Shadow Government

Have Cuts in Defense Spending Hurt U.S. National Security?

The National Defense Panel originally was established by the Congress to provide a nonpartisan evaluation of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The members of the 2014 panel, chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and retired General John Abizaid pulled no punches in their assessment of the 2014 QDR. Their language bordered on the harsh, and their critique of the Obama administration's policies lacked all subtlety.

The bipartisan panel, which included Michèle Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy in the first Obama administration, and retired General James Cartwright, once regarded as President Obama's "favorite general" took the administration to task for emphasizing notions such as the primacy of "nation-building at home" and the utility of "leading from behind." To the contrary, the panel pointed out early in its report that the current international order "is not self-sustaining; it requires active, robust American engagement." Acknowledging that there is a cost to American global leadership, the panel nevertheless pointed out that such a cost was "nowhere near what America paid in the first half of the 20th century when conflict was allowed to fester and grow until it rose to the level of general war."

It has been widely recognized that the latest version of the QDR was merely a reiteration, sometimes verbatim, of prior administration documents that sought to trim defense posture and spending to conform to the constraints imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act and its sequester provisions. The panel underscored this point, noting that "the QDR is not the long-term planning document envisioned by Congress." In other words, the QDR had failed to fulfill its intended purpose, namely, to provide a strategic guidepost for the future.

The panel also reiterated what critics of the QDR, including this writer, had asserted virtually from the day of its release: that, as a result of cutbacks in defense expenditure, "our current and potential allies and adversaries ... question our commitment and resolve." Perhaps in order to preserve its bipartisan spirit, the panel did not add that administration efforts to cajole potential and real adversaries, while often showing a cold shoulder to friends and allies, have further intensified the deleterious impact of budget cuts on American credibility.

The panel highlighted the manifold threats to American interests worldwide. It pointed to Chinese aggressiveness and North Korean saber rattling in East Asia, as well as to Iran's ongoing quest for nuclear weapons. It noted that the panoply of threats to international stability and American interests also included those in Ukraine and Iraq that were emerging even as the report was being completed. Moreover, it explicitly identified the threat posed by "Islamic terrorism" a term that the White House has deemed taboo and that does not appear in any administration statement or document.

The panel underscored the incongruity of the administration's attempt to revive the discredited "win-hold-win" strategy of the early Clinton years at the very time when the challenges to American interests continued to multiply. Instead, it argued, the administration should modify the long-standing, and still viable, two-war strategy to enable American forces to prosecute a major war and cope with several other serious threats at the same time. To that end, it called for both significant increases in naval and air forces, no additional reductions to Army force levels, continued spending on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and modernization of the nation's strategic forces.

While concurring that savings could be found in streamlining acquisition, modernizing pay and benefits, and closing additional bases and facilities, the panel rightly noted that such savings would in no way cover the spending shortfall that the Department of Defense currently confronted with. Arguing that the administration had the wrong end of the budgetary stick -- "it is important to err on the side of having too much rather than too little" -- the panel called on the president and Congress to repeal the Budget Control Act and, at a minimum, to return to the spending levels advocated by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates prior to the BCA's enactment.

There is not much of a prospect for the repeal of the BCA, even some members of the panel acknowledge that it is fanciful to expect repeal in an election year. What is possible, however, is another, but more significant, exemption for DOD from the provisions of the sequester in Fiscal Years 2015, 2016, and 2017, until a new president is elected and can push for repeal of the BCA, something which the current incumbent is unlikely to do.

President Obama has had little to say about the NDP report. But despite his best efforts to prompt a change in U.S. defense posture, he has been forced to come to terms with the fact that the demand for American forces to defend the nation's interests has grown over the past few years rather than diminished. He has even been compelled to order combat aircraft once again to operate in the skies over Iraq, and to dispatch one thousand "advisors" to that troubled country. And he may yet find himself dispatching combat ground forces as well, thereby completing the reversal of his premature withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011.

Reality, however unwelcome, clearly has begun to force its way into the White House. The bipartisan National Defense Panel, which includes the president's own appointees, offers him a true strategic blueprint for coping with the challenges of today and tomorrow. It has made a major contribution to the national security of the United States and the president should both make the most of its findings and act quickly on its recommendations.


Shadow Government

5 Questions by Which to Judge Obama's Decision to Return U.S. Forces to Combat

President Barack Obama took a big gamble in recommitting U.S. forces into combat in Iraq's civil war. I think he made the right choice, and so do the American people (so far). Despite being told over and over again by pundits that they must oppose all uses of American military power because they are "war weary," ordinary Americans somehow seem to have overcome their collective fatigue to support Obama's airstrikes, albeit with obvious limits (see here and here). Those and other polls indicate that the public holds Obama's overall handling of foreign policy and Iraq in very low esteem, but they support the use of military power to confront a threat that Obama's attorney general has described as "more frightening than anything [he has] seen as attorney general."

So Obama clearly has the political running room he needs for this abrupt about-face in Iraq. Yet whether it is wise policy to join combat in Iraq once again depends on how you answer a few crucial questions.

First, is it plausible that we could by our action or inaction meaningfully lower the desire of the Islamic State (IS) to attack us? Some members of Obama's team clearly bought into -- and may be still buy into -- the view that IS had and has geographically limited ambitions: establishing a new caliphate in the Middle East. While this was an obvious threat to U.S. regional partners and allies, it did not mean IS would be interested in attacking the United States itself, provided that we stayed out. Is that a reasonable bet? Does IS view us as an enemy because we allegedly pursue a foreign policy of hegemony in the Middle East -- a policy objective that restraint advocates recommend we jettison regardless of IS -- or does IS view us as an enemy because of other values and global interests we hold and would continue to hold even if, say, Ron Paul were president? How far down the path of radical restraint would the United States have to go to be deemed "not worthy of IS hostility"? In other words, shouldn't we expect that a group that is committing the atrocities IS commits with abandon will always be implacably hostile to even the most restrained U.S.?

Second, is it reasonable to expect that IS will take a very long time to develop the skill sets and orientation of, say, an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, arguably the biggest threat to the homeland this very minute? Or is it more reasonable to expect that IS will fairly quickly acquire those skills? Even if you concede that IS will eventually pose a threat to the U.S. homeland, you could still talk yourself out of confronting the group militarily if you could convince yourself that it is a "jayvee" threat and it will take a long time for the group to develop "Kobe Bryant" skills. Obama candidly acknowledged that he had persuaded himself of this view until very recently. It is likely that until the last couple of weeks, he thought IS was a problem he could hand off to his successor a few years hence and would not need to deal with on his own watch.

Third, even if you decide IS wants to strike the U.S. homeland and is no longer a "jayvee" threat that can be disregarded, one can still opt against a military response if you believe IS can be deterred. After all, al Qaeda central decided to attack the United States, and look what happened to it: a dozen years of the Global War on Terror brought Osama bin Laden to justice and reduced core AQ to a shell of its former self. Perhaps IS will learn from this and decide not to risk attacking the United States. How big a bet should we make that they have learned the lesson of AQ and will refrain from attacking the "far enemy" (us) for fear of what we will do in response?

Fourth, even if you decide IS cannot be deterred indefinitely, does it make more sense to confront the group sooner when the answers are uncertain rather than later when the answers are obvious to all? The lesson President George W. Bush learned from 9/11 is that it is better to confront sooner rather than wait until threats gather, by which time they could pose even bigger problems. This led to Iraq. The lesson Obama learned from Iraq is that acting sooner can mean you act on uncertain or even inaccurate information. Better to wait until you have unambiguous and unimpeachable evidence, even if this means missing crucial windows of opportunity. This led to Syria. Which lesson is best suited to IS?

Obama's team has obviously been divided on these questions for months, if not years. But in deciding to join with the rising tide of war in Iraq, Obama clearly came down with answers that pointed to military intervention -- at least for now and at least in a limited way.

This raises a fifth question that will be answered in the coming weeks: Is Obama's military action sufficient for the challenge, or will more be required?

Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images