Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer have been sort of doleful in their appearances on FOX News lately, looking like their hearts are just not in it. Not hard to see why: it looks like cardboard cut-out and moderate Republican Mitt Romney will be their party’s presidential nominee. On the national security front, it’s been difficult to stake a strident position against a president who has put the former administration’s drone program to shame, bombed more countries and killed more Pakistanis in the last three years than they probably thought possible. Gitmo’s still open for business and it could be expanding its capacity, thanks to new detention provisions in the NDAA.

Meanwhile, the exit from Afghanistan looks like it’s going to be a really slow one, and Iraq … well, all Krauthammer’s fulminations about President Obama “losing” the war have largely fallen on deaf ears. Americans have heard enough — most everyone wanted to come home, even the troops, who Kristol and Krauthammer and the rest of the American Enterprise Institute brain trust claimed they were speaking for all along. As for Iran, it seems it’s going to take a lot more than puffed-up rhetoric to drag the people behind yet another war.

But it’s obvious these two soldiers of truth were keeping their powder dry for the next fight. Maybe too dry. When President Obama announced yesterday that he wants to cut some $480 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next decade, it cast a spark that immediately set their collective hair aflame.

“It would decimate the country. It would weaken the United States of America,” charged Kristol, who looked personally offended by the president on FOX News Special Report last night.

Krauthammer enjoined with his ever lugubrious intonations, “It is a road map to America’s decline.”

According to reports, Obama proposes most of the cuts in three broad areas: non-retirement personnel benefits that haven’t been reformed in decades, cutting ground forces eventually back to 1990′s levels, pulling back from overseas bases and putting the brakes  on expensive and controversial programs, like the F-35 joint strike fighter. The budget strategy would instead focus on perceived future interests, involving more Special Forces, counter-terrorism capabilities, cyber-warfare, missile defense and beefing up Navy and Air Force platforms.

Krauthammer and Kristol, who have no military backgrounds, seemed particularly perturbed that Army and Marine forces would be cut, which is not surprising since the two men have been advocating invasions and regime changes since the 1990′s.

“Sometimes a Pearl Harbor happens or a south Korea or a 9/11, where a ground war is thrust upon you — you have no choice,” strained Krauthammer. The editors of National Review added their own knee-jerky response this morning.

Funny, the folks over at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) — a think tank that is so well-connected to the military it is practically a civilian appendage — didn’t take it so hard. That’s probably because when it was weighing the worst case scenarios for budget cuts back in October, $500 billon was considered all right.

“The risks associated with this scenario are significant but acceptable,” read CNAS’s October report, “Hard Choices: Responsible Defense on an Age of Austerity,” considering $501.7 billion in cutbacks over 10 years.

“This scenario prioritizes areas where vital US interests are at stake, and takes risks in other parts of the world. It focuses on sustaining U.S military power across the Pacific Rim while protecting U.S interests in the Middle East, and it maintains substantial power projection and ground force capabilities as a hedge against unexpected threats.”

Doesn’t sound to me like the republic’s crumbling anytime soon.

CNAS was co-founded by Michele Flournoy, a supporter of the Democrats in the last presidential campaign who is now Under Secretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon, Doug Feith’s old job. In fact, many CNAS alums have gone to work for the Pentagon, and the military has sent many of its officers to work for CNAS, as active duty fellows and as retirees looking to stay connected to the beltway machine. Other than ostensibly supporting the administration, CNAS has no other visible interest in seeing the Pentagon budget shrink.

That said, when CNAS’s top people weighed in on the President’s announcement today, comments reflected not the political hysteria offered up by Kristol & Co., but cautious optimism. While warning against further cuts (hey, they know where their bread is buttered!), most thought the strategy proposed this week was, well, sound:

“Today’s report frames a realistic strategy for maintaining the United States as a global superpower, with constrained resources; but further cuts, especially approaching levels required by sequestration, would put this new paradigm at serious risk.” –Lieutenant General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) , Senior Advisor and Senior Fellow and co-author of Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity

“The new strategic guidance nicely balances the demands for continued U.S. global leadership with the reality of fiscal constraints.  It correctly reorients U.S. military forces towards Asia, while simultaneously preparing for potential threats from the Middle East. Unlike previous strategy documents, it prioritizes among the missions that U.S. forces will be expected to conduct. Most importantly, the new strategy clearly acknowledges that predictions about the future are rarely correct, and therefore emphasizes the importance of expandability – the ability to regenerate capabilities quickly if the strategic environment changes rapidly.”- Dr. Nora Bensahel, Deputy Director of Studies and Senior Fellow and co-author of Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity

“America’s allies in the Persian Gulf are worried by a potential U.S. strategic shift to East Asia. They fret the United States will abandon security partnerships in the Middle East as it sees more important priorities elsewhere amidst a resource-constrained environment. Those allies in the Persian Gulf should rest easier after today’s press conference, in which the president and the secretary of defense reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the security of the Persian Gulf. Europe, not the Middle East, looks to be the big loser in the U.S. defense realignment. But it will be interesting to see how all of this plays out in the Middle East, which still going through so much turmoil. ” – Dr. Andrew Exum , Senior Fellow.

As always, Exum, who is still atoning for his role as COIN spokesman circa 2009, does not take a strong stand either way, but his blog posting on the budget announcement indicates overall support for the Obama plan. Absolutely no skies falling here.

So the military surrogates seem to be breathing a sigh of relief, while the shopworn hawks try to rev up for another political cage match.

But let’s face it — voters are cash-strapped and war-weary. Ron Paul, for a second presidential race in a row, is vacuuming up anti-war/limited government votes wherever he goes, doubling his votes in Iowa as a result. And AEI war harpies have been largely discredited, even from inside the military community. Taking aim at their recent pitch for staying in Iraq, Iraq War vet and milblogger Carl Prine called AEI’s Kim and Fred Kagan “a double-shot of intellectual cancer designed apparently to make anyone who reads their historically-challenged agitprop dumber by the word.” Ouch.

So, Kristol and Krauthammer are on fire, but does anyone aside from Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum — who will no doubt deploy these criticisms, to dubious effect, against Obama in upcoming debates — still care? The upcoming elections may yet bear them out, but it would seem these hawks’ hyperbolic efforts at igniting a wider audience over 10-year cuts in an already bloated Pentagon budget are all wet.

* Krauthammer photo credit, John Shinkle

* Bill Kristol photo credit: Getty Images

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