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Herbert London: Coming Apart Over Sequestration

“Sequestration” is a government word that for those in the military has a synonym: castration. When a bipartisan committee was established by the administration to motivate Democrats and Republicans to compromise on limits for federal spending, it was assumed some understanding could be accomplished. One provision of mutual disagreement and a stalemate is sequestration or automatic budget cuts should stasis be the result of congressional deliberation.

Well, here we are without an agreement and sequestration about to be imposed on the budget process. Sequestration according to the Congressional Budget Office, will reduce federal discretionary spending by nearly $94 billion in 2013 and $1.2 trillion over the next decade. One might assume conservatives would rejoice over this outcome. But that assumption would be wrong. This provision effectively ignores the real drivers of our debt and deficit problems by exempting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and federal employee pensions, while placing the burden of retrenchment on national defense.

According to a George Mason University study defense cuts of this magnitude would result in the layoff of approximately 2.1 million workers. But these national security reductions have even more severe implications. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, said sequestration would pose unacceptable risk to the nation’s defense capabilities. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert noted that sequestration will have a “severe and irreversible impact on the Navy’s future.”  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the cuts catastrophic.” “We’d be shooting ourselves in the head,” he said. Admiral Ace Lyons maintains that if sequestration is imposed on the Navy, none of today’s missions could be carried out in the future.

Almost every military officer in the nation is persuaded that this form of retrenchment will so hollow out the nation’s ability to project power that the U.S. will be obliged to sit on the sidelines as the Chinese assert their influence in the Pacific and Iran operates on its imperial aims in the Middle East. The world is certainly not a safer place when the United States engages in self-imposed disarmament.

Clearly this is the time for a legislative onslaught. Letters from the Secretary of Defense, General Dempsey, the Associations of the U.S. Army and Navy, Chairman McKeon, the Chamber of Commerce to leading congressional leaders make the case sequestration is unacceptable. Yet curiously the issue has not galvanized public opinion.

My guess is the media has simply let this matter ride. But now that U.S. embassies are at risk and the full effect of rabid Islamic sentiment is evident across north Africa, time for the reassessment of  sequestration is here. This is not a partisan issue. There are areas in the budget that must be cut and even military installations that must be examined under green eye shades. But when it comes down to cutting the core, the strength of our defense capability, sensible legislators must shout “stop.”

The third rail in politics must be more than Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. In fact, as I see it, these programs should not be immune to budget slashing. Military spending is another matter. Power projection should not be compromised. A strong America accounts for a stable world and even a prosperous United States. If the sea lanes aren’t secure, trade is put in jeopardy.

Sequestration is ultimately an arbitrary budget decision that sacrifices defense capability so we can retain ballooning social programs. This is the kind of trade-off that doomed the Roman Empire and the British Empire. Is their fate about to be ours? Are we so caught in the rhetorical web of entitlements that we have lost sight of national defense? I wonder if anyone in the Congress is listening to and observing this very dangerous scenario.

Herbert London is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.