The White House could impose defense spending cuts approaching those of the debt ceiling deal's Doomsday Device, even if the super committee reaches an agreement that avoids the sequestration trigger, the top House defense Republican said Monday.
House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon said he worries the Obama administration wants to cut the defense budget no matter what. So even if the super committee gets a bargain through Congress by Christmas, avoiding the $500 billion in automatic defense spending 'sequestration,' the Office of Management and Budget could nonetheless impose defense spending cuts around that same magnitude, McKeon warned.
He cautioned this would have dire consequences:
"Defense cuts near the size and shape of the trigger within the confines of super committee ... would open the door to aggression, as our ability to deter respond would be severely crippled." Without the steadfast security provided by America's armed forces, McKeon said, "The fragile, globalized economy would be left at the mercy of uncertainty and doubt."
McKeon spoke Monday at the American Enterprise Institute, where he acknowledged that the "crown of global leadership is heavy and expensive," but the U.S. has a unique responsibility to wear it, given that "our military's positive role as a defender of global peace is undeniable." If the U.S. reduces the size and reach of its military and succumbs to the crypto-isolationism now on the rise, it'll create a power vacuum around the world, he said.
China is waiting for the U.S. to withdraw its global reach, McKeon warned, especially in an area it already considers its exclusive sphere of power. He told a story about a Vietnamese official who complained that under China's doctrine that it had full authority over the South China Sea, Vietnam is effectively 'land-locked.' Vietnam is a good case study in the value of American power, McKeon said: Vietnamese officials see the presence of American forces in the Western Pacific as maintaining the current peace, but China wants to use its military power to be dominant, "wanting control."
In order to protect American power, McKeon made an extraordinary admission for a modern Republican: He said if he were forced to choose between weakening American power or raising taxes, he would vote to raise taxes -- but only in that kind of dire situation. To be sure, however, McKeon repeated what he and other defense advocates have said many times: That DoD has already made its share of sacrifices, and now Congress and the administration must cut entitlements and other parts of the budget in order to get overall reductions in federal spending.
McKeon also made clear that the defense "debate" in Washington is still stuck in the same paradox: He wants a "strategy" that "asks what we want our military to do," and will then serve as a guiding document for a potential build-down or long-term plans. As we've seen, this may be impossible, but it's a way for everyone in the game to simultaneously pass the buck and appear serious as Washington waits and watches the super committee attempt to get a grand bargain.