Defense: Neglected, Ignored, And Marginalized

Domestic issues, such as the economy, health care, and taxes, have always dominated electoral campaigns and the American political discourse, and deservedly so.  However, nothing explains why defense has been ignored and marginalized as an issue during campaigns and non-campaign periods.  Similarly, one must wonder why no NGO is campaigning for a strong defense on Capitol Hill.

The only elections when defense issues played a prominent role were in 1960, 1980, and 1984.  Other than that, it was everyone's last concern -- a mere afterthought.

This neglect of, and disinterest in, defense by the electorate and the political class alike has helped cause the low state of readiness of the U.S. military today and made it easier for opponents of a strong defense to gut it.  Here's how.

President George H.W. Bush's administration and Dick Cheney canceled over 100 crucial modernization programs and significantly cut defense spending even while the Cold War was ongoing, all while involving America in small and large wars alike.  Nary a Republican objected.  In 1992, many conservatives, led by Ross Perot, opposed President Bush -- but solely because of his tax hikes, not because of his defense cuts.

Later in the 1990s, defense issues were of concern to almost no one.  The Contract with America treated them as an afterthought, and once elected, congressional Republicans slavishly rubber-stamped Clinton's massive, arbitrary defense cuts.  As a result, the U.S. military was severely weakened.

Under George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, the military saw several positive (though inadequate) steps being taken.  Yet defense was still not a key political issue, not even after 9/11.  When Bush appointed Gates SecDef, the ex-CIA director who began to turn the military into a mere counterterrorist unit and to cut conventional weapon programs, nary a Republican protested.

Then there was the 2008 campaign.  Defense issues were very rarely mentioned, and when they were, it was usually in the context of what cuts a President McCain or a President Obama would administer.  Both candidates were eager to cancel dozens of modernization programs.  Beyond McCain and Obama, one had to search hard for a given candidate's specific stance on defense issues.

During the 2010 congressional campaign, many GOP candidates didn't even have a page devoted to the issue, and most of those who did offered only short, trite statements.  The House GOP itself, led by John Boehner, treated defense as an afterthought, offering only three pages of mostly hackneyed statements in its "Pledge to America."

Before November 2010 was over, the leaders of a number of "fiscally conservative" groups such as ATR and the NTU sent an open letter to Boehner and McConnell, demanding deep defense cuts and making a number of false claims like "the DOD has been shielded from serious scrutiny," "defense continues to enjoy protected status," and "defense spending is 80% higher than it was in FY1998."  (FY1998 was the nadir of the Clinton defense cuts, but that's another story.)

Since the 112th Congress took office, it should have been clearly evident to everyone just how badly defense issues have been marginalized and ignored.  These days, you don't hear about them on general news websites and the media, except when calls for ever deeper defense cuts are made.  You don't hear politicians (other than a few HASC members) make noise about them.  The media, the political class, and most of the electorate are simply ignoring them.  Only specialized websites, veterans' associations, and think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation continue to analyze them.  (If it hadn't been for them, I would've never been able to keep up with the latest news on these issues.)

In the U.S., there are NGOs, including special interest groups, campaigning for their desired policies on most issues: abortion, gay marriage, taxes, spending, energy, the environment, transportation, smoking bans, veterans' affairs, and policies toward specific states (Israel, Armenia, Cuba, etc.).  But there is no such group handling defense issues on the conservative side.  There is no group campaigning for strong defense policies.  (By contrast, in the U.K., there is such a group -- the National Defence Association.)

So politicians -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- are not monitored and influenced by anyone on how they handle defense issues, so they know they can pursue a weak-defense policy with zero political risk.  They know they can afford to cut the defense budget, force structure, modernization programs, infrastructure, and maintenance programs, and almost no one will lift a finger.

Pursuing a certain policy on taxes, gay, marriage, abortion, and most other political issues will enrage special interest groups, mobilize the opposition party, and perhaps alienate independent voters (who usually determine the results of elections) if a given policy is too extreme to the left or to the right. On the other hand, Republicans and Democrats alike know that they can afford to gut defense completely -- even to disarm the U.S. unilaterally, as President Obama is doing -- and almost no one will lift a finger.

When Obama and Gates proposed their first round of defense cuts in 2009, which cut $330 billion from projected DOD budgets and closed over 30 weapon programs, most Republicans readily voted for that.  The conservative commentariat (other than AT writers) was not even interested.  (Where was Ann Coulter, Debbie Schultz, or Michelle Malkin when the 2009 defense cuts were announced?)  In 2010, when further billions of dollars were cut from DOD accounts and further weapon programs were closed, again, no protests were made by Republicans.

The disastrous New START was passed with thirteen Republicans voting for it.  Had just five of them voted no or abstained, the treaty would have been stopped.

The FY2011 CR, agreed to by Speaker Boehner, cut defense spending to $508 billion, down from $534 billion (in CY2009 dollars) in FY2010.

Then, in April 2011, Obama dumped what were, until then, his own defense budget numbers and demanded arbitrary defense cuts to the tune of $400 billion.  He and the Democrats have since more than doubled that demand to $886 billion.  Several GOP senators agree.  It looks like House Republicans will capitulate to that demand.

Throughout the last 22 years, defense programs (and excepting the Bush era, defense spending) have been cut annually.  With compliant, indifferent, disinterested Republicans, the Democrats have managed to keep cutting (and weakening) America's defense annually, knowing that their opponents would not protest.  Indifference was enough.

It is this indifference which still allows them to do so -- and is, as a result, wrecking America's defense readiness.

Which brings me to the 2011-2012 presidential race.

For 66% of Republicans, the biggest issue, rightly enough, is the size and scope of government or the economy and jobs.  But inexplicably, "national security and foreign policy" ranks as Republicans' dead-last concern (15%), even behind social issues (17%).  So for Republicans, legislating morality is more important than protecting the country -- the government's #1 Constitutional duty.

Presidential candidates hardly ever mention defense, unless someone demands even deeper cuts.  No one is campaigning specifically against Obama's defense cuts, like Reagan campaigned against Carter's, and making them a key campaign issue.

This must change.  No longer should defense be an afterthought.  Congressional Republicans and presidential candidates must make it key in their campaigns.