Don’t Bomb Us Back to the Fiscal Stone Age

Cruise missiles cost money, but that’s no excuse to end defense spending budget caps.

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, accompanied by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks with reporters outside the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 2, 2013, following a closed-door meeting with President Barack Obama to discuss the situation with Syria. President Barack Obama, working to persuade skeptical lawmakers to endorse a U.S. military intervention in civil war-wracked Syria, hosted the two leading Capitol Hill foreign policy hawks for talks and directed his national security team to testify before Congress in a determined effort to sell his plan for limited missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

The decision by the President to seek Congressional debate and votes regarding military action against Syria is the talk of Washington this week. The last week of the long summer recess is not normally known for committee hearings or large scale classified briefings, but both are in full swing. The first was Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where Secretary John Kerry, Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey testified regarding the situation in Syria.

In a joint statement on August 30th, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham said, "The United States, together with our friends and allies, should take out Assad's air power, ballistic missiles, command and control and other significant military targets, and we should dramatically increase our efforts to train and arm moderate Syrian opposition forces. This can be done in a limited way, without boots on the ground, and at minimal risk to our men and women in uniform."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Whether one supports or opposes intervention in Syria, it is important to recognize that whatever military action is taken, it will have a price tag. That certainly shouldn't be the sole or even major determinant of what course Congress takes, but it should be considered. How high that price tag might rise is impossible for anyone outside government to assess at this time. Even if the extent of U.S. military action is limited to cruise missile strikes against likely targets: command and control facilities, intelligence assets, and Syria's means to deliver chemical weapons, each Tomahawk cruise missile costs at least $1.6 million. (For comparison, the U.S. used more than 175 Tomahawk missiles in Libya in 2011.) If "mission creep" takes hold and the senators' preferred goal of training and arming the Syrian opposition is embraced, the cost goes much higher. If the reaction of Syria and others draws us into a larger conflict, the cost could skyrocket.

There is already chatter that Pentagon boosters in Congress will try to take advantage of the situation and turn off the lower defense spending caps mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Whatever you think about the proposal to take action in Syria, it must not be used as a cudgel to undo the first effective budget control measure in a generation, albeit an imperfect one. The point of the Act  was to get Congress and the president to get serious about the enormous debt facing this country. Congress and the president told their fellow Americans and the world that they were going to enact measure that would generate $1.2 trillion in budget cuts – whether through spending cuts or revenue raisers or a combination of both. Their abdication of responsibility is what got the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration started. Using a hundred million dollars worth of cruise missiles as a justification to turn off hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit reduction is more of the same irresponsible budgeting that has left us more than $16 trillion in debt. Any effort to link taking action in Syria to sheltering the Pentagon from the effects of sequestration should be rejected.

Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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  • Corrected on : Corrected on 9/4/13: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly spelled South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham's first name.