After-Action Report: It’d Be Stupid but Not Disastrous

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If Democrats like Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, and Republicans like Senator John McCain can't work out a deal to avoid sequestration, the consequences will be serious but not as catastrophic as both have asserted.

Part Five of Five

There is an immense amount of concern over sequestration, not just inside D.C., but also among our allies. Fortunately, for them and for U.S. security, the rhetoric does not match the reality.

By looking at the actual numbers in context, and even in a few worst-case scenarios, we can see that the “gap between the U.S. military and our closest rivals” will not “collapse.”

The gap will close, which should worry us, but these rivals still have a long way to go. Nor will cuts “destroy” the U.S. military upon which our allies’ security also depends. As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations captured so well, “It is implausible that the entire U.S. military would be unable to function with just under $500 billion.”

Indeed, far from being in a situation of “utter failure,” the U.S. forces available globally as well as in East Asia might be lessened, but would still be quite potent.

And finally, it is hard to square how sequestration would “invite aggression.” A weaker U.S. force would be available to deter and fight foes, but by no means fundamentally changed. Indeed, such a “paper tiger” would actually be supported by spending levels equivalent to the 2007 U.S. military budget.

But no one reading this should misinterpret it as support for this outcome.

Sequestration would be a terribly stupid thing to do. It not only wouldn’t solve the core problems driving the U.S. debt crisis, but it would also cut the defense budget in an incredibly un-strategic manner, cutting both the good and the bad by the same portions with no planning. Ironically, what would play out would be a repeat of what happened during the 2011 debt ceiling crisis that led to the sequestration option becoming law in the first place.

In that case, politicians’ inability to compromise led to a needless, self-inflicted wound that harmed the U.S. economy and lowered America’s bond rating. If sequestration is allowed to happen, it would similarly inflict a needless, self-inflicted wound to the U.S. Defense Department and the people and firms that support it.

But just as what happened with the economy, harming is not the same as “destroying.” Shooting yourself in the foot is stupid, but doesn’t have to kill you.

The point here, instead, is that bad ideas should not be fought with bad analysis. Many believe that hype and hysteria are the only way to force action in the broken American political climate of today. The problem is this political tactic of brinksmanship carries a serious risk of backfire. On the domestic side, drawing false conclusions, stoking fears, and turning them into a partisan wedge has made the very compromise needed to avoid sequestration less likely in the end.

On the international side, the same hype intended for domestic ears is being taken seriously abroad. And, likewise, the danger is that it causes the very opposite of their intent. It is creating needless fear among our allies and even risks emboldening our foes, who might misinterpret domestic exaggerations of vulnerability as actual opportunity.

The intent of this deeper dive into sequestration is to dispel this confusion, especially within one of the most dangerous locales for miscalculation and aggression. Sequestration is an outcome that would be negative for the U.S. Hopefully Congress will show the maturity to avoid it. But, whether it happens or not, both America’s allies and potential adversaries — especially on the Korean peninsula — should rest assured that the core powers and capabilities of the U.S. military will still remain second to none.

Part 1: A sequestration primer

Part 2: Comparing defense budgets, apples to apples

Part 3: A case study: east Asia

Part 4: Impact on the Korean peninsula

Part 5: Stupid, but not disastrous

Peter W. Singer is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings. Check here for the full list of source material for this series of articles.