How Obama Shrank the Military

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News last month of the U.S. Army’s decision to cut 40,000 active-duty soldiers, shrinking to 450,000 by 2017, drew fusillades inside the Beltway. Sen. John McCain assailed “another dangerous consequence of budget-driven strategy.” Adam Smith, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, fumed: “Sequestration and the Budget Control Act, which are responsible for slashing the defense budget, exist because the Republican Party held our economy hostage and threatened to default on our loans.”

These sound bites might bewilder Americans unfamiliar with the details of sequestration. Explanation is in order.

To start at the beginning: In 2011 Democrats controlled the White House and Senate, but Republicans promising fiscal restraint had swept the 2010 elections and controlled the House. That set up an inevitable confrontation, which culminated in the summer of 2011.

The federal government was on track to blow through its debt ceiling—the maximum amount of borrowing permitted by law—in early August. The White House needed Congress to raise the limit. Republicans demanded spending cuts in exchange. It is true, then, that the Budget Control Act of 2011 resulted from Republicans’ use of the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip.

Democrats, however, had used the same tactic with the debt ceiling in 2006. Further, sequestration—compulsory spending caps that would take effect if the two sides failed to agree on an alternative plan to reduce the deficit—was first proposed by the Obama White House.

The allocation of half the sequestration cuts to defense, at a time when it accounted for only about 20% of spending, was also President Obama’s handiwork. In his memoir “Duty,” then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes that in spring 2011 the president promised that military cuts would amount to perhaps one dollar for every $10 of domestic cuts. But in subsequent negotiations, Mr. Obama stipulated that half of the $1.2 trillion in sequestration cuts come from defense.

The Budget Control Act passed in August 2011 with Republican support, a fact the White House’s defenders have been quick to point out. Some tea party Republicans were willing to slash military spending as part of large-scale budget reduction. But national security conservatives—including Mr. McCain, who voted “yes”—were convinced that the huge defense cuts would never take effect. The law set up a bipartisan “supercommittee” to make a responsible grand bargain, which would stay the sequestration ax.

By November 2011 it was clear the supercommittee had failed. Yet the sequestration cuts were not scheduled to take effect until 2013, giving the White House and Congress another year to overturn them. Throughout 2012 congressional hawks repeatedly offered legislation to do so. Mr. Obama promised to veto such legislation unless it included tax increases. Republicans said the supercommittee was charged only with identifying spending cuts, and hence it was disingenuous to hold a compromise hostage to new taxes.

Then came the “fiscal cliff.” The sequester cuts were scheduled to take effect on Jan. 2, 2013, right after the Dec. 31 expiration of tax cuts first enacted under President George W. Bush. Lawmakers feared this one-two punch could send the economy into recession. Urgent negotiations began anew.

In December the president proposed eliminating sequestration and keeping the Bush tax cuts for the lower and middle class but raising taxes on the wealthy to the tune of $680 billion over 10 years. In the final fiscal cliff deal enacted at the beginning of January, Republicans agreed to tax increases of $620 billion, close to what the president wanted. The sequester was delayed by two months, ostensibly to give negotiators more time.

Then in February 2013 as the new deadline approached, Mr. Obama floated a plan to eliminate the sequester that included another $680 billion in tax increases—a demand no Republican would consider. On March 1 across-the-board spending cuts went into effect.

Though President Obama denounced sequestration, his actions suggest that at the very least he was comfortable with its gutting of the defense budget. During the 2011 negotiations the White House had already begun work on a new national-security strategy to accommodate drastic defense cuts. The Defense Strategic Guidance of 2012 proclaimed that the U.S. could afford to draw down the military because the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were ending and al Qaeda was on the run.

In 2013 then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel organized a new strategic review that determined the military could perform its key missions even if the Army shrank to between 420,000 and 450,000 soldiers. The White House wove this finding into a narrative in which the Defense Department approved of a sequestration-size military. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest wheeled out this talking point on July 8 when asked about the Army’s 40,000 layoffs, saying the force reductions were “consistent with the view of our civilian and uniform military leadership about the threats that the country faces.”

Few in the Defense Department ever held that view. In 2012 Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that if sequestration went into effect, “we would no longer be a global power.” A year later Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, testified that Mr. Hagel’s review involved “rosy assumptions” that “were really put in there so we could say we need a smaller Army.” He warned that sequestration cuts would “put at substantial risk our ability to conduct even one sustained major combat operation.”

While many bear blame for this military decline, the person most culpable is also the one most capable of reversing it. President Obama can stanch the bleeding, but it will require overcoming his distaste for working with Republicans and his aversion to acknowledging mistakes—neither of which will come easily.

He may find, however, as Jimmy Carter did in 1980, that his policies so exacerbate global problems that he must do a late about-face. With Islamic State, Iran, Russia and China on the march, it is doubtful that America can afford a lightweight military for long.

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