The Cable

Strange bedfellows: Liberals and Libertarians call for defense spending cuts

If there's one thing that the liberals and libertarians can agree on, it's the need for large cuts in defense spending in order to reduce the U.S. budget defecit.

55 lawmakers sent a letter Wednesday to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, widely known as the Debt Commission, urging them to include in their final report "substantial reductions in projected levels of future spending by the Department of Defense." The letter was signed by leading liberal representatives such as Barney Frank (D-MA) and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), but also many Democrats involved in national security matters such as Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and House Oversight and Government Reform National Security subcommittee chairman John Tierney (D-MA).

The lone Republican to sign the letter was libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX). But the libertarian Cato Institute has also campaigned aggressively in support of the movement.

"We hope that the report you release this coming December will subject military spending to the same rigorous scrutiny that non-military spending will receive, and that in so doing a consensus will be reached that significant cuts are necessary and can be made in a way that will not endanger national security," the lawmakers wrote.

On a conference call, Frank and Cato experts argued that their longstanding call for a revision of the U.S. military role in the world is more necessary than ever due to the United States' fiscal woes, particularly as political leaders search for ways to limit cuts to entitlements.

"I've been a critic for some time of America's excessive military engagement with the rest of the world," said Frank. "We have a changed situation... it is clear that we have to do something to reduce our deficit.

Cato's Benjamin Friedman argued on the call that the recent aggressive conservative efforts to defend ever-increasing defense budgets was a recognition of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party's increasing momentum in support of trimming military spending.

"Conservatives are starting to figure out that trying to run the world is not conservative," Friedman said.

Friedman participated in a bipartisan report, published in June, which spelled out exactly how $1 trillion of savings could be found in the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years by scaling back military arsenals, large weapons systems, and permanent overseas troop deployments.

Frank and Friedman both acknowledged that the issue of defense spending is highly polarized and that, politically, implementing defense budget cuts would be extremely difficult, especially in Congress. But they are nevertheless laying down a marker by going on record that there are at least 55 votes in Congress in support of such moves.

"What we are saying is that there will be a number of us that will be very unhappy if defense cuts are not part of the tradeoffs," Frank said.

The Cable

White House denies media reports that it is 'loosening' arms exports to China

President Barack Obama may have sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi notifying her that the White House was waiving a section of sanctions law related to the "temporary export" of C-130 transport aircraft to China -- but that doesn't mean the United States plans on selling or allowing the sale of the planes to the Chinese military.

The waiver relates to a specific section of the 1990-1991 Foreign Relations Authorization Act, a bill that includes multiple restrictions on arms sales to China that were imposed after the massacre of democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square. Two administration officials said that, in substance, the waiver is extremely limited and doesn't reflect a change in policy: It only allows C-130 planes to land, refuel, and take off in China for oil spill cleanup operations in China or in parts of Asia that requires transiting China.

"The president's waiver allows for the temporary export to China of C-130 aircraft only for the purposes of refueling and/or resupplying with oil spill chemical dispersants in China as necessary for oil spill response operations in the Southeast Asia region," said National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer. "No C-130 has gone to China or is being sold to China; this is just a waiver for a contingency plan."

Administration officials told The Cable that the State Department will still need to review and issue licenses for any C-130s that travel to China, and that this waiver was granted at the behest of allied countries.

"A European company that has C-130s wanted to be able to use them in a disaster response in that region and needed the waiver just in case they needed to land in China," a senior administration official told The Cable.

That explanation didn't stop the Washington Times from running an article Monday calling the waiver a "loosening" of sanctions against China and suggesting the move is a carrot to Beijing meant to soften Obama's call for release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiabao.

"There was no connection whatsoever" to the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, the senior administration official said.

The Washington Times also quotes experts warning that the waiver signals a move toward further weakening of the arms embargo against China. Inside the administration, the article caused a lot of frustration, as the paper seemed to be taking China's official response to the White House letter at face value.

China Daily, a government controlled media organ, published an article entitled, "US may lift Chinese arms embargo," which also incorrectly characterized last week's announcement as a move toward selling C-130s to Beijing.

Regardless, the furor over the waiver illustrates the rising concern among conservatives about what all sides recognize as an increasingly aggressive posture by China's People's Liberation Army.

Among those sharing that concern is Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who met with his Chinese counterpart Defense Minister Liang Guanglie Tuesday in Hanoi. Gates accepted China's invitation to visit early next year, signifying the resumption of U.S.-China military-to-military ties, which Beijing unilaterally cut off earlier this year.