Shadow Government

Three Ways the Islamic State Is Turning Things Upside Down

Reading the voluminous news and commentary on the Islamic State (IS), I was struck by how the rapidly unfolding events seem to be disrupting many familiar patterns.

Let me note just three.

First, usually administrations figure out what they intend to do about a threat and then calibrate their messaging and description of that threat accordingly. Yes, they first do an even more preliminary step in private: assess the threat to decide what they should do. But once they have decided what to do, the public messaging usually is proportional to the action undertaken. If they are determined to confront the threat with all means necessary, they might call it a "grave threat to peace." If they are not going to take military action against it, they might dismiss the threat as the "jayvee" team. In the latter case, critics of the administration might challenge that assessment and describe the threat in more alarming terms, with the administration pushing back to defend a rhetorical line closer to the actions the administration is willing to undertake. What is more rare is what we are witnessing right now: The most alarming rhetoric about the threat posed by IS is from senior members of the administration itself, beginning with President Obama, yet this is a president (and therefore an administration) that has also repeatedly set very sharp limits about what action it will take. The gap between the administration's description of the threat and its response to the threat was already wide, but seems to be growing by the day.

The gap problem is compounded by a lack of clarity over objectives. Is the goal to "halt" and "contain" IS's advances in Iraq? Is it to "degrade" IS's strength? Is it to "defeat" IS? Or is it to "destroy" it? The administration has referenced all of those goals at one point or other and they mean very different things to the military. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear that the more demanding task of "defeat" would require attacking IS's Syria sanctuaries. That objective would certainly be proportional to the threat the administration says IS poses, but that is a far more demanding military task than Obama has been willing to embrace until now and so far there is little indication the president himself is willing right now to commit the country to that task. But if President Obama is indeed committed to more modest steps, why does the administration keep describing the threat in apocalyptic terms, and why does it keep describing more ambitious objectives?

Second, it is striking that both one of President Obama's most consistent supporters and one of his most consistent critics are praising President Obama's tactical moves in confronting IS. Within inches of each other in today's newspaper, two of the highest-quality columnists in the business, yet with very different track records of support/critique of the president, David Ignatius and Charles Krauthammer, praised President Obama for withholding military action against IS until now-former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down. That was certainly President Obama's intention, and he stuck with it for months -- much longer than I thought wise. But as I read the chronology, the president did not stick to that conditionality until the Iraqis met the terms. Instead, Obama acted before Maliki stepped down. Yes, he acted even more forcefully afterwards, but the initial airstrikes came before it was clear Maliki would step down. This is not a trivial quibble since it goes to the heart of what catalyzed what: Did American action catalyze Iraqi action or vice versa? How is it that two of my favorite columnists -- two of the very best -- could miss this?

Third, the mainstream press is now starting to make a bigger deal about the White House's awkward management of choreography and optics, this time the juxtaposition of his emotional remarks about the gruesome beheading and yet another round of golf. When even the New York Times is writing about it, perhaps it is time for the White House staff to rejigger the schedule so there is more distance in the president's schedule between the national security events and the social events.

Of course, IS's disruptions on the geopolitical stage are far more important, but the topsy-turvy in Washington is worth noting, too.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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.

ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images