Shadow Government

What the Sequester Has Wrought for Defense

When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled the essence (though not the contents) of the Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR), it marked the first time that the administration acknowledged the possibility, and only the possibility, that the sequester might continue into the next fiscal year. The fact that virtually everyone in Washington considers the sequester's survival a certainty, and that many analysts predict that it could last several years, appears to be lost on the administration. The White House and, because it is under orders, the Defense Department continue to press ahead with a fiscal year 2014 defense budget proposal that the White House acknowledges to be $52 billion above the $498 billion level that the sequester would mandate.

It is arguable that the White House has quite deliberately ignored reality precisely in order to blame Congress, as well as the fiscal year 2011 Budget Control Act that created the sequester, for prompting what are increasingly being viewed as catastrophic spending cuts. After all, the sequester was originally inspired in the White House itself -- so Bob Woodward has informed us -- but its consequences have enabled the administration to slash defense expenditures, whose utility it has always doubted, while claiming that its budgetary hands are clean. The White House deserves credit for its politically brilliant sleight of hand. Unfortunately, there are other consequences to the defense cuts, and these are not so brilliant.

As Hagel made clear in his SCMR briefings, the brunt of the sequester will be borne by the operations and acquisition accounts, as well as by reductions in all the active forces, notably the Army. There will be other nominal reductions, of course. There will be some reductions in civilian personnel, and there will be requests to Congress, certain to be rejected, for reductions in various military compensation programs, as well as for a new round of base closures. As America cuts back on its operations, including exercises with allies, port visits, and other manifestations of American presence, credibility, deterrence of adversaries, and reassurance to friends worldwide, the international community will take notice.

Indeed, policymakers on three continents indicate in private that notice has already been taken. In the Middle East, Arab allies witnessing the impact of budget cuts on regional presence are concerned about the "pivot" to Asia. In East Asia, allies are worried that the U.S. budget reductions, coupled with the secretary of state's preoccupation with a variety of crises and negotiations in the Middle East, have rendered the "pivot" meaningless. Europeans worry that the United States is withdrawing its forces too quickly and reducing them too deeply, whether in order to pivot to Asia or bring them home and discharge them.

The fact that the SCMR has "strategic" in its title is also a source of confusion. It appears to be another manifestation of the administration's penchant for budget-driven strategies, a trend that has been discernible since the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. Budget-driven strategies are in fact not strategies at all, and it is this reality that is such a great cause for concern overseas.

Hagel and his deputy, Ash Carter, have both rightly pointed out that significant funds could be saved through a variety of management efficiencies. They note, again correctly, that the savings from most of these management actions will not be realized in the short term. More troubling, however, is the fact that many of these efficiencies have long been rejected by Congress, and it would take a concerted effort not merely by the Pentagon's E Ring, but by the West Wing, to bring them about. Thus far, there has been no indication that the White House is prepared to invest any of its political capital on behalf of the Defense Department.

There are other short-term solutions, however. In particular, the defense budget needn't be subjected to the full torment of the sequester if the administration were to request that the Congress rejigger the system for contributing to debt reduction. The current formula, prescribed by the Budget Control Act, calls for defense to bear 50 percent of reductions mandated by the sequester, while all other discretionary spending is reduced by about 36 percent. (Savings on mandatory expenditures account for the remainder.) The formula could be altered simply by redistributing the budget reduction load so that it is equally shared by defense and non-defense discretionary spending. Doing so would reduce the mandated cut in defense by about $8 billion, a sum that could then be applied to critical operations, training, and exercises. 

Unfortunately, the White House seems no less interested in realigning the sequester than it is in supporting Pentagon efficiencies. Indeed, the president has made clear on numerous occasions that the Defense Department needs to bear an equal share in the burden of budget reductions, as if the country's security is equivalent to the output of some middling agency of uncertain efficiency and questionable effectiveness.

Until the administration changes its attitude to bearing the true cost of national security, that security will remain at serious risk. Past significant reductions in U.S. military capability have been followed by costly wars: notably Korea in 1950 and Iraq in 1990 and 1991. One can hope that this pattern will not repeat itself in the not-too-distant future, but it will take much more than hope to ensure that America retains its military might and provides not only for its own security but that of its allies and friends, well into this relatively new century. 

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Rouhani's Head Fake

This past Saturday, Iran inaugurated a new president -- former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani. And while there is rightly a consensus that Rouhani's victory will do little to change Iran's foreign policy, domestic policy is another matter. Indeed, there are strong indications that Rouhani plans to pursue a new domestic agenda to increase the regime's diminishing popularity among Iranians.

Specifically, Rouhani, who has portrayed himself as a populist reformer, may try to cosmetically improve the human rights situation in Iran. At the same time, the regime may use such action to present itself to the world as "changed," and buy precious time to complete its nuclear program. The international community must not allow this to happen.

A word about the Iranian nuclear program: Most everyone agrees that Iran is getting closer and closer to having the nuclear weapons capability it has long sought. While there are differing opinions on when it will reach fruition, the bottom line is that the program is advancing, and this event is not a decade away, but one poised to happen in the near future.

Time is of the essence, and the current trajectory has to change. This is why Americans should be highly concerned about the disaster that could come from the international community buying into a Rouhani-led charm offensive and easing the current pressure on Iran.

From Rouhani's perspective, Iran's human rights situation is the perfect area to claim to be reforming. Iran's treatment of its own citizens is absolutely appalling, as citizens are commonly denied free speech, fair trials, and personal liberties. Iranians are targeted and punished for their religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Hundreds are executed, some publicly by construction crane or gallows, for minor or nonexistent offenses. Journalists and dissidents are increasingly being monitored, imprisoned, beaten, and in some cases killed.

The Iranian regime behaves abysmally in many ways, but its human rights abuses are unique in that they cannot be blamed on the West. The regime commonly faults the West and sanctions for the dismal economic situation in Iran, ignoring its own economic mismanagement and kleptocratic structures. Likewise, it carries out international terror attacks and threatens military strikes, claiming that it is defending itself from Western aggression. Yet when it comes to beating, torturing, and killing Iranians without due process, there is no external boogeyman for the regime to blame.

This is in fact a crucial reason why the international community needs to continue to uncover and highlight the regime's abuses -- doing so shows the Iranian people that the world sees the cruel nature of the men that unjustly rule them. It also strengthens the case for why the international community should ratchet up sanctions and do what it takes to prevent this violent and aggressive regime from having a nuclear weapon at its disposal.

The Iranian regime has, through its intransigence, turned the entire world against it. As former George W. Bush-era officials on U.N. matters who are typically not optimistic about the body's ability to affect change, we were particularly astounded to see that even the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva took action by appointing a Special Rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, to report on the human rights situation in the country.  

In truth, sanctions and international pressure have been quite effective at economically isolating Iran. Iran's economy is in freefall and countries, banks, and companies around the world have sworn off business with the regime. The climate for pressuring Iran is exponentially better than it was just a few years ago.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, clearly knows that his people are fed up with the current situation and blame their leadership. He also appears willing to go along with some trappings of change instead of risking a more significant uprising among the population. It is quite plausible that Khamenei will allow Rouhani to take cosmetic steps to appear to improve the human rights situation in Iran, for the same reasons he went along with Rouhani's electoral victory in the first place.

And therein lies the most immediate problem. Khamenei and Rouhani will be glad to see a tamping down of the current restiveness in the country, but they are also likely to portray such "improvements" to the rest of the world as evidence of change and buy time to continue their nuclear program and try to roll back or stall current sanctions.

It is imperative that the international community not fall for this trick. No real change will occur under this theocracy. Cosmetic change is not a reason to give the regime economic relief, and the time it needs to finish its nuclear program.

Mark P. Lagon is a former U.S. ambassador to combat trafficking in persons, a Georgetown University professor in the practice on international affairs, and a Council on Foreign Relations adjunct senior fellow. Mark D. Wallace is CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran. He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, representative for U.N. management and reform.