Two Cheers for Secretary Hagel as Defense Budget Is Released

The Obama administration's fiscal 2015 defense budget was released today, Feb. 24; its details have already been unearthed by the nation's best defense journalists. The headline making news is that under the Hagel budget, "America will have the smallest Army since World War II." This is such a manipulative appeal. We ought not to wring our hands that America does not have an Army the size of that which fought the Wehrmacht -- America also doesn't have enemies of the magnitude of the Wehrmacht. Moreover, the United States not only has a better military than that which fought World War II, but it also has a much better military than that which stood astride the world as a colossus in 2001. In 2001, it cost the country $2,300 to outfit a Marine for combat; today the price tag is $21,000. With that order of magnitude increase in expense has come an order of magnitude improvement in capability. Not only are we making fewer American casualties of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen, but we are making them more lethal to our enemies. They have dramatically increased visibility and understanding of the battlefield, dramatically increased firepower, dramatically increased ranges across which to attack, and dramatically increased precision when they do attack. Moreover, the country has a combat-hardened volunteer military, with young leaders experienced in taking responsibility at much lower levels and for much greater stakes than the Army that fought World War II.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel deserves considerable credit for owning up to the fiscal reality that defense spending will no longer have galloping rates of increase. Specifically, he deserves credit for bringing the department's budget into compliance with the law. An obvious point, one would think, is that the budget request ought to be in line with the Defense Department spending cap legislated in the 2011 Budget Control Act. Not something we loyal opposition should applaud, since it ought to be standard practice. Yet this is the first budget that acknowledges Congress has given federal spending guidelines that must be followed. The budgets submitted by Barack Obama's administration were in excess of the top line. If the Defense Department had been within its allotted spending cap, sequestration would not have been triggered. The department was thus the proximate cause of the disastrous effects of sequestration about which the department wailed and gnashed its teeth. But the White House is principally to blame, because it issued the guidance instructing DOD to program as though sequestration would never occur. Such blatant politicization of the country's national security is sadly the norm for the Obama White House. That DOD pushed back, quietly and within the administration, for OMB instruction that would permit more sensible programming is a real achievement, and Hagel deserves credit for it.

The second cheer is for attempting to curtail the rate at which benefits are being expanded for troops. By DOD's own calculations, the average pay and benefits for the military have increased from $44,200 per person in 2001 to $81,600 in 2014. The country simply cannot afford to continue raising the salary and benefits packages to its forces at anything like that rate -- the all-volunteer force is becoming unaffordable. Unless the rate of these burgeoning expenses is reined in, the country will not be able to afford the weapons and training that keep the military alive and winning the nation's wars. Restricting the military to a 1 percent pay raise and some modest co-pays for family members and veterans -- but not affecting currently serving soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen -- is not only sensible defense policy, but it's essential to retaining a war-winning military.

I withhold a third cheer, though, because it does not appear that Hagel has done the essential spade work to get authorization and appropriation for anything near what the Department of Defense is asking. "Cutting benefits to our troops" -- even though DOD's proposal continues to increase benefits -- is woefully unpopular in Congress, especially in an election year. Getting legislators to "vote against the troops" will be a huge political challenge, the kind that requires 18 months of planning and horse trading and shaping constituents' perceptions. Without having shaped the battlefield in that way, there's little likelihood that the budget that Hagel gets will much resemble the budget that Hagel is requesting.

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Time for Congress to Act on Venezuela

With popular demonstrations across Venezuela turning into the latest crisis for chavismo, it is time to pronounce the Obama administration's policy toward Venezuela an unmitigated failure. The capstone was Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's absurd call this weekend for negotiations with the United States even as his government was cracking down on unarmed protestors. 

Of course it was meant as a diversion, but for the embattled Maduro even to pretend he can blow the dog whistle and the State Department will fall immediately into line reveals his utter contempt for the administration's accommodationist policy towards his country. We need an entirely new approach.

Almost one year after the death of strongman Hugo Chávez, the movement he founded is reeling. Nationwide protests against rampant street crime, shortages of basic consumer goods, and political polarization have left half a dozen Venezuelans dead, many more wounded, and even more jailed. Leading opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez has been imprisoned on a military base under the preposterous charge of training "gangs of youth" to lead a coup against the government.  

The instability in the streets was entirely predictable; Venezuela under chavismo has been the longest train wreck in history. Yet, all the signs that the country has been headed for a meltdown have been studiously ignored by the Obama administration.  Instead, it has bent over backwards to avoid any confrontation with the Maduro government, even as it became more repressive and grew closer to U.S. adversaries Iran and Cuba.

Just two months ago, despite the spiraling conditions in Venezuela, Secretary of State John Kerry told the Miami Herald that he was prepared to restart bilateral talks with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua proposed last June. Those talks never got off the ground after Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats, including the chargé (the U.S. has no ambassador in Caracas), who he accused of trying to destabilize his government. (Three more U.S. diplomats were expelled  last week; after a decade of expulsions, it is a wonder there are any left to expel.)

Undaunted, Secretary Kerry told the Herald, "We are ready and willing, and we are open to improving that relationship [with Venezuela]," and that, "we've been disappointed that the Maduro government has not been as ready to move with us and to engage, and that it seems to take more pleasure in perpetuating the sort of differences that we don't think really exist."  For good measure, he added, "The United States has not been involved in one (single) effort to deal negatively with the Maduro government."

And the result has been...? A defiant Maduro threatening to impose martial law and release "all of the military force of the country" against the opposition. 

From the administration's standpoint, no doubt their goal all along was to keep a low profile so as not to play the foil for the Maduro government and otherwise overshadow the democratic opposition's grievances. Additionally, they may have thought that at a less active U.S. approach would allow regional heavyweights such as Brazil to play the moderating role. The result has been failure: Maduro still calls the opposition lackeys of Washington, mocks U.S. diplomatic entreaties, and no other regional country has stepped up to help resolve the crisis.

There is a vacuum of leadership in Washington on Venezuela and Congress needs to fill it. It is time for a more pro-active role in U.S. policy in support of the Venezuelan people. Indeed, there is no shortage of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress who are not confused on the issue and what is important to U.S. interests. Not only do Venezuelans demonstrating in the street need to know that they have support and solidarity from abroad - bring some to Washington to testify - but Congress also has the power to levy sanctions should the Maduro government continue to assault and persecute its critics.  Now is not the time for policy nuance and misdirection; it is time for bold action that finally holds the Venezuelan government accountable for its abuses and lawlessness.