Out come the long knives for defense

Now that the Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling is fast approaching, debt reduction negotiations are getting serious. The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission had recommended nearly $1 trillion in defense cuts across a decade. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released his own plan that would entail similar cuts to defense in the context of an even larger $9 trillion debt reduction. President Obama, while saying that Bowles-Simpson went too far, committed himself to an arbitrary $400 billion cut to defense across 12 years, the only concrete cuts to spending that he identified in his April 13th speech. The deal taking shape among the Gang of Six of budget leaders in the Senate will result in an $800 billion cut to defense across a decade. The Project for Government Oversight, the Sustainable Defense Task Force, the Stimson Center, and Center for American Progress all also have offered plans for cuts.

Defense spending will be further cut; that seems inevitable in the current, beneficial, climate of reducing government spending. Moreover, to take our military leadership at their word, debt reduction is our country's gravest national security threat, a case Admiral Mullen has repeatedly made. The 2010 Joint Forces Command planning guidance, called the Joint Operations Environment, likewise warned that our debt is not only a strategic liability, but unless brought under control will crowd out all discretionary spending -- including defense -- as debt service payments dominate.

Given the magnitude of our defense spending and the relatively advantageous position we occupy compared to the magnitude of threats facing the United States, we can afford to accept near-term risk by cutting defense spending in order to solve the larger strategic problem of our national indebtedness.

The question is how much, and what, to cut. Here we ought to be intensely skeptical of debt hawks telling the Department of Defense what to cut. The Simpson Bowles Commission is not ideally suited to make the determination of whether manned aviation is a continuing requirement for warfighting. The major challenge facing the Pentagon is to design a robust defense program that can both win our current wars, prepare for future wars of different types than we are currently fighting, and engaging in activities that shape the nature of the security environment and affect the choices of potential enemies.

Carving weapons systems out of the mix does not rebalance the force in ways necessary to mitigate risk. Only a complete program can do that. For example, eliminating the F-22 (something I favor) will leave a gap in our ability to perform crucial missions; that shortfall must be compensated for by other weapons or capabilities and the resulting balance of savings may or may not prove cost effective or manageable with the force size and posture it figures into.

Rather than a careful analysis of requirements, President Obama has encouraged a reckless approach to defense. When introducing his second pass at a budget proposal, the president announced a completely arbitrary $400 billion reduction in defense spending. Last week president Obama said "The nice thing about the defense budget is it's so big, it's so huge, that, you know, a one percent reduction is the equivalent of the education budget...I'm exaggerating. But it's so big that you can make relatively modest changes to defense that end up giving you a lot of headroom to fund things like basic research or student loans or things like that." 

The president evinced no acknowledgement of the fact that DOD actually does an awful lot more than the Department of Education, or that defending our freedoms and interests ought to weigh more heavily on a Commander in Chief than responsibilities principally residing elsewhere (in the case of education, at the state level). Or that DOD had within the space of a year completed a strategic review that undergirded current defense spending. Propitious, then, that Secretary Panetta comes in with significant budget expertise and also the experience of being a congressman. He will need both to develop and sell a defense program 

House Armed Services Chair Buck McKeon says he will oppose the deficit reduction deal because of its cuts to defense. He will likely be in the minority, especially without the president making the case -- or even apparently understanding -- that defense is a different kind of obligation for the federal government than other spending. Given the magnitude of cuts likely to be imposed on DOD, Secretary Panetta ought to be engaged in developing several different force postures as the start of our national debate on how much to cut defense, and where we will be accepting risk when we do so.

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Shadow Government

3 national security developments that you should worry about

Three items caught my eye as I plowed through back-reading (the "burden" of a week of vacation followed by a major international trip):

  • The Soft Power Asset Bubble Bursting: A recent poll by the Arab American Institute confirms what I had suspected for a long time: that the rapid inflation in soft power assets occasioned by the election of President Obama and his focused effort during his first year to restore American popularity only a generated short-term boost in popularity. It was built on an unsustainable bubble of enthusiasm for the election of an "anti-Bush" who promised to zig wherever Bush had zagged. Of course, Obama could not sustain that level of policy reversal while also meeting minimum American national security requirements. Now, several years into it, the Arab publics at least are expressing disapproval ratings that eclipse, in some ways, what they expressed in the Bush era.
  • A Belated Focus on the Need for a Coherent Long-term Strategy in Iraq: President Obama originally won plaudits from the opposition bench for the way that he jettisoned his 2008 campaign rhetoric and instead implemented a more responsible, and slower draw-down in Iraq -- essentially following the short-term roadmap negotiated at the end of the Bush Administration. However, anyone with experience in Iraq policy understood that that playbook was designed with an implicit promise to renegotiate a longer-term strategic framework with Iraq, one that would allow for a non-trivial contingent of U.S. ground troops to serve as a stabilizer and regional deterrent (not unlike the function U.S. troops played in Europe and East Asia after World War II and the Korean War). The 2008 Status of Forces Agreement did not allow for that because Prime Minister Maliki had made it clear he thought he couldn't sell that to his electorate in 2008 -- but he made it just as clear that he would like there to be some new arrangement in place well-before the 2011 deadline. For a while now, outsiders have worried that the Obama administration has been a wee bit triumphalistic about "ending" the war in Iraq and perhaps not pursuing a more robust long-term strategy with sufficient vigor. Apparently, the Obama administration is coming to realize this, albeit belatedly. (Belatedly appears to be a pattern, as my Shadow Government partner-in-crime Will Inboden has pointed out). The things Team Obama is doing on Iraq now, down even to the personnel moves -- bringing back former Iraq-policy troubleshooter Brett McGurk is a principled and responsible step -- merits bipartisan support, but it is coming so late in the game (and with so little personal investment from the president) that one worries whether it will be too late to lock in the full measure of opportunity that the surge strategy provided. It still does not look like Iraq will sink to the abysmal trajectory it was on in 2006, but the rosier scenario that seemed possible in 2008 may be slipping from our grasp.
  • A Worrisome Absence of Phase IV Planning on Libya: The Bush administration's Phase IV planning on Iraq -- i.e. the plans for what to do after the near-term military objective of regime change was accomplished -- were not adequate to the task. They were built on optimistic assumptions about what indigenous forces could do in the realm of security and governance, and there was not sufficient attention paid to developing contingency plans B, C, and beyond based on gloomier (and, as it happened, more realistic) assumptions. The Bush administration got a great deal of criticism about the war planning as a result, and much of it was deserved. Now some of the very people who leveled the bombast at the Bush administration are running their own war in Libya and, according to this recent report, seem to be on track to be hoisted with their own petard. As the reporter caustically observed, if the administration (or another co-belligerant) has done robust planning about how to handle a post-Qaddafi Libya "they've been awfully quiet about it." I concede that the administration has sometimes shown that they can develop a complex contingency plan without leaking, but as difficult as the raid against Bin Laden was operationally, in strategic terms it was much more narrowly drawn than the kind of plans needed for handling a post-Qaddafi Libya. Thus, I suspect the Libya planning operation is more like the Afghanistan one, about which the Obama administration has leaked with as much loquacity as any of its predecessors. In other words, if we are not hearing of it, there is a good chance it is not happening -- especially since Obama has promised not to have U.S. ground troops involved, which is rather like begging the very question of planning. Perhaps the Obama administration will be able to stand idly by if Libya sinks into a chaos that threatens a humanitarian disaster. However, the very decision to join the NATO operation against Qaddafi demonstrated that the administration concluded that they couldn't stand idly by in the past, after initially promising the same sort of "not our problem" posture. If Libya luck is much better than Iraq luck, then the current level of planning may suffice. But if not, the failure to grasp and plan for the nettle now could increase the pain later.

The 2012 election will likely be primarily driven by domestic political concerns, especially the economy. But what these developments mean collectively is that many of the foreign policy-related soundbites of the 2008 campaign will ring awfully hollow this time around -- and some that worked as attack lines by Obama may even sound more applicable as attack lines against him.

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