The debate over Chuck Hagel’s confirmation last year focused on his attitude towards Iran and allegations that he was an anti-Semite. But Hagel’s primary role at the Pentagon has been that of a quiet manager presiding over some of the most serious military cuts of our time. The New York Times reports:
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup and eliminate an entire class of Air Force attack jets in a new spending proposal that officials describe as the first Pentagon budget to aggressively push the military off the war footing adopted after the terror attacks of 2001.
The cuts have once again emblazoned the right’s foreign policy rift; Jonathan Coppage approves while Max Boot dissents. Either way, there’s no guarantee any of this will be permanent. Lawmakers are already vowing to fight the DoD. The last military shave approved by Congress—minor pension reform that would have saved a measly $6 billion—was promptly killed in this month’s debt ceiling deal.
But in the meantime, I have a question. Why isn’t everyone screaming bloody murder about “austerity”? This is standard operating procedure on the left every time anyone suggests plucking a solitary dollar out of the federal budget. We heard it over Paul Ryan’s Roadmap to Prosperity plan, over every attempt at entitlement reform, over every Republican budget that reduced spending. We also heard it over the sequester, though most of the left’s anger was aimed at cuts to research and services, rather than the spending caps that triggered the military’s current downsizing. That downsizing won’t just reduce troops abroad, but installations in states like Virginia and Texas. Where’s the neo-Keynesian outrage?
Defense cuts are rarely framed as “austerity,” but as a prudent consequence of living in an “age of austerity.” Thus we have a 2012 briefer from the left-wing Center for American Progress last year titled “Defense in an Age of Austerity,” which calls for military reductions: “[I]t is imperative that Congress and the Obama administration make real progress on getting our nation’s fiscal house in order.” Yes, if only!
Only now, the Washington Post is triumphantly declaring that the age of austerity is over. David Harsanyi rolls his eyes and refutes the notion that there ever was an age of austerity, but I’d go a step further: There is no such thing as austerity, at least not anymore. The term has been so mutilated by the meat grinder of political discourse that it’s lost any rational meaning. That’s why reductions in the rate of spending in European countries are labeled austerity but serious military shrinkage is not.
In his great essay on political language, George Orwell wrote: “The word Fascism now has no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” The same is true of Austerity. As the military prepares to decommission jets, maybe it’s time for political writers to decommission the A-word—and not fly into buzzword-fueled histrionics every time someone proposes budget cuts.