Panetta still isn't facing up to his Pentagon budget disaster

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.

T.J. Kirkpatrick-Pool/Getty Images

National Security

Obama's embrace of the Bush doctrine and the meaning of 'imminence'

The Obama Administration has embraced the Bush doctrine, or at least the preemption part of the Bush doctrine. According to news reports about the Justice Department's memo on drone strikes, the Obama Administration bases its policy on an expansive interpretation of the laws of war, which allow countries to act to head off imminent attack. In particular, according to the reporter who broke the story, the Obama Administration bases its legal reasoning by interpreting "imminence" in a flexible way: 

"The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future," the memo states.

Instead, it says, an "informed, high-level" official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been "recently" involved in "activities" posing a threat of a violent attack and that "there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities." The memo does not define "recently" or "activities."

This should sound familiar to anyone who has debated American foreign policy for the past decade, for precisely that sort of logic undergirded the Bush Administration's preemption doctrine.  Here is the relevant section from Bush's 2006 National Security Strategy (itself quoting from the earlier and controversial articulation in the 2002 National Security Strategy):

If necessary, however, under long-standing principles of self defense, we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize. This is the principle and logic of preemption. The place of preemption in our national security strategy remains the same. We will always proceed deliberately, weighing the consequences of our actions.

Of course, the Bush Administration was excoriated for framing the issue that way, and there arose a lively cottage industry devoted to attacking this aspect of the Bush doctrine.  While Obama has tended to get away with things his predecessors could not, I suspect that even he will face some tough questioning now that the overlap with the controversial Bush doctrine is so unmistakable.  

The issue is a difficult one, for the applicability of the self-defense principle depends crucially on context. Everyone agrees that if someone is attacking you with a knife, you do not have to wait for the blade to puncture your skin before you can strike at the assailant. And everyone agrees that it is not self-defense to attack someone just because you think there is a dim and distant possibility that one day that person might decide that he wants to attack you even though there is no evidence of such intent today. In the real world of national security policymaking, however, there are abundant hard cases in between those easy calls and those hard cases are what policymakers -- as distinct from pundits -- can't avoid.  

The memo reveals the Obama Administration wrestling with these problems and coming to conclusions strikingly similar to those of the Bush Administration. I wonder if Team Obama will be more successful than the Bush Administration was in arguing the merits and logic of the preemption doctrine.