House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recently caused some trouble when he accused America’s military leadership of deliberately misleading Congress about Pentagon spending levels. It wasn’t obvious at the time, but the flap was evidence of a larger fissure between Republicans and the brass.
In this case, the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs want nearly $500 billion in spending cuts over the next decade. Ryan responded that they say they want the cuts, but he and Republicans think they’re lying, and prefer to give the Pentagon more money than it’s asked for.
Soon after, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) backed Ryan up, saying Republicans “hear about” divisions at Defense about the budget. Though the Joint Chiefs say publicly they’re unanimous in their support of the plan, McConnell said Republicans are “aware of” the “dissent within the Pentagon.”
Kevin Baron has a new piece, effectively arguing that it’s time for the GOP to put up or shut up.
If the senior-most Republican in the Senate knows of dissenters in the senior ranks, it’s time to produce them. Put them on the witness stand and roll tape. Under the protection of giving their “best military advice,” heretofore silent dissenters should tell the public why they oppose what the administration has put forth. This is national security, after all, and the nation is at war. […]
For a year, Republican members and conservative hawks off Capitol Hill have been saying that the military needs a bigger budget than Obama is willing to provide. While the Joint Chiefs signed off on a new strategic guidance for smaller and more-agile armed forces, conservatives have stayed their course, arguing that the Defense Department needs more troops and weapons. That’s not what the members of Joint Chiefs of Staff testified that they wanted. It’s not what a host of other senior U.S. combat commanders and program officers have testified under oath that the U.S. requires.
Baron added that we’re looking at a “GOP-versus-the-Generals” theme that “only threatens to grow.”
I’d just add that the disagreements between Republicans and U.S. military leaders have been growing steadily in recent years. The notion of Republicans siding with the military is supposed to be one of those assumed truths that the political world is simply supposed to accept as a given. But over the few years, on most of the major policy disputes related to national security and defense, it’s been Democrats (on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue), not Republicans, who’ve sided with U.S. military leaders.
When it came to political fights over the New START treaty, torture policies, closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, negotiations with the Taliban, and even repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Republicans not only disagreed with the brass, they acted as if military leaders’ judgment was untrustworthy and better left ignored. We’re seeing this same dynamic play out again on the budget.
To be sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the GOP’s posture. If Republicans choose to reject military leaders’ advice, that’s their prerogative. There’s certainly no rule that Congress has to do whatever the Pentagon says, and the legislative branch has civilian oversight authority over the Defense Department. That is how it should be. I’m not arguing that Republicans are necessarily wrong because the GOP disagrees with the generals and admirals.
The point, rather, is that old partisan assumptions just don’t apply anymore. It’s the right, more often than not, that has no use for the judgment of the U.S. military. What’s more, if the situations were reversed, and it was Democrats who were blowing off the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs, I suspect we’d hear quite a bit about it.