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Flournoy: Defense sequestration won’t be solved until after election

The Defense Department and Congress are playing chicken over $600 billion of mandatory defense cuts identified by a process known as "sequestration," but a compromise probably won’t surface until after the November elections, according to former top Obama defense official Michèle Flournoy. "I think during that period after the election and before the sequestration goes ...

The Defense Department and Congress are playing chicken over $600 billion of mandatory defense cuts identified by a process known as "sequestration," but a compromise probably won't surface until after the November elections, according to former top Obama defense official Michèle Flournoy.

"I think during that period after the election and before the sequestration goes into effect [on Jan. 3], that will be the period when people will become intensely focused on this," Flournoy said in response to a question from The Cable at an event Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute.

The Defense Department and Congress are playing chicken over $600 billion of mandatory defense cuts identified by a process known as "sequestration," but a compromise probably won’t surface until after the November elections, according to former top Obama defense official Michèle Flournoy.

"I think during that period after the election and before the sequestration goes into effect [on Jan. 3], that will be the period when people will become intensely focused on this," Flournoy said in response to a question from The Cable at an event Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute.

Flournoy, who stepped down in February as under secretary of defense for policy, was speaking on a panel with retired Gen. David Barno, now with the Center for a New American Security, AEI’s Tom Donnelly, and Michael Waltz of the New America Foundation.

Flournoy said she was not aware of any planning going on inside the Pentagon for the possibility that sequestration will occur, even though President Barack Obama has promised to institute the cuts if Congress doesn’t find a way around them. The Budget Control Act of 2011, passed by both parties and signed by Obama, would mandate $600 billion in defense and $600 billion in cuts to non-security spending, such as funds for Medicare providers, over 10 years if Congress doesn’t agree on $1.2 billion worth of discretionary spending cuts over the same time period.

"The onus is really on Congress to exercise the discipline, the political courage, the pragmatism to reach a budget deal that avoids sequestration, which would impose draconian cuts in a mindless way that would have severe and negative impacts for our national security," she said.

Flournoy said that a short-term solution could be possible, but probably not before the election, because any compromise would be a "huge political risk" for a candidate facing voters. She emphasized that a deal to avoid sequestration should include cuts to programs favored by Democrats and Republicans alike.

"I think frankly we would be wise to spend our time trying to build a balanced package … tax reform, spending cuts, and more investment in things that drive American competitiveness," she said.

Asked by The Cable if she thought it was time for a woman to become secretary of defense and whether she would take the job, Flournoy demurred: "I didn’t hear your question."

Barno said the lame-duck session will be filled with emergency issues that Congress will want to deal with, such as the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the Alternative Minimum Tax, Medicare physician benefits, and another fight over increasing the debt ceiling.

"We definitely have a looming train wreck in December," he said. "In that list, sequestration for defense is going to be fairly low on that pecking order, if you look at how many American homes it would immediately impact."

Donnelly argued that so far, only Republicans have put forth any concrete ideas to avoid sequestration. There are bills in the House and Senate that would take the money from federal workforce reductions, but last week House leadership unveiled an entirely new idea.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) wrote in an op-ed last week that the money should be taken from a host of spending items, including food stamps, federal workforce benefits, and by prohibiting future government bailouts.

"These savings will replace the arbitrary sequester cuts and lay the groundwork for further efforts to avert the spending-driven economic crisis before us," they wrote. "Unless we act, the sequester will take effect. We do not believe this is in the national interest, and the President claims that he agrees."

The panel was moderated by AEI’s Danielle Pletka, who was filling in for Peter David, the Washington bureau chief of the Economist, who died in a car accident last weekend.

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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