Syria Versus Sequestration: Can Obama Defend Wartime Military Spending Cuts?

A blog about business and economics.
Sept. 6 2013 8:31 AM

Will Syria Ruin Obama's Sequester Policy?

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US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel listen during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill September 3, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Administration officials have understandably been hesitant to indulge reporters in too much purely political talk around their Syria strategy, but I have a pretty serious political question that I think is dangling out there as the domestic and economic policy team has been offstage: What about sequestration?

From day one Democrats have been holding what strikes me as a problematic political line on the cuts in military spending that represent half of sequestration's savings. On the one hand, these cuts are supposed to be a "stick" that inflicts pain on the GOP and makes them want to come to the table and compromise with Democrats on domestic spending and taxes. But on the other hand, many leading Democrats—including Barack Obama—say the defense sequester is bad policy on the merits that harms national security. And yet at the same time the Democratic line is that they would refuse to turn off the defense sequester unless domestic spending is also addressed.

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Which is to say that for the purposes of strategic legislative bargaining, the Democrats all want to act like left-wing peaceniks who welcome these cuts in military spending even though many of them are in fact not left-wing peaceniks.

And nothing heightens the contradictions between those two poses quite like staging a military intervention! Even worse, Obama's main hope for progress on sequestration was to work with a handful of GOP super-hawks who the administration hoped would be more averse to military spending cuts than to tax increases. But those GOP super-hawks tend to be the exact same people—John McCain, Lindsay Graham, etc.—who the White House now has to work with to get Republican support for intervening in Syria. That seems to me to flip the dynamic, so now Republican hawks can argue that the same legislative coalition that facilitated the military intervention needs to put disagreements about domestic politics aside and turn off the defense sequester.

Now I will say that I've been skeptical that Democrats can hold the line on defense spending from the very first day the Supercommittee broke up and this plan was announced. And I've been proven wrong several times before, so to be honest there's a great chance I'll be wrong again. But it still strikes me as very difficult for the White House to simultaneously stage a high-profile "kinetic military action" while using the Pentagon budget as a bargaining chip in a disagreement about taxes and domestic spending.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.