Rep. Howard 'Buck' McKeon, R- Calif., left, and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. (McKeon: Mark Wilson; Inhofe: Chip Somodevilla / Ge)
WASHINGTON — Leading US military allies in Congress say they are skeptical of missile strikes in Syria, but their possible opposition has little to do with the White House’s war plan or strategic goals.
Rather, these typically hawkish members are pointing to a Washington creation as a reason to cancel Tomahawk strikes: Sequestration.
Pro-military lawmakers like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., have advocated keeping US troops in Middle East and Southwest Asian nations longer. And they are usually hawkish on confronting conventional foes like Iran and China.
But on President Barrack Obama’s desire to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly killing more than 1,000 people on Aug. 21 with chemical weapons, they want to know how the Democratic commander in chief would pay for it.
Defense News reported last week that even a US Intervention featuring mostly just Tomahawk cruise missile strikes likely would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Inhofe was the first US lawmaker to state opposition to a Syria mission because of the effects he says the across-the-board $500 billion, decade-spanning cut to planned Pentagon spending is having on the military after just the first round of cuts. Inhofe also said cuts Obama approved in 2009 mean the military cannot afford to rain missiles down on Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.
“President Obama has decimated our military beginning with his first budget four and a half years ago,” Inhofe said in a statement last Wednesday. “He has underfunded overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund, reduced base defense budget, and put into motion sequestration. Our military has no money left.
“We must not forget this president has put us on the brink of a hollowed force. Our troops are stretched thin, the defense budget has been slashed to historic levels, and we are facing an unprecedented time of unrest across the Middle East amid growing concerns about Iran’s influence on the region and its nuclear ambitions,” the top SASC Republican said. “No red line should have been drawn without the strategy and funding to support it.”
On Monday, McKeon explained his sequestration-related concerns in a lengthy statement.
“Over the last couple of years the president has surged the troops in Afghanistan while he cut the military budget. He flew missions over Libya while he cut the military’s budget,” McKeon said. “He changed the strategy to focus on the Pacific, while he cut the military budget.
“Our military has had over a trillion dollars cut over the last couple of years and going forward,” McKeon said, totaling all 10 rounds sequestration and the $450 billion Obama cut in 2009.
“We cannot keep asking the military to perform mission after mission with sequestration and military cuts hanging over their heads,” McKeon said. “We have to take care of our own people first.”
Congressional Republicans, citing a Bob Woodward book that reported a senior White House aide first proposed sequester in 2011 debt limit talks, have for years tried to pin the twin cuts to planned defense and domestic spending on Obama.
McKeon hit that note again on Monday, urging Obama to “fix” sequester. To be clear, however, Congress would have to pass a sequester-addressing fiscal deal the president would sign for that to occur.
“This sequestration- the president needs to fix,” McKeon said. “This would be a great time to fix that. To show the military that while we are asking them to continue on with mission after mission after mission.”
The Pentagon’s unclassified base budget is more than $500 billion, and the war-funding bills it has gotten since 9/11 still approach $85 billion annually.
Gordon Adams, who ran national defense budgeting for the Clinton White House, told Defense News last week that Pentagon officials should have no trouble finding the monies needed to pay for a limited action in Syria.
“Let’s say Tomhawaks cost just over $1 million each. So, if you fire 100, that’s some amount just over $100 million,” Adams said. “And most of the [Navy] ships were going to be deployed doing something somewhere, so any added steaming costs won’t be that great.
“[Pentagon Comptroller] Bob Hale can find $100 million in his existing budget in his sleep,” Adams said. “They won’t even need to request a supplemental, if it remains just missile strikes.”