The predominant media theme in coverage of President Barack Obama's appointments of Susan Rice and Samantha Power to the jobs of national security advisor and U.N. ambassador, respectively, has been whether it constitutes the rise of interventionists in the president's second term. It does not.
Rice is no interventionist. While she was the National Security Council's senior director for Africa, she refused to allow anyone in Bill Clinton's administration to describe the genocide in Rwanda as genocide, because then they would have to do something about it. She even brought the politics of electioneering into the policy debates, posing the question in an interagency meeting, "If we use the word 'genocide' and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?" Obama has been criticized for politicizing national security policy, and as both the Rwanda and Benghazi examples demonstrate, Rice seems to have the same instincts. The "Rice as interventionist" case hinges on her learning from Rwanda and determining "never again." Her support for the Libya intervention bolsters the case, but her opposition to intervention in Syria undermines it.
When Congress was fuming about Rice's misleading account of the Benghazi attacks, Obama defended her, saying if his critics "want to go after somebody, they should go after me." He's exactly right: Rice is not to blame for the politicization of Benghazi. The president is to blame for that. But it is unlikely to burnish this White House's credibility that he has selected as national security advisor someone associated -- fairly or unfairly -- with government dishonesty.
There are three basic models for the role of national security advisor: traffic cop, policy formulator, and presidential confidant. The traffic cop model considers the National Security Council (NSC) arbitrator of the process of policy formulation and execution. It tends to have distributed centers of power with strong cabinet secretaries, a policymaking process that gives primacy to the airing of differences and building of consensus. Brent Scowcroft is considered the apogee of this approach.
Rice is often described as "sharp-elbowed." This is the female equivalent of describing Denis McDonough as "hard-charging." In both cases, what it means is: intolerant of views that conflict with the president's preferences, unable to achieve the president's objectives without roiling the waters and alienating participants in the process. The same was true of Tom Donilon, who did more than anyone else to create and sustain the civil-military friction we are now experiencing. Those attributes are incompatible with the traffic cop model.
The policy formulator model is "grand strategist," à la Henry Kissinger: the person so adroit and powerful s/he marginalizes the departments and orchestrates policy from within the White House. This approach does suit the centralizing tendencies of the Obama White House, but Rice is an unlikely candidate to pull this off. She has no expertise in defense issues, the budget, or trade policy; she is distrusted by many in the bureaucracy; and no one would put her in the top 30 percent of national security thinkers.
The confidant model has the national security advisor privately assessing the input of cabinet members and shaping the president's judgment -- Condoleezza Rice most often associated with it. It requires the cabinet to be in such close sync with the president that enforcement is unnecessary, and Obama probably has that with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry. But the model is not often assessed as successful in coordinating and deconflicting the efforts of the sprawling U.S. government, and it has proved incapable of orchestrating the "whole-of-government operations" that the Obama administration puts at the center of its soft-power approach to national security.
The confidant model is the only one of these that Rice is well suited to. The president clearly trusts her and confides in her, so she will have the advantage over cabinet members of knowing what the president actually thinks. The operating style of the National Security Council under Donilon was to hold meetings at which the president would hear the views of his cabinet and then retreat with Donilon and McDonough (then deputy national security advisor) to make decisions. Rice is likely to be a continuation of Donilon's interagency management, because that's what she's suited to and what the president wants.
Samantha Power, by contrast, is a brilliant choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She's an expert on the institution and an advocate for its effective utilization. She's had a diverse career as a journalist, NGO activist, and college professor. She has written movingly about the moral costs of inaction and the importance of human rights and human dignity in U.S. foreign policy. She can make common cause with neoconservatives as few Democrats -- and even fewer in the Obama administration -- can. And she can call the president of the United States on the telephone. She's a one-woman refutation of the argument by career diplomats that political appointees are a disservice to U.S. foreign policy. But Power will likely have less influence on administration policy in New York than she did on the NSC. As with most ambassadors, the majority of her effort will be implementing policy devised in Washington.
The appointments won't create a more interventionist administration because the president isn't an interventionist; they will instead continue the centralization of national security policymaking in the White House.
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Will and Peter have raised important points about the Obama administration's policy failings with regard to Syria. The President's approach combines the worst of moral negligence ("If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?") with casually adopted "red lines" whose terms and intelligence they litigate when the bluffs are called. All this while Hezbollah is openly participating, Assad's forces begin to regain ground, Turkey and Israel are being drawn in to the fight, and countries in the region plead for American leadership.
Peter may be right that the President is committed to stay out of the fight -- that Rwanda is the right historical parallel. It's entirely likely they will subject any and every possible policy to evidentiary standards intelligence work in the real world cannot attain or delays that string along journalists with the “Administration considering...” storyline. But those of us who believe for reasons of both interests and values the United States should have a much more active involvement in preventing the Assad government from remaining in power ought to be turning policy keys in the administration's locks to see if we can devise interventions consistent with the commander in chief's limitations and incentivized by engaging their ideological proclivities.
An intervention focusing on the plight of refugees might provide that key, allowing a humanitarian motivation, supported by the United Nations and the Arab League, with narrow involvement by U.S. military forces operating as one small part of a broad coalition, and heavy emphasis on "smart power" diplomacy to bring Russia into participation and growing governance capacity among the Syrian opposition.
Syria's civil war has displaced 4,250,000 Syrians from their homes to other parts of the country, and another 1,400,000 have fled outside the country to reside in neighboring states. Jordan alone is giving shelter to 524,000. One of the refugee camps constitutes Jordan's fifth largest city; this in a country without the largesse to provide much assistance and whose political structure has never come to terms with the long-term residence of Palestinians who left Israel in 1948. Jordan is tottering under the weight of providing for refugees and fear they may become permanent. President Obama acknowledged the burden on Jordan during his recent visit, pledging additional U.S. aid.
Turkey is in an even more parlous situation, with refugees fanning tensions between Turkish Sunni and Kurds and threatening to derail the Erdogan government's important progress in reconciliation on the Kurdish issue. The Erdogan government has so far held sectarian unity, but just barely, and violence is escalating. Turkey's turn from "zero problems with neighbors" to a foreign policy much more closely aligned with ours has been a real boon to the Obama administration. Moreover, constraining Turkey from shaming NATO into a much more activist military role -- invoking the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty, for example -- is a significant component of the Obama administration being able to limit U.S. involvement.
An intervention that seeks to create refugee camps within Syrian territory would take the pressure off neighboring countries. The United Nations estimates that six million Syrians are in need of urgent assistance, a full third of the population. Establishing camps in Syria at which civilians can safely receive that assistance would be the objective of the intervention.
Focusing on refugees would be the path of least international resistance, something important to this administration, and could even conceivably produce an international "legal" basis. Whether the UN will actually support invoking the Responsibility to Protect is worth testing, but it needn't be the only means by which the UN could be brought in. The Obama administration could lead from behind by orchestrating an appeal to the Security Council led by Turkey, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia -- perhaps even Israel could be included to show the breadth of regional support, and Iraq lured by Sunni emboldenment and the status of inclusion to abandon Iranian objectives. The Arab League would need to be jostled into unity, given its division over "awakening," but that's an ideal role for John Kerry's State Department. Isolating Iran and exposing its involvement in Syria would provide a unifying element. The Gulf countries could be prompted to advise China of its long-term oil needs, as produced some effect in Iran negotiations.
Secretary Kerry could be tasked with bringing Russia into the fold. The Russians have a genuine fear of stoking Islamist violence in the Caucasus; Kerry should persuade them their current policy in Syria will foster precisely what they're seeking to avoid and encourage their participation in the UN mission as a way of resetting how they are perceived by protecting Muslims in Syria. Giving Russia responsibility for refugee assistance in the area of their Tartus base would perhaps tempt them to support a UN role.
The "realist" pretensions of the Obama administration could be engaged in crafting an exit strategy for Assad -- promising he will not be remanded to the International Criminal Court if he chooses a coddled retirement in the UAE or London.
A UN mission could provide aid directly in the camps, rather than through the government, as it is now doing, taking that lever from Assad -- or perhaps leaving it with Assad to incentivize his agreement to establish the camps -- but giving NGOs latitude to work directly in the camps in addition to UN efforts.
The primary responsibility for protecting refugee camps inside Syria would in theory rest with the Assad government and in practice migrate to the rebels. A UN mission would hold the Syrian government responsible for any government attacks because it is the sovereign. The rebels have demonstrated the ability to take and hold territory from the government, even with the government's military advantages. If refugee camps were set up in the border areas north and east of the country, where the refugees currently are, they would be in rebel-controlled areas. Facilitating refugee return and providing governance in the camps would provide a governance training ground for Syrian opposition leaders. Working with them will increase our understanding and help us help the opposition gain control over militia that will eventually need to be demobilized.
Whatever one thinks of the efficacy of our intelligence work in Syria -- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey testified that we know less now than we did a year ago about Syrian rebels -- that our intelligence and military communities are so concerned about the prospect of providing them the kinds of weapons that would neutralize Assad's advantages ought to give us pause. General Salim Idris, our preferred leader of the opposition, has acknowledged he has little influence over what the rebels do and no direct authority over the largest factions. So caution is in order where arming the rebels is concerned.
It is still the case that the Assad government's advantage in the fight is air superiority and heavy weaponry. That is changing as Hezbollah and Iran both train and participate with the Assad forces, but preventing the Assad government from using airpower, artillery and missiles would shift the balance significantly in favor of the rebels. If we will not entrust rebels with the weapons to undertake that work, it falls to us. This need not entail a Northern Watch-style no fly zone, or even a preemptive destruction of Syrian air forces: coalition military operations could be restricted to preventing the use of aircraft, and retaliating against the use of artillery or missiles by the government. For all the talk of Syrian air defenses being five times as good as Libya's, the Israeli air force seems to slice through them pretty easily. Missiles fired from outside Syrian airspace, either from seaborne platforms or NATO batteries already based in Turkey could take much of the responsibility. Countering Syrian missiles may be too demanding in real time, but retaliating against units that fire them would diminish the government's advantage with time.
Such an approach would not prevent all Syrian attacks. But it would protect more Syrians and it would diminish the Assad government's military advantage over time. And it just might be limited enough, and contain enough elements of the kind of policies the Obama administration favors, for the commander in chief to consider it.
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For months, the Obama administration has been avoiding the conclusion that the Assad government used chemical weapons in its armed struggle to suppress its citizens. As recently as yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rebuffed the notion, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Today the White House finally conceded the point. "Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin," the administration wrote in a letter to Congress.
But even now, the White House is insisting it needs to gather the facts and called for a U.N. investigation, a convenient method of continuing to stall on Syria.
The letter goes on to say that "given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient -- only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making and strengthen our leadership of the international community." It endorses a "comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place." (The U.N. has already deployed a team to Cyprus to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, but so far they have been denied entry into the country, and a full-throated investigation remains unlikely.)
The world's best intelligence services are generally acknowledged to include those of Israel, Britain, France, and the United States, yet for months we alone are unable to establish whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria. As technical assessments have traditionally been the strong suit of American intelligence, it is curious that we alone among the major intelligence assessors were unable to determine whether chemical weapons had been employed.
The governments of Britain and France informed the United Nations they have credible evidence that Syria has more than once used chemical weapons. They took soil samples from the suspect sites and subjected them to rigorous testing, interviewed witnesses of the attacks in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, and became convinced nerve agents were used by the government of Syria.
"To the best of our professional understanding, the [Syrian] regime used lethal chemical weapons against gunmen in a series of incidents in recent months," General Itai Brun, chief of the research division of Israel's army intelligence branch, said Tuesday.
Even the government of Syria acknowledged that chemical weapons were used, though they unconvincingly claimed the chemical weapons were used by the rebels and refused entry to U.N. investigators.
Our European allies have said they believe the Syrian government "was testing the response of the United States." Until today, the response of the United States has been to avoid coming to a conclusion.
General Brun made that public statement while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in Israel. Hagel's reaction? He claimed the Israeli government didn't share that information with him. But the Obama administration's secretary of defense didn't double back to get the information. He didn't strengthen deterrence by reiterating the president's "red line" that any chemical weapons use by the Assad government would bring U.S. retaliation. He expressed a complete lack of curiosity on the subject, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Hagel has now been forced to backtrack. "As I have said, the intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made in the past 24 hours," Hagel said, "and I have been in contact with senior officials in Washington today and most recently the last couple of hours on this issue." Hagel added that "we cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime." Hagel's statement taken together with the "varying levels of confidence" modifier included in the White House's letter to Congress means that the Administration is still avoiding a conclusion; they will surely want an intelligence community consensus with a very high level of confidence (something rarely achieved).
Because if it should be "proven" that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, it will either force the president's hand to intervene in Syria, or the president will be revealed to have made threats he declines to back up. Instead, the administration has chosen to conclude that the intelligence is inconclusive.
It would be deeply inconvenient for the president of the United States to have to go to war in Syria when he placidly assures the American public that the tide of war is receding. U.S. intervention grows even more inconvenient since our unwillingness to help the rebels has led them to take help from quarters we disapprove of -- are we to fight alongside the al Nusra front, which we (rightly) characterize as a terrorist organization with al Qaeda links?
It is a problem of the president's own making, of course: He took a strident stand that any chemical weapons use would be a "game changer" precipitating American military involvement. This president likes to look tough on the international scene -- even when he's leading from behind he's taking all the credit. So we have policies designed to showcase Obama as a commanding commander in chief. In order to keep him from having to make good on his threats, the administration has taken to relying on intelligence assessments as his opt-out.
The Syria evasion is of a piece with Obama administration deflections of other intelligence conclusions that would force a change to their policies: Iran and North Korea.
With regard to the Iranian nuclear program, President Obama gave a speech (at AIPAC, no less) insisting that he would not settle for containment of a nuclear-armed Iran; he would prevent it. Since then, the secretary of defense and the director for national intelligence have both testified to Congress their strong belief that Iran "has not decided to make a nuclear weapon." In so carefully parsing their language, they are attempting to remove from consideration the evidence of Iran's capability to build a nuclear weapon in order to assert as more important Iran's intent.
What neither the secdef (then Leon Panetta) nor the DNI acknowledged is that assessing intentions is the most difficult part of intelligence work and requires a supple and deep understanding of the politics of other governments -- something we are unlikely to have about a country with complex political dynamics unhindered by institutional constraints and in which we have not had a diplomatic or economic presence for 34 years.
The Obama administration is unconcerned that other countries who have at least as good an intelligence operation directed at Iran as we do don't share our confidence that Iran hasn't made the decision to proceed. When challenged on the divergent assessments, now Secretary of Defense Hagel explained there might be "minor" differences between the U.S. and Israel on the timeline for Iran developing nuclear capacity. The Obama administration's generous timeline is a function of them "knowing" that Iran hasn't decided to proceed.
With regard to the North Korean nuclear test and military provocations, President Obama insisted he would not reward bad behavior (even as Secretary Kerry visiting Seoul offered negotiations). Lieutenant General Flynn, director of the defense intelligence agency, which is the arm of U.S. intelligence most focused on assessing military capabilities, testified before Congress that in DIA's judgment, North Korea already has the ability to mate nuclear warheads to long-range missiles. The administration's response? The President denied the conclusion in a nationally-televised interview. The director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper, also gave interviews explaining that DIA's conclusions are "not the consensus view of the intelligence community."
This is what the politicization of intelligence looks like: politicians turning their eyes away from information that is inconvenient to their agenda. It's always a bad idea.
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It's hard not to despair about the irresponsibility of politicians in Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon (suited and uniformed) watching the FY2014 budget process unfold. The good news is that for the first time in four years, the Senate passed a budget; the bad news is that budget never brings our deficit spending under control, much less develops a plan for reducing our national debt. The president's budget likewise elides the major national security threat to our country, which is our own inability to bring spending into line with revenue. And the Pentagon continues to operate as though their preferred outcome is all that requires planning for, to enormous detriment for our military strength.
The president's budget contains only $174 billion in deficit reduction, and would actually increase our debt ratio to a dangerous 79 percent of GDP. Under the president's proposed budget, federal debt wouldn't return to its current level until 2023, and that is contingent on the timeless budget mirage of spending now and discipline later. Even Steven Rattner, the President's "czar" for the auto industry bail out, concludes that "we will need to make more tough choices - tougher choices than we are inclined to make today -- if we are to avoid burdening future generations with massive unfunded obligations."
There's simply no way that Republicans will vote for a budget that so fundamentally ignores the problem of our national debt. Which means sequestration will effectively be our federal budget until either Republicans lose the house or Democrats lose the Senate.
The Department of Defense has likewise abrogated budget responsibility, turning in a budget that wholly ignores the reality of sequestration. DoD's $527 billion baseline budget doesn't even contain an excursion considering sequestration's effects, either repairing those from current sequestration or anticipating continued sequestration in FY2014. But it does contain a White House mandated $150 billion reduction across ten years (weighted heavily to the out-years, like all other cuts in spending from the president's budget).
Secretary Hagel is on the spot to defend a budget he didn't develop. His position will be made even more unenviable since the process of revising the strategy will lag by at least several months, and more likely a year. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated repeatedly that the strategy would be unexecutable if further cuts were made, and the budget Hagel submitted contains further cuts. Leading administration figures are insisting the pivot to the pacific continues and cuts have no effect on our ability to defend against North Korean provocation. Congress rightly wants to know what gives.
Hagel testified in contravention to his own budget, affirming to the Congress that sequestration will be taken into account. General Dempsey tried to square the circle, testifying yesterday that any further cuts would be Armageddon, but that the president's budget postpones any cuts for at least five years, so we can currently execute the strategy. Which might be true, if only sequestration hadn't already occurred and remains the likeliest budget outcome for FY2014, as well.
DoD will probably be given latitude to reprogram FY2013 money within the topline; if reports of a massive $41 billion reprogramming request are true, it will mean DoD is effectively operating without a budget. Congress will have allowed DoD to spend as it sees fit, provided it does not breach the sequestration topline. And that may be the best answer we can expect for the coming period of austerity.
But the Pentagon is held in higher esteem than other departments of government because of its reputation for planning responsibly. It has damaged that reputation with its last two budgets. The Pentagon ought to be much more worried than it appears to be about the self-inflicted damage to its credibility for not managing this time of austerity well.
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President Obama is being rightly praised for his meaningful speech in Israel. He poignantly and powerfully made the case that a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is (as Daniel Levy summarized it) necessary, just, and possible. He had an awful lot of ground to make up with Israelis, and the attitudes he advanced in his speech went a considerable way toward repairing the damage wrought by his earlier attitudes and policies.
One of the most striking departures from past practice was the president's effort to assure Israelis that they have -- and will continue to have -- American support for their security and democracy. The administration seems belatedly to have come to the recognition that Israelis are more likely to make the brave choices required for a peace agreement if they are confident of our support. This is exactly the opposite of the position the administration has taken on Iraq and Afghanistan. In both those cases, the president's policies have been predicated on the belief that those societies and leaders would not make the hard choices required of them unless the United States threatened them with abandonment. Thus, the timelines for military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan have created self-fulfilling prophesies of governments working against our interests because they believe we are working against theirs.
It is theoretically possible that societies scarred by authoritarian repression and civil war would make the brave and monumental choices in those circumstances, but I have a difficult time dredging up examples of any that have. And the president clearly doesn't think that the established democracy of Israel would do so. Let us hope President Obama's acknowledgement of the need for supporting states making difficult compromises portends a change in policy more generally rather than being sui generis to Israel.
Another context in which words matter is what our enemies hear. The late, great Ernest May, a Harvard historian and a member of the 9/11 Commission, paralleled the Wehrmacht attack on France in 1940 to the al Qaeda attack on the United States. In both cases, the enemy used open-source knowledge of the society to identify and exploit known weaknesses. I could not help thinking of this watching the pathetic parade of civilian and military defense leaders proclaim all the destruction and incapacity incurred by a 2 percent cut in federal spending -- despite the fact that the United States will retain 45 percent of global defense spending.
On this, the day he relinquishes command, it seems fitting to praise General James Mattis as the only military leader who used the opportunity of Congressional budget testimony to issue a growling threat to our enemies. Mattis emphasized that even with spending cuts, sequestration, and a continuing resolution, he had under his command the military power to destroy anyone who would challenge the United States, its interests, and allies. Let us hope our defense leaders start thinking about how their tales of woe sound in Pyongyang and Tehran.
There is some evidence that happy day may be approaching in the form of Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's volte-face in Seoul this week. Carter had previously and repeatedly testified that sequestration would be incredibly destructive to our military, making the defense strategy -- the pivot to Asia -- unexecutable. Sent to Seoul to reassure our South Korean allies, Carter now insisted that budget cuts would have no affect on neither our willingness nor our ability to carry out our defense strategy. Nor would budget restrictions diminish our ability to deter North Korea or fight alongside South Korea. "We'll ensure all of our resources will be available to our alliance," he said.
Despite having invented the 24-hour news cycle, the permanent political campaign, Madison Avenue advertising, Hollywood iconography, and been at the forefront of globalization, the United States still tends to have our domestic debates as though we are talking only to ourselves, as though we can segregate what we say domestically from what is heard internationally. We cannot. Words matter, and very often our enemies take our words more seriously than we do ourselves. It's high time our leaders start factoring that more carefully into their policy statements as well as their policy prescriptions.
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The Congress has consented, allowing Chuck Hagel to become secretary of defense, but not without badly bruising him along the way. It must also be said, however, that he bruised himself during the confirmation process. The odds now are slim that he will become a strong and capable secretary. In order to boost the odds of his success, he quickly needs to send signals throughout the organization that he can command respect. Here are some suggestions:
Learn to salute. If the picture accompanying Dov's post is indicative, Hagel's lost the knack since the days when he owed salutes. A crisp salute is a small but totemic thing. It conveys that you understand the culture and the institution. Despite his prior service, there are grave doubts about whether Hagel actually gets it. Because people are watching carefully and taking measure of the new boss, small gestures early on set the tone for a secretary. Les Aspin famously dismissed the ceremonial guard outside his office (which was about respect, not protection), kept people waiting, and his transition team told the military that "there's a new sheriff in town," instead of co-opting Colin Powell's Joint Staff. The first day of Bill Perry's tenure he ran meetings on time that concluded with decisions and applicable guidance that helped people predict the secretary's future judgments, and you could feel the building relax after the erratic and undisciplined tenure of Les Aspin. After Hagel's bungling performance during confirmation, little gestures of competence would send a valuable message to the institution.
Treat it like a business. DOD is a $600 billion a year operation with a highly-valued brand, a platform on which other businesses rely, and a deadly serious purpose. The administration did Hagel no favors installing him as secretary just before its budget is submitted. After alienating so much of the Congress, he will have to defend a budget he didn't put together. Even someone much more substantive than he would have a difficult time quickly mastering that brief and disciplining the building to keep a common front as significant cuts are imposed. If he cannot do so, the damage will be irreparable. The administration has given the impression it cares more about social issues in the military than it does about the core business of winning the country's wars, and that makes it harder to manage the military on other issues. Putting the nuts and bolts of effective management at the center of his early efforts would send a calming signal and buy him the benefit of the doubt for later.
Repair relations with members of Congress. It is an often overlooked fact that Congress really runs American defense policy. The Senate has abrogated its responsibilities to authorize and appropriate money for the past three years, and 41 members of the Senate did not consent to his appointment; those are strong headwinds. He needs to win them over, otherwise he cannot make a success of his tenure. He needs them to give him money, latitude to reprogram, to enact policies, to side with him over the chiefs when they make end-runs to the Hill. All the time-honored tactics should be employed: breakfast every week with the Big Four appropriators and authorizers, travel with him to their districts and to places that give them campaign fodder, phone calls to share news before it breaks, jobs for members of their staffs, naming anything that needs naming after them. As the secretary with the greatest Senate opposition to his appointment in the history of his position, he needs to do it more, better, and faster than other secretaries have.
Get the chiefs out of the budget fight. One of the most interesting things about this round of budget squabbles is that the active involvement of the chiefs does not appear to have changed a single vote in Congress. They are impotent to affect attitudes on a major national security issue. The chiefs loudly telling Congress that the cuts will be destructive has been seen not as our protectors sounding the alarm, but as shameless pandering by an over-fed bureaucracy that is exposing itself for the president's benefit. It goes without saying that this is terrible for the military's standing in society. President Obama is importantly to blame for this. During the election he ridiculed Mitt Romney for wanting to increase defense spending, repeatedly insisting that his opponent "would throw money at the chiefs they don't even want!" That created a sense in the broader public that our defense is well-funded. As a result, the chiefs arguments now that the saying the sky is falling seem politicized. If the chiefs credibility is that low, the secretary should disengage them from the fight. He should instead become the lead advocate, making their arguments and shielding them from direct involvement while they engage privately with legislators.
Get out of Washington. Visiting the war zones, visiting bases, visiting troops engaged in training other militaries is part of the secretary's job -- outreach to his constituents and being close to their concerns. The importance of fights in Washington will seem paramount (as they always do), but Hagel is unlikely to be the difference between a policy being adopted or not. First, because he clearly shares the President's views. Second, because the administration has already made its major policy decisions. And third, because he's hardly the towering presence of a Hillary Clinton on Bob Gates that must be taken into account. That frees him up to get out of Washington and see how the rest of the country and the rest of the world view our choices -- two elements the discussion in Washington too often lacks. Plus, it will remind him of the everyday goodness of the young men and women who choose to put themselves in harm's way for our country. That cannot help but strengthen any secretary.
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During last week's congressional hearings, America's military leaders outlined the dire consequences they envision if, as has long seemed likely, the sequestration provision of the 2011 Budget Control Act comes into effect. The hearings were scheduled by sympathetic Armed Services committees to give vent to the Pentagon's alarm.
In one exchange, Rep. Mike Rogers asked the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff if he had informed the president of the dire consequences to readiness from sequestration beginning on March 1. "We have had that conversation," Gen. Martin Dempsey answered. Rogers followed up to ask how the president responded. "He assured me he's working on it," said Dempsey.
The president "working on it" has not equated to producing a budget that piles up less than a trillion-dollar deficit for fiscal year 2013. It has not equated to finding means within his executive powers to minimize the effect of the reductions -- to the contrary, the White House explicitly instructed agencies to spend and plan as though the law would not come into effect. It has not equated to working with Congress to strike a deal; the president has no meetings scheduled with congressional leaders. It has not equated to acknowledging his critics may have a point or have proposals that could be incorporated into his plan (he has not offered a plan). It has not even equated to acknowledging that mandatory spending is driving our debt. The president is allowing these cuts to discretionary spending in order to protect mandatory spending, otherwise known as "entitlement" programs.
Congress is stuck. It is stuck because two years ago markets started signaling concern about the level of America's national debt and the rate at which the U.S. government continued to incur it. The Congressional Budget Office reported in December that federal revenues increased by $30 billion in the first two months of the fiscal year, but federal spending increased by $87 billion. We borrow $4.8 billion dollars a day. The United States borrows 31 cents of every single dollar it spends.
As the euro crisis has demonstrated, market confidence can collapse quickly and is very expensive to regain. Ratings agencies have already downgraded the U.S. because of our inability to bring our spending and revenue into balance. That is the political impetus behind draconian measures to force an end to deficit spending and produce a medium-term plan to ramp down our national debt. Unless we show markets the United States has the capacity to bring our budget into alignment, we will be at great risk of getting involved in the kind of escalating game of chicken European governments have been forced into over the past three years: committing ever more money to a firewall that forestalls a market run and driving interest rates up to devastating levels. And to be clear: markets are not to blame for gaming our currency. We are to blame for putting ourselves at risk by racking up so much debt.
Breaking the congressional deadlock requires presidential leadership. That's why our form of government has a chief executive. But the president is now not only leading from behind in foreign policy, but also leading from behind in the domestic policy that is the basis of our international strength. Instead of working to prevent sequestration from going into effect -- with two weeks remaining until training is curtailed for 80 percent of Army forces, the military faces what Gen. Dempsey described as an unprecedented readiness crisis, and the pivot to Asia becomes unaffordable -- President Obama took the long weekend to golf in Florida with Tiger Woods. The military is claiming dread crisis, and the commander in chief has gone golfing. Is it possible all of us missed the seminal role Tiger Woods must have in breaking the political stalemate in Washington?
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On Friday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will finally reveal how spending at the Department of Defense will be brought into compliance with the 2011 Budget Control Act. Panetta has already said the cuts "would turn America from a first-rate power into a second-rate power," but American taxpayers should not forget three very important things. First, the mad scramble to cut spending is the result of the Obama White House and the Panetta Pentagon deciding to program for the past eighteen months as though the Budget Control Act was not in effect. Second, although the law stipulates that spending reductions apply to all budget lines, it contained a huge opt out that allowed the President to exempt personnel accounts and removed application of the law to a full third of the budget. Third, even if sequestration goes into effect, the spending cuts will only return the base Department of Defense budget to 2007 levels. The wailing and gnashing of teeth by the department are an over-reaction, and conveniently shields it, the White House, and the Senate from criticism that their own choices have made the effect of the cuts more damaging.
Panetta's blueprint for the Department, his defense guidance, was issued subsequent to the collapse of the so-called grand bargain between the president and House Speaker John Boehner, after the supercommittee failed to reach an agreement, in the third year of a continuing resolution because the Senate would not pass a budget, and after the President threatened to veto any changes to the act that would reduce DOD's share of cuts -- a threat Panetta supported.
Yet Panetta's strategy proceeded on the assumption that DOD will have access to resources it had no basis to expect. He made no budget excursions showing how the Department of Defense would comply with the law if sequestration came into effect, and he forbade the military services from conducting any planning associated with compliance. As a result, DOD has no long term plan. Moreover, it will produce a budget that has not been stress-tested to ensure risks incurred in one part of the force are balanced by capabilities elsewhere.
Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter defended DOD's cliff jumping strategy, saying "the reason not to make adjustments too early is -- these are not desirable things to do. They're not good for Defense. So you don't want to do them until you have to." So DOD must now incur the entirety of cuts in the final six months of the fiscal year. Could not the effect have been attenuated by anticipating spending reductions and programming them in across the year? Would not responsible managers have sought to minimize the disruption? Would not shareholders be incensed at such management in a private company? It is irresponsible for the department not to have made choices that would prudently hedge against the likeliest outcomes.
The Panetta Pentagon insists the Budget Control Act is a "meat axe approach" of across-the-board cuts that allows no management of the budgeting process. But this is not entirely true. The Budget Control Act gives the president the option of fencing off personnel accounts from any cuts, and the president has exercised that option. Those accounts constitute roughly $200 billion of the $586 billion Defense Department budget. It is a politically popular move, to be sure, but it dramatically increases pressure on other line items.
The military's personnel accounts -- pay, medical care, retirement -- increased dramatically in the past decade. Military compensation is now higher than the wages of 90 percent of civilians and is, on average, $21,800 higher than the median income for civilians in comparable groups. Such increases made sense when recruiting forces in the midst of two wars, but they are difficult to justify when the Pentagon plans to shed personnel. We now have within the defense budget the same "guns vs. butter" tradeoffs we face in federal spending writ large. Spending on personnel is choking our ability to ensure the force has the readiness it needs. Pentagon leaders must face up to the fact that our magnificent all-volunteer force is becoming unaffordable.
Our country is a very long way from living within our means. Sequestration going into effect will not even reduce our national debt -- it will only slow its growth. While the defense budget is not the driver of our national indebtedness, the general austerity required to get our national finances back into balance is likely to keep defense spending essentially flat for the coming decade.
Rather than decrying Congress as irresponsible, Panetta should produce a budget consistent with sequestration's $489 billion topline cut and ask Congress for authorization and appropriation to set priorities that will dampen the effect of cuts. Congress should agree, since such legislation will also pin responsibility for whether cuts are a disaster where it properly belongs -- with the President and his defense leadership.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.