The Tea Party and the Future Face of American Power

Photo Credit: Flickr/ISAFMediaTHE politics of  “budget crisis” is in full swing in the United States.  After nearly a decade where, in the famous words of former Vice President Dick Cheney, “deficits don’t matter,” we’ve now come back to where they do, at least for now.  The Tea Party has marched on Washington with its new, brash members of Congress. It has changed the face of the Republican Party, and it's now trying to change the face of American power. 

Republican Congressional leaders have pledged that nothing is off the table, taking aim at entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.  Some, most notably Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, have demanded that defence spending also needs to be cut.  

Already posturing for re-election in 2012, President Obama jumped on the bandwagon and countered with his own deficit reduction plan.  He too announced that nothing would be off the table, and raised the ante by offering a plan for US$400 billion in cuts (to projected increases) in the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade.   


The Big Set-up 

Except of course, it turns out the Republicans aren’t really all that serious about cutting defense spending.  

In March, well before Obama’s new proposal, the new House Republicans were already objecting to any talk of defence cuts. Twenty-three House freshmen wrote to the House leadership urging a rejection of Obama’s FY2012 budget (the budget that was passed last month that narrowly averted a government shut-down).   Not to be outdone,  29 of the 35 Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee warned, in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, that “We should not jeopardize the security of the nation by accepting across-the-board cuts to national defense without regard to the inherent strategic risks.”  They requested an additional US$7 billion over and above the President’s proposal for FY 2012.  The Republican Party’s current platform document, "The Path to Prosperity," states: "Like all categories of government spending, defense spending should be executed with efficiency and accountability. But a responsible budget must never lose sight of the fact that the first responsibility of the federal government is to provide for the common defense.”   

With nearly 30 million veterans and more than US$750 billion in defence spending spread out neatly across 435 congressional districts in the United States, Tea Partiers might like to boast about their commitment to fiscal discipline and the economic distortions of big government. But when it comes to defense sector jobs in their districts – well, that’s just paying the price for freedom.  

How difficult is it to cut defense spending?  Last year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tried to close Joint Forces Command in heavily Republican leaning Norfolk, VA at a cost savings of nearly $250 million.  But, as Gordon Adams and Matthew Leatherman from the Stimson Foundation noted, the outrage from state and local officials was so sharp that Gates had to alter his plans “local politics trumped efficiency.”  And so it goes across the entire budget. 

And this doesn’t even begin to speak of the challenges of cutting spending in a rational way across multiple services.  The Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), a Washington D.C. think tank, reported that current budget allocation across the services is roughly equal: Army (34%) Navy (33%), and Air Force (32%).  Threat-based rationale, or politics?

Hence, as quickly as deficit politics came to dominate Washington politics in the days after Obama’s inauguration, it is already being replaced with the traditional Republican playbook. President Obama might have been able to kill Osama bin Laden, but only Republicans really care about maintaining a strong defense (and to think that the presidential campaign hasn’t really even begun).  This will give the Tea Partiers and the new Republicans the cover they need to gut other programs and yet save government defence sector jobs in their districts. 


So what will get gutted?

Does this mean the Tea Partiers will pack up and go home without touching U.S. national security programs?  Hardly.  We’ve already seen real efforts by the Republicans to gut almost all elements of American “soft power” – diplomacy and development and the like.   Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Kay Granger (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee, have both pledged they will aggressively slash funding for International Programs.   It appears we may see some efforts at really draconian cuts.  The Republican Study Committee, comprised of 165 conservatives, proposed in January to defund nearly the entire budget of the U.S. Agency for International Development  (US$1.39 billion of its US$1.65 billion annual operations).   Others have introduced efforts to withdraw the United States from the United Nations or drastically reduce U.S. contributions.

While divided government means the most draconian cuts won't survive the U.S. Senate or a Presidential veto, the Tea Partiers will use their clout to leverage significant reductions.  Unlike defence spending, it's far easier to defund the entire United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and its budget of US$42 million... or a total savings of 18 cents per person for a year... or the total of just under three hours of the war in Afghanistan.   Many programs like USIP provide critical information, training, track-two diplomacy, and analysis, but they fall under the political radar and become low-hanging fruit. 

Joe Nye concluded “The result is a foreign policy that rests on a defense giant and a number of pygmy departments.” 


The Changing Face of American Power

In an ideal world, a smart U.S. strategy for national security spending cuts would start with a full review of the America's strategic mission and posture. The point of it would be to identify core American priorities - including interests and values - taking stock of a wide range of contingencies and commensurate risk, and understanding the capabilities required to respond to those contingencies. 

Such a public policy would then identify and advance a strategy to manage global public goods. This would ensure that most countries, especially potential peers, are satisfied with American management of the system and hence reduce incentives for counterbalancing. 

It would recognize that cutting back our commitments in a highly complex world means retaining the cheaper, non-military capacity to manage a whole range of global challenges: diplomats and aid workers with greater language skills, cultural sensitivities, historical, political, sociological, and economic understanding of both states and societies. 

None of this will happen with the new Republican leadership and the Tea Party movement demanding harsh budgets cuts while exempting defence spending.  As a result, the face of American power abroad will increasingly be its soldier, not its diplomat or its aid worker.  Not only will this cost exponentially more in budgetary terms, it also means the American soldier will be further tasked to do the traditional jobs of others -without the requisite skills, training, or sensitivities.   And, that can only make it more difficult to for the United States to manage a complex and dynamic world.