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Coburn to McCain: Cutting defense is not ‘isolationist’

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) Tuesday rejected the assertion by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that calls for cuts in defense spending represent the rise of "protectionism and isolationism" within the Republican party. At a conference Monday at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a conservative think tank, McCain said that he was worried about divisions within the Republican ...

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) Tuesday rejected the assertion by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that calls for cuts in defense spending represent the rise of "protectionism and isolationism" within the Republican party.

At a conference Monday at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a conservative think tank, McCain said that he was worried about divisions within the Republican Party on the issue of defense spending.

"I worry a lot," McCain said. "Because throughout the history of the Republican Party in modern times, there’s been, obviously, as we know, two wings: The isolationist wing, manifested before World War II and at other times; and the internationalist side. And so I think there are going to be some tensions within our party."

McCain then singled out Senator-elect Rand Paul (R-KY) as an example of the party’s isolationist wing. While McCain said he "respects" Paul, he criticized him for openly calling for trimming the defense budget. "Already he has talked about withdrawals from, or cuts in defense, et cetera. And a number of others are… So I worry a lot about the rise of protectionism and isolationism in the Republican Party."

The Cable couldn’t reach Paul today so we caught up with Coburn, one of the only GOP senators to openly call for cuts in defense spending. Coburn said McCain was flat wrong in saying that cutting defense is an indication of isolationism.

"It’s not hard to cut the defense budget and keep our defense exactly where it is," Coburn told The Cable. "That’s how much waste is over there. Nothing is sacrosanct, it can’t be. As a matter of fact, the way the Defense Department is run now, we’re actually getting less bang for the buck. If we trim it down, we’ll get more bang for the buck."

Paul told ABC’s This Week on Nov. 7 that he would "absolutely" vote for cuts in military spending if such a vote was put before him. "You need … compromise on where the spending cuts come from," Paul told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour. "Republicans traditionally say, oh, we’ll cut domestic spending, but we won’t touch the military. The liberals — the ones who are good — will say, oh, we’ll cut the military, but we won’t cut domestic spending… Bottom line is, you have to look at everything across the board."

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UPDATE: Senator McCain called in to The Cable to clarify his remarks about Afghanistan, defense spending, and Rand Paul. McCain said his comments related to his worry about "protectionism and isolationism" within the Republican party were referring to Paul’s stance that the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan. He agrees with Paul that there are huge amounts of savings in the defense budget that could be realized by eliminating cost-plus contracts as well as tackling waste, fraud and abuse. But McCain believes that the savings should be reinvested in other parts of the defense department, such as operations and repairing war-damaged equipment, whereas Paul believes such savings should be taken away from the Pentagon.

 "I believe that with proper efficiencies, we could have savings of $100 billion over 5 years and I totally agree with Defense Secretary [Robert Gates] on that issue," McCain said, adding, "I am not in favor of cutting defense, I am in favor of savings, which could be huge, and reinvesting that in the neglected side of defense."

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) Tuesday rejected the assertion by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that calls for cuts in defense spending represent the rise of "protectionism and isolationism" within the Republican party.

At a conference Monday at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a conservative think tank, McCain said that he was worried about divisions within the Republican Party on the issue of defense spending.

"I worry a lot," McCain said. "Because throughout the history of the Republican Party in modern times, there’s been, obviously, as we know, two wings: The isolationist wing, manifested before World War II and at other times; and the internationalist side. And so I think there are going to be some tensions within our party."

McCain then singled out Senator-elect Rand Paul (R-KY) as an example of the party’s isolationist wing. While McCain said he "respects" Paul, he criticized him for openly calling for trimming the defense budget. "Already he has talked about withdrawals from, or cuts in defense, et cetera. And a number of others are… So I worry a lot about the rise of protectionism and isolationism in the Republican Party."

The Cable couldn’t reach Paul today so we caught up with Coburn, one of the only GOP senators to openly call for cuts in defense spending. Coburn said McCain was flat wrong in saying that cutting defense is an indication of isolationism.

"It’s not hard to cut the defense budget and keep our defense exactly where it is," Coburn told The Cable. "That’s how much waste is over there. Nothing is sacrosanct, it can’t be. As a matter of fact, the way the Defense Department is run now, we’re actually getting less bang for the buck. If we trim it down, we’ll get more bang for the buck."

Paul told ABC’s This Week on Nov. 7 that he would "absolutely" vote for cuts in military spending if such a vote was put before him. "You need … compromise on where the spending cuts come from," Paul told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour. "Republicans traditionally say, oh, we’ll cut domestic spending, but we won’t touch the military. The liberals — the ones who are good — will say, oh, we’ll cut the military, but we won’t cut domestic spending… Bottom line is, you have to look at everything across the board."

UPDATE: Senator McCain called in to The Cable to clarify his remarks about Afghanistan, defense spending, and Rand Paul. McCain said his comments related to his worry about "protectionism and isolationism" within the Republican party were referring to Paul’s stance that the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan. He agrees with Paul that there are huge amounts of savings in the defense budget that could be realized by eliminating cost-plus contracts as well as tackling waste, fraud and abuse. But McCain believes that the savings should be reinvested in other parts of the defense department, such as operations and repairing war-damaged equipment, whereas Paul believes such savings should be taken away from the Pentagon.

 "I believe that with proper efficiencies, we could have savings of $100 billion over 5 years and I totally agree with Defense Secretary [Robert Gates] on that issue," McCain said, adding, "I am not in favor of cutting defense, I am in favor of savings, which could be huge, and reinvesting that in the neglected side of defense."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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