The Threat of Sequestration

President Obama and Speaker John Boehner's failure to reach a spending and revenue agreement would see automatic cuts to defense programs.

President Obama and Speaker John Boehner's failure to reach a spending and revenue agreement would see automatic cuts to defense programs.

What common sense could not kill, something called “sequestration” might at least tame.

Under this arcane but conclusive budgetary mechanism, the U.S. government will endure automatic and draconian spending cuts if it can’t cobble together a budget by January. Even the U.S. Defense Department, the epicenter of empire, will not be spared. As the largest government agency, the Pentagon is expected to suffer dearly under the sequestration sickle, and that has concentrated minds in a city that has made a survival instinct out of inertia. For the first time in a generation, security planners are wondering aloud if the world could survive a diminution of American military might.

“We never had to prioritize,” a retired intelligence officer and an old Cold Warrior told me in Washington this week. “Now we do. This threat of sequestration and all it implies is changing everything. It’s forcing everyone to compromise on roles and missions.”

Not so fast. This is about the Pentagon after all, which shrewdly allocates production lines of its major weapons systems throughout the nation, the better to insulate itself from cuts by jobs-minded legislators. It has been targeted by budget hawks before, only to dodge the bullet. The relatively modest reductions in defense spending that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the raison d’etat for America’s Cold War hegemony, were restored within a few years. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Defense Department’s budget has more than doubled and the U.S. military’s reach has never been deeper or more deadly.

Under sequestration, the Pentagon’s budget could suffer a nine-percent decline in spending over a ten-year period in addition to some $490 billion in cuts authorized by the Obama administration. That would indeed be a significant reduction. But assuming the military’s proxies in Congress fail to secure an exemption for defense spending, is prioritizing such a bad thing? Freed from the burden of restraint after the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon not only enlarged its arsenal, it established new bases, expanded old ones and financed agreements for greater access to vital air corridors and sea lanes. What it couldn’t control before the attacks it assiduously tucked under its dominion soon afterward.

And to what end? In the Arab world, American interests are as vulnerable as ever and the country’s credibility, always compromised by its militarized relations with Israel, is at an all time low; Washington continues to underwrite European security even as its rich NATO allies reduce their own defense spending to a pittance of gross domestic product; in Asia, where the Pentagon has spent billions of dollars over the last decade for the sake of containing China, has only deepened alliance commitments that should have been reduced after the Soviet collapse and which now threatens to drag the U.S. into a Sino-Japanese war over underwater energy supplies and minerals.

By itself, of course, sequestration will not end a superfluous empire and reacquaint America with its nineteenth century republican ideals. The post-sequestration era may, however, finally expose the fraud, peddled by a vast array of monied interests, that the only way for Washington to keep the nation safe is to outspend the known world on arms and the means of administering them. Having fed the beast unconditionally for more than a decade, automatic spending cuts may represent the first step towards reducing and domesticating it.

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