Can we afford the costs of being a superpower? 

With the congressional “supercommittee” on deficit reduction now complete, the stage is set for a very high drama indeed. Now comes the moment when Americans must confront the costs of remaining the world’s sole superpower, the guarantor of an international system that has created a generation of great-power peace, widespread prosperity and unprecedented human liberty.

The committee members must take action to avert the train wreck awaiting the Pentagon. Doing nothing will result in triggering automatic cuts that will make the cumulative reductions in military spending of the Obama years something above $1.3 trillion. That’s a cut with big consequences.

New Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen — a man who has heretofore pronounced the debt to be the greatest threat to the country — said the cuts in view would be “disastrous” and “unacceptable.” The incoming chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, described such cuts as creating “very high risk” to U.S. national security.

The roster of the supercommittee looks at first glance to be a partisan recipe for gridlock. Of course, all congressional leaders promise that the super-process will be “transparent” and “open,” but time is short — the committee is supposed to conclude its business by Thanksgiving.  One measure of seriousness is whether the committee will hold hearings and take testimony on the national security consequences of big military cuts.

There needs to be a moment of truth where the supercommittee looks Panetta, Mullen and Dempsey in the eye and asks them to spell out the real world ramifications of reducing American military power by another 20 percent.  Further, the defense superstars from the past should be called to speak.

The two armed services committees should also make themselves heard — these moments are what congressional defense policy committees are for. Current service chiefs should be called upon to explain how they will deal with big budget cuts while continuing to provide forces for current operations. Theater commanders should describe what a lowered U.S military presence will mean in their areas of responsibility. And retired four-stars — who, even after their active careers are done, have an ongoing responsibility to the nation — should be asked to once again provide their professional judgments.

For 20 years, Congress has asked for countless defense reviews and strategies, and there is an immense body of literature that seeks to link the ends, ways and means of American policy, strategy and military power.

The time for debate will have expired by Thanksgiving, and the supercommittee will have made what can only be a fateful decision. It can act, or it can simply stand aside and let American military power and global leadership go away.

Thomas Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies. This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.

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Thomas Donnelly

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