How Syria Will Affect the Sequester Fight

Republicans say we're starving the military of necessary funds. Experts are less convinced.

Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Armed Services Committee's top Republican, says the United States can't afford to get into a conflict with Syria given the draconian budget cuts that are due to hit the nation's military.

The Pentagon faces more than $500 billion in spending cuts over the next decade under automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration, $54 billion of that is scheduled to hit in 2014. That's above and beyond the $487 billion in cuts that already planned in the Pentagon's budget for 2013.

"Our military has no money left," Inhofe said in a recent statement. "As Sec. [Chuck] Hagel, Adm. [James] Winnefeld, and I have discussed before, we have a financial crisis in our military," Inhofe added. "We have a starving military."

Other Republicans have echoed that sentiment. Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, made the case Monday on CNN: "We cannot keep asking the military to perform mission after mission with sequestration and military cuts hanging over their heads."

Gordon Adams, a defense budget expert at American University who served in the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, recently told the Los Angeles Times that cutting military costs could be done simply by reducing military personnel and contractors in administrative jobs. And military officials have argued that the cost of firing cruise missiles at select Syrian targets can be "relatively easily absorbed."

So, what gives?

President Obama has said he won't put "boots on the ground in Syria," but military planners are still preparing for any possible "contingencies," as underscored by their decision to dispatch the USS Nimitz carrier strike group to the Red Sea. The prospect of deeper military involvement in Syria following a strike may well raise questions about whether sequestration should continue as planned.

Involvement in Syria would bolster the argument for finding savings elsewhere, according to Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. "I think an affirmative vote on an authorization to use military force in Syria would clarify the irrationality of the sequester," he explained, "and strengthen the argument for replacing it with a more defensible set of spending caps phased in as the economy more fully recovers, modest additional savings in Medicare, and tax increases."

Steve Bell, senior director of the Bipartisan Policy Center, isn't convinced that altering the conversation will be necessary. "Quite frankly, the way we hear it outlined, [the cost] will probably be able to be subsumed as the Libya activity was within the current budget."

He adds, "Unless we're talking about something like a no-fly zone or 'boots on the ground,' then I think they'll be able to do this within their budget now, and sequestration will not have an impact."

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4425) }}