"The most significant threat to our national security is our debt," then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen told CNN in 2010. "That's why it's so important that the economy move in the right direction, because the strength and the support and the resources that our military uses are directly related to the health of our economy over time."
Mitt Romney echoed Mullen's analysis in Monday night's final presidential debate. "Our military is second to none in the world," Romney said. "We're blessed with terrific soldiers, and extraordinary technology and intelligence. But the idea of a trillion dollars in cuts through sequestration and budget cuts to the military would change that."
To his credit, President Obama did not argue with the Mullen/Romney premise that federal budget deficits are a threat to national security. He did not argue that sequestration -- the term for automatic spending cuts that will fall hard on Virginia especially -- was a good thing. But he did try to mislead the American people, insisting that "the sequester is not something that I've proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen." Nothing could be further from the truth.
As Bob Woodward has reported in his book, "The Price of Politics," it was White House Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew and White House Director of Legislative Affairs Rob Nabors who first suggested a defense sequestration to Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in July 2011. When Reid first heard the White House plan, he called it "insane." And it was Lew, Nabors and White House National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling who sat down and wrote the very language that eventually became the Budget Control Act, a law that is set to cut defense spending by $55 billion a year starting Jan. 1.
Obama demanded that defense cuts be part of the budget deal because he knew that Republicans value a strong military more than Democrats do. The defense cuts were included in the Budget Control Act by Obama's White House, to serve as leverage that is designed to force Republicans to accept higher taxes.
Last week, White House aides told the Washington Post that Obama was absolutely willing to go ahead with the defense cuts, as well as almost $500 billion in tax hikes, unless Republicans cave in and agree to higher taxes on the rich.
Obama is also standing firm, his comment on Monday night notwithstanding. Just minutes after the debate, Obama senior advisor David Plouffe was already walking back Obama's "will not happen" to "should not happen." Obama's "will not happen" statement on the sequester gave away too much leverage.
But no commander in chief should ever be using national security as a bargaining chip in a budget negotiation. The protection of the American people is the first duty of every president, and Obama has placed his partisan priorities ahead of it.