In at last announcing in detail that it would reduce the size of its active-duty force, currently 490,000, by 40,000 soldiers over the next two years, the U.S. Army seems finally and for a day to have captured the attention of the political class. In fact this is not news, but the long-anticipated result of the defense budget cuts agreed to under the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Still, nothing irritates politicians more than having to confront the consequences of their previous acts. Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, who voted for the Budget Control Act, responded by “demanding answers from the Department of Defense on how they are justifying these troop cuts in Georgia.” Georgia has a number of large military bases; under the plan, Fort Benning alone will lose about 3,400 soldiers.  But beyond home-state pleading, Isakson made a larger point: “We cannot afford to reduce our military readiness at a time when the threats to our security here at home and throughout the world are growing at an alarming rate.”

Absent a repeal of the budget law, these cuts are just the first in a series that, if the Budget Control Act remains law, could reduce the active Army by a further 50,000 to 75,000 solders.  To date, less than half the Budget Control Act reductions have been implemented, and the Defense Department continues to plan on the assumption that further cuts aren’t going to happen.  The result has been to reduce training and combat readiness in order to keep troop strength and nurse along a few weapons modernization projects.  The other military services are suffering differently, but proportionally to the Army. 

To be fair to congressional Republicans, they have tried to address the problem of an inadequate military through this year’s budget.  To have their cake and eat it, too – that is, increase defense spending while preserving the spending “caps” enshrined in the BCA – they’ve added about $60 billion in off-the-books, “overseas contingency operations” wartime spending.

That’s a budget gimmick, to be sure, and no substitute for a long-term program to restore the military power the United States needs.  But the Democrats are having none of it.  President Obama has issued a veto threat, and Senate Democrats are blocking any defense appropriations increased not matched by a dollar-for-dollar domestic spending increase.  Indeed, one of the worst effects of the Budget Control Act deal was to treat all forms of government spending equally.

But though it’s a budget gimmick, wartime spending does two things very well: paying for personnel and training costs.  In recent years, “operations and maintenance” spending has accounted for about 80 percent of contingency costs; as a consequence of President Bush’s decision to increase the size of the Army to sustain the Iraq surge, the personnel slice of wartime spending hit $20 billion per year.  The Democratic argument, advanced by Sen. Claire McCaskill, that “the military cannot pay for ground strength through a contingency fund,” is pure rubbish.  Heck, even President Obama’s “OCO” request included $3.2 billion in personnel funding this year.

If Congress cannot find some budgetary gimmick – either by the OCO route or by acceding to overall spending growth – to sustain the strength and readiness of U.S. armed forces, the next president will be left with a terrible conundrum.  The world will be a bigger decisive difference.  But the military tools the commander-in-chief can call on will be shriveled and shrunk to a point where any hopes of restoring American geopolitical leadership would falter.

Gimmicks in the defense of liberty are no vice.