed alternative to cutting the Pentagon budget as required by existing law. But cutting the Pentagon budget is in the interests of the vast majority of Americans who would rather that our tax dollars be used for domestic needs — including by lowering taxes on working people — than for foreign wars, foreign military bases, and exotic science fiction weapons systems. Moreover, many Republicans are insisting to cut Social Security benefits with "chained CPI" as a price of a deal; many Democrats are insisting to raise taxes by cutting deductions for charitable contributions and home mortgage interest as a price of a deal. So killing this bargain is in the public interest, three times over. It's win-win-win. The best likely deal for the public interest is no deal, because the "sequester" is better for the public interest than any deal being seriously talked about.

You wouldn't get this impression from mainstream media, because mainstream media pundits are, by and large, cheering for the opposing team. From the point of view of many mainstream media pundits, Washington is "dysfunctional" because Democrats and Republicans can't come together to cut Social Security, raise taxes, and protect the Pentagon budget so we can continue to run around bombing, invading, and occupying other people's countries. Because if there's one thing mainstream media pundits love, it's bombing, invading, and occupying other people's countries. So according to them, it's a "grand bargain" to cut Social Security and raise taxes so that we can keep doing that.

The fact that we don't have anyone in the mainstream media cheering for the team that wants to cut the Pentagon budget instead of cutting Social Security and raising taxes gives many people the impression that something bad is happening — "Democrats and Republicans can't cooperate" — when from the point of view of the interests of 99 percent of the population, something good is happening: "Democrats and Republicans won't agree to a deal that harms the public interest in three different ways." Watching this mainstream media coverage from the point of view of the public interest is like being a Cubs fan watching a game with the Cardinals on St. Louis TV. Your team hits a grand slam, and the announcer is sad. But that doesn't mean that you should be sad. You should be dancing in the street. When the U.S. didn't bomb Syria, Washington cried. America celebrated.

Outside of Washington, everyone knows that the Pentagon is throwing our tax dollars around like a drunken sailor. But while that is offensive enough, something greater is at stake. A key argument being made in Washington now is that we have to cut Social Security and raise taxes to avoid cutting the Pentagon budget because cutting the Pentagon budget might constrain our future ability to bomb, invade, and occupy other people's countries. Really. I am not making this up. My emphasis in what follows.

Here's what Lindsey "bomb Iran" Graham — remember him from Secretary Hagel's confirmation hearing? – had to say:

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a GOP defense hawk from South Carolina, said sequestration, if left in place, will break the military. Graham also said any additional Defense Department cuts would be dangerous given the long list of threats America is facing, pointing to Iran's nuclear program, al-Qaida and continuing instability in Syria.

How is the size of the Pentagon budget relevant to Iran and Syria? It's only relevant if you're planning to bomb them.

Here's Kelly Ayotte (she replaced Joe Lieberman to join McCain and Graham as a member of the "intervene everywhere" Three Amigos):

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., told her budget conference colleagues that senior Army leaders tell her only two brigades are fully ready for combat. Replacing sequestration would help greatly to reverse that, she said.

Here's House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon:

Republicans, led by advocates such as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon of California, say the defense budget has borne more than its share of the burden since its first sizable reductions in 2011. It's time to shrink entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, they argue, not to scale down American power.

Virginia Republican Rob Wittman:

Ray Odierno:

"If we go to a continuing resolution plus sequestration — which is what we're planning — it's going to significantly reduce our ability to train again this year," warned Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno. "So the worst case scenario is, you ask me to deploy thousands of soldiers somewhere, and we have not properly trained them to go, because we simply don't have the dollars and money because of the way sequestration is laid out that it makes it more difficult."

Notice that none of these people are claiming that a smaller Pentagon will not be able to defend America. They are claiming that it will be harder to send American soldiers somewhere else — somewhere else where they probably don't belong in the first place.

Now of course, Odierno is poor-mouthing to try to avoid his share of budget cuts. But suppose he's telling the truth. Suppose that his ability to immediately drop thousands of soldiers in some country that hasn't attacked us and hasn't threatened to attack us might be constrained. Suppose that when someone came up with a plan for a new illegal war, the soldiers needed to carry it out weren't already waiting to deploy. Suppose that Congress had to appropriate new money to train the troops to carry out the illegal war plan. Might that constrain the Executive Branch from conducting illegal wars? Might that have the effect of counting to ten? Would that be so terrible? We might have to give up bombing, invading, and occupying other people's countries for a while? Cry me a river.

As shown in this graph from this piece by Ezra Klein, if the "sequester" Pentagon cuts are allowed to stand, then following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we'll have a peak-to-trough Pentagon drawdown smaller than after the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. If someone claims that such a drawdown is too big, then they are claiming that even after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are over, the Pentagon should still have a war-level budget.

That can only mean one thing: these people want more war. What Graham, Ayotte, McKeon and Wittman are saying to the American people is: no break from war for you, and not only that, but we are going to cut your Social Security benefits and raise your taxes to pay for more war.

Is it ok with you if the Pentagon budget might be cut so much that the Pentagon might have trouble running around the world bombing, invading, and occupying other people's countries? Would you prefer that to cutting Social Security benefits and raising taxes so that we could keep tormenting the world with gratuitous violence? If that's your position, tell Congress

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