Newly installed Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, former senator from South Carolina and favorite of conservatives just about everywhere, was in Mobile, AL last week to give a speech for the superb Alabama Policy Institute. I wrote about it here.
But one part of my interview I did not write about last week (because it didn’t fit the main theme I was writing about) should give pause to those so-called conservatives, mostly younger ones, who seem blithely unconcerned (or at least only marginally concerned) with the continuing cutbacks in the U.S. defense budget.
I asked DeMint if he was more or less satisfied with how the battle over the budget “sequester” had played out. Frankly, I was not even thinking about defense, even though I have written that Republicans should have moved heaven and earth to protect defense from most of the effects of sequestration. When I asked the question, my assumption was that he would say he was largely satisfied with this interim step in the ongoing budget battles; my idea was to ask a follow-up question, based on the details of his response, about the bigger pictures of the larger, long-term budget problem.
I give that context only to show that I did not prompt DeMint in the slightest about defense. But here’s what he said, with his first words in response to my question:
“No, I’m not happy because so much was taken out of defense.” Then, after about three sentences to say he also didn’t think sequestration did enough to restrain spending on matters other than defense, he returned to his original point: “We do need to go back and figure out if we have enough money for modernization of our defense forces. I don’t think we do.”
This is significant. DeMint is well-known as a spending cutter, a hero to small-government advocates, a budget balancer extraordinaire. Yet, given the chance to crow about how Republicans had won a political skirmish against Obama with regard to sequestration, DeMint’s first thought instead turned toward protecting our nation from foreign threats. Tea Partiers, younger conservatives, and the increasing strain of conservatives who tend toward isolationism all should pay heed.
The fact of the matter, as Frederick W. Kagan wrote in the May 6 National Review (and as the good folks at The Weekly Standard have repeatedly argued in theme if not in the following specific examples), the sequester directly has caused “the cancellation of scheduled deployments of eight U.S. Navy ships, including an aircraft carrier destined for the Persian Gulf, and the grounding of 17 U.S. Air Force squadrons,” resulting in “a devastating blow to American global credibility just when our enemies and friends are watching most closely.” We thus have “created a window in 2013 during which the United States will have no aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf,” thus leading the Iranian Revolutionary Guard publication Mashregh to exult that this move gives the lie to any perceived threat of American military force (if Iran suddenly brings to full fruition a nuclear weapons program).
Kagan described plenty of other dangerous effects on our defense forces as a result of sequestration, and explained why it is that President Obama has far less ability to move funds among Pentagon accounts (and thus to avoid some of these ill effects) than is widely assumed.
Kagan is correct, as is DeMint. It’s long past time for conservatives to start again recalling, and acting on, those once-prominent parts of our beliefs, growing from our Goldwater-Reagan roots, that always have placed a strong national defense posture front and center among public-policy imperatives.