Defense and Democracy in America

LOS ANGELES – The failure of the US Congressional Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction to reach agreement on budget cuts now sets the stage for $1.2 trillion in automatic reductions to begin in January 2013. Should these cuts go into effect, the US Defense Department, which already must implement $450 billion in reductions over ten years, will take half the hit. But pushback has already begun, with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta arguing that further reductions will impose “substantial risk” to America’s national security.

But, if history is a guide, global events, not deficit hawks or military promoters, will have the ultimate say over how far defense reductions go. As the Cold War ended, who would have thought that the US would become entangled in Somalia, the Balkans, and Kuwait – or, when the new century began, that the US would spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year on wars in Southwest Asia.

While America must, of course, bear any cost to fight a war of survival, throughout history, America’s economic power gave it a broad cushion to pursue wars of choice. In today’s world, one would think that US economic distress would cure that compulsion. But that did not happen in Libya, and events will likely tempt future presidents to behave in the same way, despite the risks. And Congress is unlikely to use its authority to play a more assertive role if legislators wed themselves to the recent past.

America’s fiscal challenges ought to prompt a re-evaluation. Practical change requires revision of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which grants presidents unfettered rights to commit American forces for 60 days. More fundamentally, Congress must ask itself whether the responsibilities that it assumed in America’s formative years provide a template for today.