The implausibilities of Panetta’s budget

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced last week the main outlines of the Pentagon's 2013 budget that will implement the $487 billion reduction in spending eventuated by spending limits in the law passed by Congress last summer. Secretary Panetta's budget represents a sensible set of choices in an environment of budget constraint likely to be of extended duration. Unfortunately, the budget does not constitute a program that carries out the law: DOD has produced a budget that cannot be implemented should any reductions beyond the 2013 topline occur. As Secretary Panetta himself has said, not only the budget choices, but the entire strategy collapses with any further cuts.

Panetta essentially flipped his predecessor's priorities, accepting risk in the near-term to preserve procurement of systems considered central to long-term risk management (i.e., preserving our technological and innovation edge as China rises). The programmatic choices consist of three main elements: decreasing the size of the force, improving long-range strike capabilities and relying on them to carry the burden of combat, and shifting to special operations the mission of training friendly forces.

However, DOD's plans contain several elements unlikely to survive contact with reality. First, as the Pentagon not only admits but trumpets, this strategic guidance is unexecutable if further defense cuts occur. On what possible basis does Secretary Panetta believe the law outlining sequestration cuts of an additional $600-800 billion to national security will not be enacted? Congress passed the Budget Control Act by large margins (269-161 in the House, 74-26 in the Senate). The Select Committee proved incapable of reaching a deal that would prevent sequestration. The president has threatened to veto any changes to the distribution of sequestration cuts in the existing law. Secretary Panetta himself has supported the president's veto threat. Where is the basis for believing the law will not come into effect?

Yet Secretary Panetta produced a budget willfully ignorant of the continuum of reductions, a budget that will be irrelevant before it even becomes law. It is irresponsible for DOD to plan on this basis. At a minimum, during the authorization and appropriations process, Congress should require the Pentagon to incorporate excursions into the Future Years Defense Program that indicate how DOD will adapt this budget to the additional cuts in current law. If this budget cannot accommodate spending levels Congress has established, the Pentagon ought to have to explain how it plans to bring itself into compliance.

Moreover, Congress should seriously question the math of Panetta's budget submission in two areas: the $60 billion it relies on from cutting waste, and the reductions in personnel expenses. Secretary Panetta's budget balances only with $60 billion additionally wrung out of DOD by "cutting waste." In a budget of roughly $535 billion a year, this is little more than 1 percent a year, which doesn't sound like much. But if the Pentagon hasn't already eliminated waste in the $400 billion in cuts undertaken by Secretary Gates, the inclusion of a sloppy category suggests there is a greater margin for reductions that belies the Secretary's hyperbole about any further cuts.

Personnel costs account for 30 percent of the defense budget. That is unexceptional: we have the world's finest military largely because we have the world's most adaptive soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. They deserve to be well-compensated not only because they put themselves in harm's way for us all, but also because we need to keep innovative people in the force.

But military pay has climbed significantly in the past decade as the wars revealed our Army and Marine Corps were too small for the demands of counter-insurgency. The need to recruit an additional 80,000 combatants in wartime understandably put upward pressure on salaries and benefits. Reducing the force ought to generate possibilities for reductions, and the Panetta budget evidently plans to include modest changes in these areas. Any such cuts will be bruisingly difficult to enact, requiring a major effort by both the White House and the Pentagon to build a political coalition that protects lawmakers from pressure by military retirees' and veterans groups. Yet how will a president who advocates caregiver leave for deploying service members stake out this territory in an election year?

The Obama administration's reluctance to undertake the defense planning and political lifting that will make Secretary Panetta's budget a blueprint for enacting legislation means the Pentagon will be scrambling next summer to produce a wholly new strategy and a wholly new budget that conform to spending limits the Congress has already passed.

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Shadow Government

The inconvenient truth

Over at the indispensable Cable, word comes that the White House is now pushing the line that President Obama eschews the notion of "American decline," and has even become a devoted reader of Bob Kagan. As presidential reading lists go, this is a welcome development. If present trends continue, perhaps the White House communications shop will soon issue a story noting that President Obama is also a reader of Shadow Government? [ed. Dream on! Are you just saying this to bait the anonymous snarky responses that will soon appear in the "Comments" section? Or are you in denial that the President is much more likely to read Dan Drezner's blog? Who, by the way, is funnier than you -- and also doesn't believe in American decline.]

All kidding aside, this is a serious issue that merits some scrutiny. On the one hand, President Obama's rhetorical rejection of American decline is significant and welcome, precisely because presidential rhetoric plays a role in forming a nation's character and actions. As I have commented before, if a nation's leadership and citizens start believing the nation is in decline, it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and infecting the nation's actions.

But presidential rhetoric is only a small part of the decline debate. Actions and policies are more important. So before junior White House staff start emulating their boss's reported new reading tastes and prompt a surge in Pennsylvania Avenue subscriptions to the likes of the Weekly Standard (to our friends at the Standard: may it be thus!), it is worth taking a closer look at this claim that the Obama administration rejects American decline.

This theme not inconveniently comes in an election year, as President Obama attempts to lay out his policy successes. As many others have pointed out, the White House seems reluctant to run on his major domestic policy initiatives such as ObamaCare or the $787 billion stimulus, judging by their almost complete absence from the State of the Union address. Instead, part of the campaign strategy seems to be pointing to foreign policy successes, such as in Obama's recent interview with Fareed Zakaria (himself a frequent apostle of American decline) where the president repeatedly claims that America's standing in the world is better than it was three years ago.

The inconvenient truth behind this claim is that most the Obama administration's foreign policy successes have come from adopting policies and strategies from the Bush administration. While as Jackson Diehl among others has pointed out, most of the Obama administration's signature initiatives have been failures. On the explicit question of American decline, rather than offering a full-throated rebuttal in his interview with Zakaria, Obama seems curiously ambivalent. On the one hand he strongly affirms American global leadership and repeats Madeleine Albright's description of the United States as the "indispensable nation," but on the other hand he says it is "inevitable" that China will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy.

Besides being a gifted journalist, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker has also emerged as one of the White House's favored conduits for channeling the Administration's mindset and messages. For example, earlier this week Lizza published an article based on exclusive access he'd been given by the White House to internal decision memos on domestic policy. And it was also Lizza who received extensive access from senior administration officials for his famous profile of the White House's foreign policy last spring. Most notorious is the "leading from behind" phrase that the White House has regretted ever since, but the context it came from in the article is revealing and bears recalling (emphasis added):

Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President's actions in Libya as "leading from behind." That's not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It's a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.

This deliberate message from the White House probably bears a closer resemblance to President Obama's strategic mindset than election year sit-downs with journalists or campaign lines from State of the Union addresses. Why? Because it also reflects many of the administration's actions. Such as the drawdown decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan that seemed to reflect political timetables more than conditions on the ground and commitments to maintaining American credibility. Or the recent "pivot" to Asia, which as many of us have pointed out is a welcome assertion of American presence in a strategic region but loses its potency if it is under-resourced, and presented as a retreat elsewhere because of our diminished capabilities. Or the administration's persistent refusal to make any serious cuts and reforms to the domestic entitlements that are fueling our runaway debt -- while the only spending cuts the White House has actually implemented are to the defense budget, which as Gary Schmitt points out is what we can least afford. And yes, even "leading from behind" our European allies during the Libya intervention.

Given the above actions the administration has taken that do diminish America's power and credibility in the world, is America actually in decline? No -- not yet anyway. Bob Kagan is correct. Our nation has too many strengths and is too resilient to be set back that much in such a short time. America's problems are considerable, but I would still rather have our challenges than the problems facing any other nation, whether China's brittle governance, imbalanced economy, demographic troubles, and resentful neighbors, or the European Union's currency and debt crisis, democratic deficit, and anemic defense capabilities. Rather, the worry is that the Obama administration's combination of actions and inactions are setting the United States on a trajectory towards decline -- a trajectory that if it continues unabated will be hard to arrest.

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