Playing politics with national security is reprehensible. But it’s nothing new.
In 1794, Congress passed a law authorizing construction of ships that would form the backbone of the first United States Navy. The politics started almost immediately.
Saving “a few thousand dollars in expenses will be no object compared with the satisfaction a just distribution would afford,” proclaimed Secretary of War Henry Knox as he ordered the six frigates be built in six different shipyards in six different ports. “It was an early example of pork barrel politics, before the term had even been coined,” writes Ian Toll in “Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy.”
The congressional funding came in fits and spurts. The last of the ships did not take to the sea until six years after the project was first approved.
Unfortunately, America’s enemies did not stand idle while Washington dithered over whether it would actually fulfill its constitutional obligation to “provide for the common defense.” By 1795, pirates from the Barbary States were savaging America’s merchant fleet to the point that they demanded a million dollars in “protection” money. That amount — nearly a sixth of the entire federal budget — far exceeded then the cost allotted to build the frigates.
The moral: Spending too little on defense solves nothing. It doesn’t make spending more efficient.
America’s first frigates wound up costing double the original estimate — mostly because of presidential politics, congressional squabbling, and woolly headed government bureaucrats.
Not much has changed. Obama’s Pentagon claims it is generating $101 billion in efficiencies that will free-up money to buy new equipment. The “savings,” however, are not efficiencies, the Defense Department is just cutting capabilities and capacity.
Recently, three heavyweights in the conservative movement — Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, Bill Kristol of the Foreign Policy Initiative, and Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation — voiced their collective objection to growing demands from administration officials and some in the Congress to reduce the top line of defense spending.
“[T]this is an error,” they wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “[a] weaker, cheaper military will not solve our financial woes. It will, however, make the world a more dangerous place, and it will impoverish our future.”
They are rejecting the politics-as-usual approach that suggests it’s OK to plunder the defense budget when times are tight. “We should be vigilant against waste in every corner of the budget,” they noted, “[b]ut anyone seeking to restore our fiscal health should look at entitlements first, not across-the-board cuts aimed at our men and women in uniform.”
These men speak for many in the conservative movement, from the national level to the grass roots. Many Tea Party activists would lustily cheer Ronald Reagan’s motto of “peace through strength,” and some of the Tea Party’s high-profile pinups — Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann and Jim DeMint, to name just three — are as hawkish as they come.
Indeed, the sentiment is shared throughout the political spectrum. Yes, Americans want jobs, jobs, jobs. But they also want to be protected.
They don’t want to see our defenses hollowed out, nor do they want to see us bullied and abused by tinpot dictators around the world.
The administration may think its doublespeak is working. It is not. After watching Washington play politics with defense for more than 200 years, the American people have caught on.
The administration can’t scale back on defense and pretend they are tough on national security. Cutting billions from the Pentagon’s budget is not an exercise in fiscal responsibility — it’s old-fashioned, cynical politicking, and it won’t wash anymore.