Earlier this month, the Pentagon announced that it would deploy "only" one aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, rather than the customary two. This move, said the Pentagon, was in preparation for the so-called "sequestration", scheduled to take effect this week, that mandates spending cuts for all agencies, including the Pentagon. This aircraft carrier announcement was all part of the White House's campaign to scare the public into believing that sequestration, which Democrats blame on Republicans, will result in serious harm to national security. Shortly before this cut was announced, then-defense Secretary Leon Panetta said:
"With another trigger for sequestration approaching on March 1st, the Department of Defense is facing the most serious readiness crisis in over a decade . . . . Make no mistake, if these cuts happen there will be a serious disruption in defense programs and a sharp decline in military readiness."
That the Obama administration might actually honor the budget cuts mandated by a law enacted by Congress and signed by Obama infuriates Bob Woodward, Washington's most celebrated journalist. He appeared this week on the "Morning Joe" program to excoriate Obama for withholding a second aircraft carrier in the Gulf, saying:
"Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there and saying 'Oh, by the way, I can't do this because of some budget document?' Or George W Bush saying, 'You know, I'm not going to invade Iraq because I can't get the aircraft carriers I need' or even Bill Clinton saying, 'You know, I'm not going to attack Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters,' as he did when Clinton was president, because of some budget document.
"Under the Constitution, the president is commander-in-chief and employs the force. And so we now have the president going out because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can't do what I need to do to protect the country. That's a kind of madness that I haven't seen in a long time."
As Brian Beutler points out: "the obscure type of budget document Woodward's referring to is called a duly enacted law — passed by Congress, signed by the President — and the only ways around it are for Congress to change it. . . . or for Obama to break it." But that's exactly what Woodward is demanding: that Obama trumpet his status as Commander-in-Chief in order to simply ignore – i.e. break – the law, just like those wonderful men before him would have done. Woodward derides the law as some petty, trivial annoyance ("this piece of paper") and thus mocks Obama's weakness for the crime of suggesting that the law is something he actually has to obey.
How ironic that this comes from the reporter endlessly heralded for having brought down Richard Nixon's presidency on the ground that Nixon believed himself above the law. Nixon's hallmark proclamation – "When the President does it, that means it is not illegal" – is also apparently Bob Woodward's.
All of this, of course, is pure pretense. Is it even remotely plausible that Obama is refraining from engaging in military action he believes is necessary out of some sort of quaint deference to the law? Please. This is a president who continued to wage war, in Libya, not merely without Congressional authorization, but even after Congress expressly voted against its authorization. This is a president who has repeatedly argued that he has the right to kill anyone he wants, anywhere in the world, not only due to Congressional authorization but also his own Commander-in-Chief powers. If Obama really wanted to deploy that second aircraft carrier, he would do so, knowing that journalists like Bob Woodward and members of both parties would cheer him. This is just a flamboyant political stunt designed to dramatize how those Big, Bad Republicans are leaving us all exposed and vulnerable with sequestration cuts.
But whatever Obama's motives might be, the fact is that what we call "law" really does require some cuts in military spending. To refuse to do so would be to assert powers not even most monarchs have: to break the law at will. Woodward is right about one point: not only would prior presidents have been willing to do this, this is exactly what they did. Indeed, George Bush's entire presidency was explicitly predicated on the theory that the president has the power to break the law at will whenever he deems that doing so promotes national security. That America's most celebrated journalist not only supports this, but demands that all presidents follow this model of lawlessness, is telling indeed.
Equally telling is the radical militarism implicit in Woodward's outburst. Contrary to the fear-mongering from the government and its media, the military cuts compelled by sequestration are extremely modest (as opposed to domestic spending cuts, which will actually produce genuine pain for many people). As the Washington Post's Ezra Klein documented: "even if we implement every single cut in the sequester, the fall in spending would be less than the military experienced after Korea, Vietnam, or the Cold War." Given the massive explosion of military spending in the name of the War on Terror over the last decade (which Klein notes was "larger than the rise during Vietnam and during the Cold War"), the sequestration-mandated cuts would be but a very small step in returning to a sane level of military spending.
Then there's the hysteria Woodward spreads about how we'll all somehow be endangered if the US has only one rather than two aircraft carriers stalking Iran in the Gulf. What possible harm could come from that? None. This is all grounded in cartoon narrative that Iran is this frightening hegemon threatening the US at all times, and must be contained with massive assertions of military might. The reality, of course, is that even with these sequestration cuts, the US military budget is so much larger than Iran's that they are not in the same universe. That would be true if we had multiple sequestrations. The very idea that two aircraft carriers are needed at all in the Gulf, let alone necessary to Keep America Safe, is just laughable.
Yet here is Bob Woodward, with one rant, expressing the core values of America's media class. The president is not constrained by law (contemptuously referred to as "this piece of paper"). He not only has the right but the duty to do anything – even if the law prohibits it – to project military force whenever he wants (even though the Constitution mandates as his prime duty not to Keep Us Safe but rather that he "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed" and thus must swear as his oath "to the best of [his] ability [to] preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States"). The US must act as empire, dominating the world with superior military force if it wants to stay safe. Any reduction in military spending and deployment will endanger us all.
It's to be expected that these authoritarian and militaristic values shape political leaders and their followers. That these values also shape the "watchdog" media class, as embodied by one of their "legends", explains much about US political culture generally.
Bob Woodward fulfills an important function. Just as Tim Russert was long held up as the scary bulldog questioner who proved the existence of an adversarial TV press while the reality was that, as Harper's Lewis Lapham famously put it, he maintained "the on-air persona of an attentive and accommodating headwaiter", the decades-old Woodward lore plays a critical role in maintaining the fiction of a watchdog press corps even though he is one of the most faithful servants of the war machine and the national security and surveillance states. Every once and awhile, the mask falls, and it's a good thing when it does.