We haven’t heard this sort of reminiscing for a while. Since 2010, the most cited cliché about security and spending came from Adm. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told an Ohio audience that the national debt was the “greatest threat to national security.” Kyl flipped that around: “You can’t have a strong economy unless you have a strong defense.”
Sure, this was a retiring Republican talking. He might leave the Senate and devote himself to more lucrative campaigns for military spending, and he wouldn’t be the first defense hawk to do so. But every other Republican on the stage was with him. Tom Cotton, an incoming congressman from Arkansas, said that voters “kind of intuitively understand” that when “you’ve got to fund the government, the first priority is a real strong military.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois freshman, warned that America could lose wars only if Americans had “our will defeated.” The 2007 surge into Iraq was a perfect example of a bigger, bolder military: “It was not necessarily the addition of 20,000 troops, it was the message it sent.”
Whether the sequester survives or falls, this is mainstream Republican opinion. A fiscal hawk like Rand Paul can talk about “jettisoning some of the crap” in the military budget, and he’ll draw curious reporters into his tractor beam. But seven months ago, nearly every House Republican voted to restore all the lost defense spending, finding the cuts in welfare programs instead.
It’s an awkward position to be in, because it puts the lie to the whole “fiscal cliff” concept. The “fiscal crisis” of 2009 onward was, allegedly, the national debt. A “cliff” sounds like the sort of thing you teeter over in a major crisis. And yet “going over the cliff” means accepting $1.2 trillion in cuts—more than $200 billion in 2013—and bringing back tax rates that raised more revenue than the current rates. It would be, by miles, the most significant whack at the deficit in American history. It would also wreck the economy, even though Republicans said in 2010 and 2011 that a tighter budget would in itself help the economy.
“Keynesian economists believe that if the government doesn’t spend money, bad times ensue,” explained Kyl. “I reject that. They are correct that these automatic across-the-board cuts to both the nondefense discretionary part of the budget and the defense part would be devastating. I just disagree on the reasons why.” But he didn’t give an alternate reason.
There really isn’t one. Republicans in areas affected by defense cuts campaigned against them. The hawkish, interventionist wing of the party can’t succeed if the cuts aren’t stopped. The most forward-looking part of the FPI’s conference came when the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy chatted with Sen. John McCain. They quickly agreed that America needed to intervene in Syria, setting up a partial no-fly zone and arming rebels. “War weariness is a big factor,” said McCain, griping about the possible opposition. “People are very weary, and there’s a fear of getting into a prolonged conflict.” But that would be overcome. So would the defense cuts.
“I know you cannot deal without that,” said Levy after the panel. “I know you cannot neglect this aspect of things. It is not my specialty, but I am realistic. I am pragmatic. I knew, during the Libyan war, how important it was to take into account the pragmatic aspect of things. So we cannot just make idealistic preachings—but my thought is that the cost is greater if you do not do it.”
Republicans agree with the French philosopher on this one: No more cuts!