Kyl Should Rethink Supercommittee Threat

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It's irresponsible, toxic and demeaning to others on the supercommittee with whom he agreed to work

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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Senator Jon Kyl made news this week by telegraphing in advance the tantrums he would throw -- including resignation from his responsibilities as a member of the so-called "supercommittee" -  if the Congressional group pushes for more defense cuts. 

It's unclear whether Kyl will tolerate the $350 billion in cuts slated for the next ten years already called for by President Obama -- or whether he is talking about cuts above this amount.

From my experience, it is probably the former -- but my calls to his office yesterday asking clarification have not yet been returned -- so I leave open the option that the Senator and President Obama may be on the same page about the relatively modest cuts Obama has called for.

To be fair to Senator Kyl, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that he doesn't think that the Pentagon can maintain its responsibilities in assuring the nation's security if the cutting goes deeper than that which President Obama has already outlined.  Both Kyl and Panetta have significant concerns about the "sequestration mechanism" that would be triggered by provisions in the Budget Control Act of 2011 as significant cuts would be forced in Medicare, defense spending, and other accounts if the supercommittee fails to reach agreement on at least a $1.2 trillion spending cut.

I hope Senator Kyl was simply posturing.  Kyl is a serious defense intellectual, a tough-minded hawk who has been concerned about America's eroding global position and assaults, as he sees it, on America's sovereignty.  I don't agree with Kyl's take but I respect him as a serious thinker and strategist.  

He has been deeply involved in making sure that America's national weapons laboratories had the resources to responsibly manage the nuclear stockpile -- and to some degree, although he became a serious but overcome impediment during the effort to pass the US-Russia nuclear arms deal START Treaty last year, his wrangling with Vice President Biden behind the scenes to get more resources into the nuclear weapons labs is what allowed other conservatives to support passage of that vital treaty.

Whether Kyl wins or loses in the various positions he stakes out -- some of them fairly out there in a "bomb them now and get it over with" world with former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton -- Kyl typically behaves as a responsible legislator and doesn't make the kind of threats he made about the supercommittee.  He is essentially saying "I want it my way or there will be no deal."  That's irresponsible, toxic and demeaning to others on the supercommittee with whom he agreed to work.

Three quick reactions.  First, I hope Senator Kyl reconsiders; his legacy deserves more than to be punctuated near its end by tantrums that are beneath him and the institutional character of the Senate.

Second, the Senator needs to think back to his positions on the Iraq War, the surge, and the various upticks he has demanded -- and often secured -- in defense appropriations.  He has never, to my knowledge, worried about the income part of the equation to balance out the national security spending he was engineering.

Since Osama bin Laden's acolytes changed the world and America with their attack on US targets on September 11, 2001, the United States has spent -- just in appropriated Pentagon dollars and not taking account of large expenditures in other security accounts -- $2.263 trillion ABOVE what it was already spending on national security before 9/11.  This is on a cash basis -- out the door -- and does not account for ongoing obligations to veterans and other delayed costs that Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes often mention in their cost assessments of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. 

Kyl should have been the tenacious, never give up, never surrender Senator who demanded not only more spending on the Pentagon but also more revenue to pay for it.  He has done almost nothing that I know of to commit his core constituents -- many on the wealthier end of America's economic teeter-totter -- to providing more resources for the kind of national security investments Kyl demands.

Third, while I don't share the world view that Jon Kyl has, I agree with him that national security investments and capacity are important.  If he focuses only on dollars -- then Americans -- whether on the political right or left -- will ultimately not feel that they are getting a good return on tax dollars spent.  Dollars do not automatically equate to security deliverables.

We are paying more in many cases for a bloated and often inefficient private defense contractor industry in which we see cases of US Air Force captains and majors retiring from the military only to go into the private sector making three or four times their pay in the military and doing exactly the same jobs.  Where is Senator Kyl on these sorts of abuses and inefficiencies.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had it right when he came into offices as George W. Bush's Pentagon chief.  Rumsfeld started with strategy and became committed to thinking through what kinds of wars and conflcts America needed to prepare for -- and what kind were least likely to be fought in the future and wanted strategy to drive a reorganization of spending and Pentagon structure.

September 11th changed everything -- and created a world in which the Pentagon no longer had to make hard choices because it saw coffers in nearly all of its accounts filled to overflowing.

Jon Kyl and his colleagues would be wise to check in with Secretary Rumsfeld and reinitiate a discussion of strategy and structure that informs spending. 

To talk dollars alone and think that more or less spending is the only measure of whether America is safe or unsafe is unfair to taxpayers, undermines US national security, and would blight Jon Kyl's legacy as a Senator who understood the deeper mechanics of national security decisions and spending.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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