What’s Missing From The Islamic State Discussion

The swift and alarming rise of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” across portions of Syria and Iraq has justifiably led to bipartisan calls for a strong American military response. Sadly, Islamic State represents just one of the escalating security challenges unfolding this summer. Russian-stoked armed conflict in Ukraine, extremist and militant violence in Libya and Nigeria, escalating tensions in the South China Sea and a serious Ebola outbreak in Africa threaten stability, order and economic prosperity across the globe.

American Political Gridlock

Not since 9/11 have leaders in both parties and in Europe been more galvanized to face these emerging threats through a combination of bold American leadership, diplomacy and coalition building, and of course U.S. military forces. But despite general bipartisan consensus for action, the Department of Defense remains ironically saddled with the devastating 2011 Budget Control Act, or “sequester.” These budget cuts are denying the armed forces the resources needed to sustain global readiness as well as the capital and research and development investments required for continued technological superiority in an increasingly networked and advanced world.

To be fair, Congress passed limited near term defense budgetary relief in late 2013, and both the president and House Republicans have offered plans to modestly increase defense spending above sequestration levels as part of the 2015 budget process. The congressionally-appointed National Defense Panel, chaired by General John Abizaid (Ret.) and former Secretary of Defense William Perry, concluded that budget cuts have “precipitated an immediate readiness crisis” across the Department of Defense, and that the proposed 2015 increases “are nowhere near enough to remedy the damage which the Department has suffered and enable it to carry out its missions at an acceptable level of risk.”

European Economic Woes

The state of readiness among our NATO allies is arguably much worse. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has appropriately characterized the Russian aggression in Ukraine as a “wake up call,” adding that “it is now obvious we cannot take our security for granted, and we will have to invest more in our defense and security.” European leaders responded at last week’s NATO summit by agreeing, at least in principle, to increase member defense spending to 2 percent of GDP over the next 10 years. At present, only the United States, United Kingdom, Greece and Estonia are achieving this goal. 

With several major European economies still struggling with weak growth, stubbornly low inflation, aging populations, large debt loads and associated austerity measures, it is unlikely that modest increases in security spending will be achievable in the medium or long term without significant structural reforms.

Rising Entitlement Spending: A National Security Threat

While the economic recovery and associated national fiscal outlook is somewhat more promising in the United States, domestic structural reforms are also needed. The current state of defense funding is indicative of a much broader failure across government to address the nation’s most pressing fiscal challenges. Although defense spending constitutes by far the largest portion of the federal discretionary budget, it pales in comparison to the drivers behind the nation’s long term fiscal woes: the rising costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Political posturing continues to keep any meaningful discussion of entitlement reform off the table, and Congress and the president are left instead to target vital discretionary programs for more politically expedient savings.

As the events of this summer have shown, demands for U.S. military power are dynamic and unpredictable. Sustaining the readiness and capabilities needed to prevent and respond to global threats like the Islamic State requires a stable and predictable commitment of significant national resources. To that end, rolling back the sequester should be an immediate national priority, as should taking strong and balanced action to address the most important long-term national security imperative facing this and future generations: the rising cost of entitlements. If not now, when?