By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — The more US Reps. Mac Thornberry of Texas and Rick Larsen of Washington state spoke Monday, the more clear it became just how far apart the former’s Republican Party and the latter’s Democratic Party stand on national security issues.
From the proper size of the annual US defense budget to whether China’s military buildup threatens the United States and Beijing’s neighbors to the proper response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the duo offered widely different ideas during a midday event here at the Brookings Institution.
For instance, Thornberry, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) vice chairman, was much more hawkish when describing China’s military buildup and its recent territorial squabbles with its neighbors. The same was true of his vision for sending signals to Beijing, Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as other current and potential US foes and rivals.
On Russia, Thornberry said Moscow’s invasion, occupation and alleged annexation of the Crimea peninsula — as well as its efforts to destabilize eastern Ukraine — might mean Washington needs to “expand” the number of scenarios for which it is militarily prepared.
The situation also shows the US needs to increase its annual military spending, Thornberry said, because leaders like Putin and the regime in China only understand one thing, “and that’s strength.”
“We’ve got to spend more money on defense,” Thornberry told an audience at the Brookings Institution.
Larsen, also a member of the House Armed Services Committee, disagreed, saying he does not believe that “a bigger defense budget is a better defense budget.” He added there are ample — and cuttable — inefficiencies and waste within the Pentagon’s budget.
Thornberry fired back later, saying a return to defense budget increases would send “a clearer message” to Russia that “we’re going to do whatever it takes.”
That came moments after Larsen said “Vladimir Putin is not concerned with our defense budget two or three years from now, he’s concerned how we might use it now.”
Increasing the annual Defense Department budget to send a message to Putin and other would-be US foes would require Congress to pass a massive fiscal deal to end sequestration and void existing spending caps. That would mean lawmakers striking the kind of bipartisan accord on taxes, entitlement reform and other non-defense issues that has eluded both parties on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration.
Larsen said he does not foresee the elusive “grand bargain” emerging any time soon.
Meantime, the two HASC members also disagreed over the Obama administration’s use of sanctions in an attempt to change Putin’s behavior.
The White House announced Monday it was slapping new economic sanctions on entities and individuals inside Putin’s inner circle.
“The United States made clear it would impose additional costs on Russia if it failed to live up to its Geneva commitments and take concrete steps to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement Monday morning. “Consequently, today the United States is imposing targeted sanctions on a number of Russian individuals and entities, and restricting licenses for certain US exports to Russia.”
Thornberry, echoing other congressional Republicans, said “slowly ramping up sanctions” will fail to alter Putin’s aggression. On the other hand, Larsen backed the White House, saying the sanctions will have an effect.
Finally, Thornberry is just back from an Asian trip with the House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. He told the audience he sensed while in the region the tensions between China and its neighbors that could spawn a conflict there. Still, he said war is not “inevitable.”
Larsen cast the tensions over China’s military buildup as mostly poor messaging by Beijing. In fact, he said China’s rationale for ramping up its forces mostly is “reasonable.” The trouble is, he said, Chinese officials simply “don’t explain it very well.”