The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Rumsfeld’s CFO: Bring on the supercommittee defense “trigger”

File this under cynical genius. The best way to protect the defense budget may be for the congressional "supercommittee" to fail, triggering $600 billion in defense cuts, because such a drastic reduction will be totally unenforceable and probably undermined by Congress, said the Pentagon’s comptroller during former President George W. Bush‘s administration. If the super ...

File this under cynical genius. The best way to protect the defense budget may be for the congressional "supercommittee" to fail, triggering $600 billion in defense cuts, because such a drastic reduction will be totally unenforceable and probably undermined by Congress, said the Pentagon's comptroller during former President George W. Bush's administration.

If the super committee cannot reach an agreement on $1 trillion of discretionary spending cuts by Thanksgiving, a "sequestration" mechanism will force $600 billion in cuts to defense over 10 years, along with another mandated $600 billion in cuts to entitlement programs. This "trigger" was part of the August deal to raise the debt ceiling, and was passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by President Barack Obama.

File this under cynical genius. The best way to protect the defense budget may be for the congressional "supercommittee" to fail, triggering $600 billion in defense cuts, because such a drastic reduction will be totally unenforceable and probably undermined by Congress, said the Pentagon’s comptroller during former President George W. Bush‘s administration.

If the super committee cannot reach an agreement on $1 trillion of discretionary spending cuts by Thanksgiving, a "sequestration" mechanism will force $600 billion in cuts to defense over 10 years, along with another mandated $600 billion in cuts to entitlement programs. This "trigger" was part of the August deal to raise the debt ceiling, and was passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by President Barack Obama.

Dov Zakheim, who served as the Defense Department’s comptroller and chief financial officer from 2001 to 2004 under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told The Cable today that the trigger is so drastic and unpalatable that those who are trying to protect the defense budget should actually welcome it, because Congress and the administration would surely find a way around it — as they did during a similar situation in 1988. Zakheim noted that, back then, Congress simply passed a law to undo the previous legislation that would have forced the cuts.

"If there’s sequestration, Congress has a year to move out from under it," he said. "If the supercommittee actually strikes a deal [that includes some defense cuts], it will be exceedingly difficult to undo the deal."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on the other hand, has called the trigger a "doomsday mechanism" and testified recently that if implemented, it would cause "catastrophic damage to the military and its ability to protect this country."

Zakheim emphasized he was only speaking for himself, not for GOP candidate Mitt Romney, whom he advises, or his son Roger Zakheim, who leads a task force on protecting the defense budget and works on the staff of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), a key critic of defense cuts.

Whether the super committee reaches a deal of not, Panetta will still have to start implementing the $450 billion in defense cuts over 10 years, as mandated by the April deal to avoid a government shutdown. Panetta told the New York Times in an interview today that he is putting sacred cows like military healthcare and benefits on the table, and is even thinking about shrinking the fighting force.

"There will be some huge political challenges," he said. "When you reduce defense spending, there’s likely to be base closures, possible reduction in air wings."

Some defense cuts are expected if the super committee reaches a deal, despite the threat by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) to walk away from the panel if it tried to cut defense. Kyl later walked back that threat, clarifying that he was just "making an offhand remark that [defense cuts are] not what I’m on the committee for."

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

More from Foreign Policy

Volker Perthes, U.N. special representative for Sudan, addresses the media in Khartoum, Sudan, on Jan. 10.

Sudan’s Future Hangs in the Balance

Demonstrators find themselves at odds with key U.N. and U.S. mediators.

In an aerial view, traffic creeps along Virginia Highway 1 after being diverted away from Interstate 95 after it was closed due to a winter storm.

Traffic Jams Are a Very American Disaster

The I-95 backup shows how easily highways can become traps.

Relatives and neighbors gather around a burned vehicle targeted and hit by an American drone strike in Kabul.

The Human Rights vs. National Security Dilemma Is a Fallacy

Advocacy organizations can’t protect human rights without challenging U.S. military support for tyrants and the corrupt influence of the defense industry and foreign governments.

un-sanctions-inspectors-china-foreign-policy-illustration

The Problem With Sanctions

From the White House to Turtle Bay, sanctions have never been more popular. But why are they so hard to make work?