It's hard not to despair about the irresponsibility of politicians in Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon (suited and uniformed) watching the FY2014 budget process unfold. The good news is that for the first time in four years, the Senate passed a budget; the bad news is that budget never brings our deficit spending under control, much less develops a plan for reducing our national debt. The president's budget likewise elides the major national security threat to our country, which is our own inability to bring spending into line with revenue. And the Pentagon continues to operate as though their preferred outcome is all that requires planning for, to enormous detriment for our military strength.
The president's budget contains only $174 billion in deficit reduction, and would actually increase our debt ratio to a dangerous 79 percent of GDP. Under the president's proposed budget, federal debt wouldn't return to its current level until 2023, and that is contingent on the timeless budget mirage of spending now and discipline later. Even Steven Rattner, the President's "czar" for the auto industry bail out, concludes that "we will need to make more tough choices - tougher choices than we are inclined to make today -- if we are to avoid burdening future generations with massive unfunded obligations."
There's simply no way that Republicans will vote for a budget that so fundamentally ignores the problem of our national debt. Which means sequestration will effectively be our federal budget until either Republicans lose the house or Democrats lose the Senate.
The Department of Defense has likewise abrogated budget responsibility, turning in a budget that wholly ignores the reality of sequestration. DoD's $527 billion baseline budget doesn't even contain an excursion considering sequestration's effects, either repairing those from current sequestration or anticipating continued sequestration in FY2014. But it does contain a White House mandated $150 billion reduction across ten years (weighted heavily to the out-years, like all other cuts in spending from the president's budget).
Secretary Hagel is on the spot to defend a budget he didn't develop. His position will be made even more unenviable since the process of revising the strategy will lag by at least several months, and more likely a year. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated repeatedly that the strategy would be unexecutable if further cuts were made, and the budget Hagel submitted contains further cuts. Leading administration figures are insisting the pivot to the pacific continues and cuts have no effect on our ability to defend against North Korean provocation. Congress rightly wants to know what gives.
Hagel testified in contravention to his own budget, affirming to the Congress that sequestration will be taken into account. General Dempsey tried to square the circle, testifying yesterday that any further cuts would be Armageddon, but that the president's budget postpones any cuts for at least five years, so we can currently execute the strategy. Which might be true, if only sequestration hadn't already occurred and remains the likeliest budget outcome for FY2014, as well.
DoD will probably be given latitude to reprogram FY2013 money within the topline; if reports of a massive $41 billion reprogramming request are true, it will mean DoD is effectively operating without a budget. Congress will have allowed DoD to spend as it sees fit, provided it does not breach the sequestration topline. And that may be the best answer we can expect for the coming period of austerity.
But the Pentagon is held in higher esteem than other departments of government because of its reputation for planning responsibly. It has damaged that reputation with its last two budgets. The Pentagon ought to be much more worried than it appears to be about the self-inflicted damage to its credibility for not managing this time of austerity well.
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The Congress has consented, allowing Chuck Hagel to become secretary of defense, but not without badly bruising him along the way. It must also be said, however, that he bruised himself during the confirmation process. The odds now are slim that he will become a strong and capable secretary. In order to boost the odds of his success, he quickly needs to send signals throughout the organization that he can command respect. Here are some suggestions:
Learn to salute. If the picture accompanying Dov's post is indicative, Hagel's lost the knack since the days when he owed salutes. A crisp salute is a small but totemic thing. It conveys that you understand the culture and the institution. Despite his prior service, there are grave doubts about whether Hagel actually gets it. Because people are watching carefully and taking measure of the new boss, small gestures early on set the tone for a secretary. Les Aspin famously dismissed the ceremonial guard outside his office (which was about respect, not protection), kept people waiting, and his transition team told the military that "there's a new sheriff in town," instead of co-opting Colin Powell's Joint Staff. The first day of Bill Perry's tenure he ran meetings on time that concluded with decisions and applicable guidance that helped people predict the secretary's future judgments, and you could feel the building relax after the erratic and undisciplined tenure of Les Aspin. After Hagel's bungling performance during confirmation, little gestures of competence would send a valuable message to the institution.
Treat it like a business. DOD is a $600 billion a year operation with a highly-valued brand, a platform on which other businesses rely, and a deadly serious purpose. The administration did Hagel no favors installing him as secretary just before its budget is submitted. After alienating so much of the Congress, he will have to defend a budget he didn't put together. Even someone much more substantive than he would have a difficult time quickly mastering that brief and disciplining the building to keep a common front as significant cuts are imposed. If he cannot do so, the damage will be irreparable. The administration has given the impression it cares more about social issues in the military than it does about the core business of winning the country's wars, and that makes it harder to manage the military on other issues. Putting the nuts and bolts of effective management at the center of his early efforts would send a calming signal and buy him the benefit of the doubt for later.
Repair relations with members of Congress. It is an often overlooked fact that Congress really runs American defense policy. The Senate has abrogated its responsibilities to authorize and appropriate money for the past three years, and 41 members of the Senate did not consent to his appointment; those are strong headwinds. He needs to win them over, otherwise he cannot make a success of his tenure. He needs them to give him money, latitude to reprogram, to enact policies, to side with him over the chiefs when they make end-runs to the Hill. All the time-honored tactics should be employed: breakfast every week with the Big Four appropriators and authorizers, travel with him to their districts and to places that give them campaign fodder, phone calls to share news before it breaks, jobs for members of their staffs, naming anything that needs naming after them. As the secretary with the greatest Senate opposition to his appointment in the history of his position, he needs to do it more, better, and faster than other secretaries have.
Get the chiefs out of the budget fight. One of the most interesting things about this round of budget squabbles is that the active involvement of the chiefs does not appear to have changed a single vote in Congress. They are impotent to affect attitudes on a major national security issue. The chiefs loudly telling Congress that the cuts will be destructive has been seen not as our protectors sounding the alarm, but as shameless pandering by an over-fed bureaucracy that is exposing itself for the president's benefit. It goes without saying that this is terrible for the military's standing in society. President Obama is importantly to blame for this. During the election he ridiculed Mitt Romney for wanting to increase defense spending, repeatedly insisting that his opponent "would throw money at the chiefs they don't even want!" That created a sense in the broader public that our defense is well-funded. As a result, the chiefs arguments now that the saying the sky is falling seem politicized. If the chiefs credibility is that low, the secretary should disengage them from the fight. He should instead become the lead advocate, making their arguments and shielding them from direct involvement while they engage privately with legislators.
Get out of Washington. Visiting the war zones, visiting bases, visiting troops engaged in training other militaries is part of the secretary's job -- outreach to his constituents and being close to their concerns. The importance of fights in Washington will seem paramount (as they always do), but Hagel is unlikely to be the difference between a policy being adopted or not. First, because he clearly shares the President's views. Second, because the administration has already made its major policy decisions. And third, because he's hardly the towering presence of a Hillary Clinton on Bob Gates that must be taken into account. That frees him up to get out of Washington and see how the rest of the country and the rest of the world view our choices -- two elements the discussion in Washington too often lacks. Plus, it will remind him of the everyday goodness of the young men and women who choose to put themselves in harm's way for our country. That cannot help but strengthen any secretary.
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Last week's Senate hearing on Chuck Hagel's nomination to lead the Pentagon seems to have done a surprising amount of damage to Hagel's prospects. I say "surprising" because usually former Senators are accorded an extra measure of deference and latitude during confirmations by their erstwhile colleagues. And most observers had presumed that Hagel would have been prepared to make a more effective case for himself by assuaging critics and reassuring supporters.
Instead Hagel experienced one of the rougher confirmation days in the history of the Senate's "advice and consent." Part of the problem may stem from his lack of any political base of support. Most Republicans see Hagel as an opportunist who has been all too eager to advance his own ambitions by denouncing his party while regularly supporting Democratic candidates. Most Democrats also see Hagel as an opportunist who has been all too eager to advance his own ambitions by disavowing his past positions when politically expedient. While the vast majority of Senate Democrats at this point seem likely to vote for Hagel's confirmation, they will do so more out of support for President Obama rather than any great enthusiasm for the nominee himself.
Hagel's critics have marshaled a troubling litany of his past statements and positions. Even in areas where Hagel should presumably have expertise, such as the defense budget or Middle East policy and history, a closer look shows some deficiencies, as Gary Schmitt and Mike Doran among others have demonstrated. Yet one of the most persuasive cases against Hagel is actually made by his supporters. Consider this sympathetic article by Bob Woodward a week ago. Based on Hagel's own recounting, Woodward describes how Hagel in 2009 met with President Obama and told the new president "We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don't control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they" -- the military and diplomats -- "tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what are we using the military for."
Sounds like good advice, right? Sure -- but only up to a limited point.
Yes, asking questions and challenging assumptions is an important skill for a policy leader. It is also an essential skill for being a journalist (like Woodward) or a professor (as Hagel has been at Georgetown for the last few years). There are many policy lines and strategic assumptions in American national security policy that should be questioned. But merely asking questions is comparatively easy. It is a posture that can also be the intellectual refuge of the person who isn't sure what should actually be done.
More important skills for the role of an executive branch national security official are the ability to decide, to act, and to implement. This is one of the most essential differences between the executive branch and the legislative branch. As a Senator, and more recently as a professor, Hagel enjoyed a platform to ask lots of questions about American foreign policy. But as secretary of defense, he would have to start providing answers -- and making decisions. Running the Pentagon is an entirely different challenge than running a Senate hearing or a graduate school seminar.
Or consider this Wall Street Journal op-ed by Ambassador Ryan Crocker endorsing Hagel's nomination. Crocker is one of America's finest diplomats with an incomparable record of service, and unparalleled knowledge of foreign policy. His recommendations should always carry much weight. Yet in this case his argument for Hagel amounts to recounting a series of trips that Hagel took to several difficult countries, and noting in each case that Hagel "understood" the complexities of the situation. Absent is any evidence of any substantive policy accomplishments by Hagel -- such as legislation that Hagel might have authored or policies he might have shaped. Rather, in this account Hagel comes across more like a dutiful student than a seasoned statesman.
To be clear, the congressional responsibility of asking the right questions, and forcing the executive branch to answer them in public is an essential role. It is constitutionally ordained and in practical terms will lead to better policy. While the executive branch bears the brunt of responsibility for past American foreign policy failures (such as many aspects of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars), even a glance at that history reveals deficiencies in congressional oversight as well. And as I wrote just last week, Congress's national security role includes some policy creation and implementation responsibilities such as writing legislation and appropriating funding. I experienced this myself during several years of working as a congressional staff member, when Capitol Hill's scrutiny of the Clinton administration foreign policy revealed some deficient attention to international religious freedom and spurred the Congressional passage of legislation. But at the end of the day, it is still the executive branch that takes the lead on national security. It is not enough to ask hard questions. Executive decisions must be made and implemented, and the consequences of deciding on both action and inaction must be borne.
Perhaps the most telling verdict on Hagel's Senate hearing came, ironically, from a Democrat. Senator Claire McCaskill made the tart observation that "I think that Chuck Hagel is much more comfortable asking questions than answering them ... That's one bad habit I think you get into when you've been in the Senate. You can dish it out, but sometimes it's a little more difficult to take it."
Hagel has proven he can ask tough questions about policy. By confirming him, as seems likely, the Senate will be saying he can also answer tough questions and make tough decisions. For the sake of national security in these difficult times, I hope they are right.
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As Eliot Cohen rightly pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed, there is no correlation between military service and effectiveness as a senior government official. Cohen noted that neither Lincoln nor FDR had significant military experience, yet were great war leaders. One might add that Churchill's military experience in the Boer War had little to do with his later leadership of the military, except perhaps to convince him that he knew more than his generals, which no doubt was a factor in his urging the disastrous Gallipoli operation in World War I and his constant clashes with Alan Brooke, chief of the defense staff, in World War II. And then there is Jimmy Carter, whose naval background did not mitigate his mediocre performance as commander in chief during the immediate post-Vietnam era.
Chuck Hagel's ultimate record as SecDef likewise will have little to do with his service in Vietnam, distinguished though it was. If confirmed, Hagel will face some very tough challenges, even if the dreaded sequester does not come to pass, and it is on the basis of how he addresses those challenges, rather than his previous war record, that his performance as secretary will be judged.
It is all but certain that the cost of avoiding a sequester will be some level of additional defense cuts, beyond those already enshrined in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which called for $487 billion in cuts over a 10-year period. These additional cuts could amount to some $15 billion, perhaps more. Hagel will have to decide where those cuts will be taken.
Hagel has asserted that the Pentagon budget is bloated, but has not explained exactly what he means. The administration has already signaled that it wishes to protect the personnel accounts, even if the sequester were to come into force, despite the fact that those accounts have been steadily eating into available resources for operations, research, and procurement. Will Hagel at least try to push for limits on the growth of the Defense Health Program, which is approaching an annual cost of $60 billion? He has said little on the subject and would have to face a Congress that has resisted any real changes to health benefits for the military and their families. Will Hagel throw his weight behind the new commission on military compensation and retirement, which will address not only the health program, but the entire gamut of military benefits? Again, his position on the commission is unknown.
Many analysts are assuming that Hagel really intends to reduce the size of the DOD acquisition accounts. He has not indicated which accounts might be his target. With its announcement of a "pivot" to Asia and with instability roiling the Middle East, the DOD will already be hard-pressed to meet its commitments in both of those vast regions. Will Hagel nevertheless seek to further shrink the Navy and Air Force, likely to be the most active and visible services in both areas? Would that mean a significantly smaller carrier force and the cancellation of the program for a new manned long-range bomber? Will he attempt to further reduce the size of the Army? As chairman of the board of the Atlantic Council, Hagel has been especially sensitive to relations with Europe, yet the administration has announced plans to reduce land-force presence in Europe by two brigades. Will Hagel seek to reverse that decision? And will Hagel realize Russian President Vladimir Putin's dream by drastically curtailing the U.S. missile defense program at a time when America's allies have finally come to realize its importance?
Finally, would a Secretary Hagel opt for a complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, which most observers feel would at best prompt a renewal of the civil war that only ended with the American response to the 9/11 bombings, and at worst hand it right back to the Taliban?
The foregoing are the known issues that a new secretary of defense will have to face. Then there are the "unknown unknowns" that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld frequently cited. He knew of what he spoke: On Sept. 10, 2001, Rumsfeld told his Pentagon staff that the biggest challenge to the Defense Department was its own cumbersome management system. A day later he, and all of America, were confronted by a far greater challenge that has yet to be overcome.
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The president is closing in on announcing a new defense secretary and birds of prey are fighting over the candidacy of Senator Chuck Hagel, while people close to the president complain that there are no good candidates and Dems fear the president is undercutting their newfound respectability with defense voters by returning the Defense Department to Republican hands. But the president's priorities argue for a technically proficient executive that can intimidate the Department into compliance and the Congress into restraining spending and hobby horses -- a description neither Hagel nor the other preferred candidates fit.
If the president is simply looking to put the Pentagon into the hands of someone who shares his views on foreign policy, Chuck Hagel would achieve that aim, and with the sublime collateral damage of continuing Republican feuding. But it is unlikely to buy the White House congressional support on defense policy -- and that's crucial, given what the White House actually wants to achieve in the coming four years.
The national security community has a penchant for defense intellectuals, meaning people who work in DOD or NSC or think tank jobs creating and evaluating government policy. We are ennobled with the title "strategists." But very few of us are actually ever trained for or called on to match objectives to means. Just one small indicator is the paucity of defense experts who know anything about budgeting or think about the defense budget in the context of cost-effectiveness in spending -- its absence ought to be a disqualifying factor.
Moreover, the president doesn't need a defense strategy. Like it or not, he has one: winding down the wars and minimizing foreign entanglements, killing suspected terrorists by remote means, and training the military forces of other countries to handle their own problems. It is consistent with his broader national security strategy of investing in American domestic strength and rebalancing spending away from defense. If the president's strategy were actually implemented by the Defense Department, it would mean a genuinely revolutionary reduction in DOD spending and redistribution of spending among the military services, greatly to the advantage of the Navy and detriment of the active-duty Army.
But the president probably isn't going to force that revolution on the Pentagon. A hue and cry much greater than that which followed Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "transformation" would ensue (recall that the Rumsfeld revolution was achieved, to the extent to which it was achieved, by continuing to do almost everything the Services wanted while also increasing spending for "transformational" equipment and activities). Mostly what the president wants is all quiet on the defense front while he fights other battles, and that means a secretary of defense who can cut defense spending by at least $25 billion a year without a rebellion from either Congress or the military or activist groups like MOAA while also hedging against a catastrophic breakthrough in military capabilities by our potential adversaries.
If the trial balloon on Hagel is deemed insufficiently ascendant, the White House seems to have narrowed its fallback plan to two veterans of the Obama Pentagon, either Michele Flournoy or Ashton Carter.
Michele Flournoy is a genuinely wonderful human being. But her main achievements in defense policy are giving the president political cover for the "responsible withdrawal" from Iraq and keeping the Pentagon busy with a Quadrennial Defense Review that wasn't matched by Secretary Robert Gates' budget and has been repudiated by Secretary Leon Panetta's Strategic Guidance. Being a woman and holding a job ought not to count as an achievement.
Ashton Carter is a genuine defense intellectual -- a physicist and tenured professor of government at Harvard. He has the advantage of actually understanding the technologies in sophisticated weapons systems, did a solid job as the AT&L -- Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, the mainstay business of running DOD -- and was a favorite of that superb former defense secretary, Bill Perry. He is the best choice if the White House is choosing from within the administration. He too has proved largely unpersuasive on Capitol Hill, however.
The pool of talent is so much larger than the White House is giving itself credit for. They have set implicit constraining criteria that narrow the field to people who've held defense jobs and are already known/trusted by the president. But the president needs a rainmaker, someone who will be so respected within the building that he or she can make substantial spending reductions and command the respect of a majority of Congress while running a $600-billion-a-year business. The White House would do well to relax its constraints and consider the following six potential secretaries:
Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford. Running the only Big Three car company that didn't take a bailout should endear him to conservatives. He successfully negotiated unions to reduced labor costs with a finesse that will be essential to reining in military entitlement programs, and he sold off nostalgia brands that no longer made sense for the company (take heed, manned fighter platforms). He's an aeronautical engineer with a business degree from MIT, and he knows the defense business, having run Boeing. Putting the man who returned Ford to profitability by cutting costs in charge of the Pentagon in a time of austerity gives the secretary the advantage of arguing he knows how to do something the defense experts and military do not.
Paul Kaminski, former undersecretary for acquisition and technology under Secretary Perry. He has advanced degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from both MIT and Stanford, a military career distinguished by pushing forward technological innovations, and private-sector work experience in high-tech companies. He wrote a hugely perceptive study of emergent technologies, arguing for changes in our export controls that would allow us to capitalize on the work of foreign companies in crucial sectors of the next generation of innovations. If anyone can fix our procurement system and throw the red flag on underperforming or ill-aligned programs, it's Kaminski.
Warren Buffett, head of Berkshire Hathaway. We have done too little value investing in defense and we are slow to identify the enemy's advantages and minimize our long-term vulnerabilities. His letters to investors are masterpieces of educating your raters, which portends well for managing Congress. Picking winners is the Sage of Omaha's genius, which could be an enormous advantage when turned on the defense industry, emergent technologies, wars, and military leadership; Napoleon promoted his generals by that criteria. And God knows the president owes Buffett.
John Hamre, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and current chairman of the Defense Policy Board. Hamre is a Republican from South Dakota who was deputy secretary in the Clinton Administration. He is a superb intellect who dispenses difficult ideas with the grace of a genial Lutheran pastor handing tuna casserole around -- and he comes by it honestly, since he studied at Harvard Divinity School in addition to receiving a PhD from SAIS. Hamre was also ruthlessly effective as comptroller in "cutting off the oxygen" to those who wouldn't implement the secretary's priorities while still acting as a generous mentor to a legion of young government officials. He has Capitol Hill chops not only from a decade as a SASC staffer but also from the Congressional Budget Office.
Charles O'Reilly, professor of management at the Stanford School of Business. An expert on organizational renewal (with a BS in chemistry), he literally wrote the book on why successful organizations fail to innovate, which would be a hugely important perspective to bring to today's Pentagon. He advises companies on how to foster disruptive innovation and contributed to James Wolfensohn's efforts to do just that at the World Bank. A former soldier and great team-builder, his book Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) ought to be required reading for defense experts and would be the basis for DOD's rethinking of how to execute its missions in new ways.
Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico. A rising star among conservatives, she's a tough former district attorney who could command respect within the building even though defense would be a new portfolio. Being a governor is actually better preparation for defense secretary (and many other managerial jobs) than being in Congress. She would bring a border perspective to challenge the "foreign wars" perspective of our defense establishment, which may lead to better integration of homeland security and defense, a long overdue synthesis. She grew up a Democrat and could therefore be emblematic of the center of our politics, and would buy the administration a defender of their policies who is respected among conservatives. And why not make the advocates of small government take a meat axe to their favorite government program? It would help Republicans too by showcasing on a national level the executive abilities of a potential presidential candidate.
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The Obama administration has a civil-military problem and, I have reason to believe, they know it. Significant portions of the military believe the administration abandoned them on Iraq, sent them unsupported into battle in Afghanistan hampered by a politically driven timeline, and is jeopardizing national security with unsustainably deep cuts in military spending.
If Obama wins a second term, he and his national security team will have a lot of remedial work to do to repair relations with the military.
I think Vice President Biden made that job even more difficult with his remarkable comments in each of those areas in the VP debate.
On Iraq, Biden criticized Romney-Ryan for recommending that we have a 30,000 stay-behind force in Iraq. When Ryan pointed out that the Obama administration had actually been trying to negotiate a stay-behind force, Biden just smiled mockingly at him, as if Ryan were talking nonsense.
But Ryan was not talking nonsense. The official position of the Obama administration until late in 2011 was that they were seeking a Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) to permit a stay-behind force in Iraq. The exact size was in doubt, but the 30,000 figure was what the military wanted and the White House supported the concept, if not the exact number. The Obama administration wanted this for the very same reason the Bush administration wanted it: It was the best way to solidify the gains of the Iraq surge and to build a stable partnership with Iraq.
Biden knows all of this because he was leading the effort to negotiate the SOFA. Was Biden's mocking smile saying something else, perhaps that Obama was never seriously committed to negotiating a successful SOFA? Was Obama's decision to delegate this task to Biden a sign of how committed Obama was to it? Or how uncommitted he was? Was Biden's guarantee that he would get the SOFA just idle bragging from someone assigned a trivial task?
The U.S. military leadership believed they accomplished something significant in the Iraq surge, and they believed that the Obama administration wanted to get them a SOFA that would help secure those accomplishments. Did Biden tell them otherwise in the debate last night? Or did Biden, as Ryan pointedly asked, simply fail at his SOFA assignment, in which case the mocking laughter is beyond inappropriate?
On Afghanistan, Biden's comments were even more troubling. Let's set aside the extraordinary "mission accomplished" boast, a remarkable thing to say when American men and women continue to risk their lives under very dire circumstances in theater. Biden got away with it, and neither Ryan nor the hapless Martha Raddatz called him out on it.
Where things really got dicey was when, in response to the charge that the Afghan surge withdrawal timeline was driven by political considerations, Biden tried to hide behind the military. Raddatz pressed him on the complaints she is hearing -- we all are hearing -- but Biden dismissed it as nonsense. He pretended that the withdrawal timeline was proposed by the Joint Chiefs rather than imposed by the White House.
That is not true. The Joint Chiefs and the Afghan combatant commander did go along with the White House order, but they proposed a slower, conditions-based timeline and they certainly did not want it announced at the outset.
This is a very dangerous game to play. Because of the strong support for the principle of civilian control among our armed forces, civilians can and do make the military salute and obey orders the military think are inadvisable. Canny commanders-in-chief try to minimize those instances, working with the military to cajole and bargain them into supporting positions that they initially opposed (this is exactly what Bush did with the Iraq surge). But when the White House bigfoots a decision, as the Obama White House did multiple times on Afghanistan, it is the president who must shoulder the political load for the decision.
Biden knows, or should know, that from the military's perspective President Obama imposed an under-resourced Afghan surge, undercut it by announcing the timeline, and interrupted the last fighting season by accelerating the withdrawal. That was his prerogative as commander-in-chief. But if that policy is criticized, as Ryan did in the debate, the Obama White House must be honest about how it came about. Biden cannot pretend that this was the military's plan all along.
Biden tried the same gambit on the defense cuts: "That was the decision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended to us and agreed to by the president. That is a fact....They made the recommendation first."
Yet, as he surely knows, the White House came up with a budget cut number and then asked the defense department to come up with a strategy that fit under that number. The defense department did not come up with the budget cuts first, they came up with the strategy that they thought, barely, could be viable under those cuts. (Defense had come up with defense cuts on their own earlier, in the hopes that those cuts could be reassigned to more pressing defense priorities, but the Obama White House simply pocketed those cuts and then directed more.)
It gets worse. When Biden and Obama say "defense spending the military didn't ask for' that is incorrect since the military did ask for all that spending -- in the previous year's budget. Actually, Obama asked for it, since it was his budget request. Yes, the following year Obama changed his mind and he ordered the military to adjust to the lower cuts.
I am not sure there are enough Pinocchios in Tuscany to describe how misleading it is to order the military to accept cuts and then pretend that they requested those cuts.
And, dissembling aside, when you play political hardball with the military in that fashion it almost always leads to problems down the line. Serious Obama national security professionals understand this, but they don't seem to have any influence on what the candidates are saying.
Again, it is fully proper as a matter of civil-military relations for the president to impose cuts on Defense, and he can do it in whatever sequence he chooses. But he should not impose the number, receive the military salute, and then turn around and tell the American people that this was all the military's idea.
An administration enjoying strong and healthy relations with the military can probably get away with self-inflicted wounds of the sort that Biden's remarks produced. I am not sure this administration can afford it.
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A recent headline -- "State Dept. Advisers: Let's Cut Nukes Some More" -- left a deeply misleading impression about the work of the State Department's International Security Advisory Board, on which we serve. The Board is chartered to provide "independent insight and advice on all aspects of arms control, disarmament, international security, and related aspects of public diplomacy." The opinions expressed in this article are our own and represent neither the views of the State Department nor those of other Board members.
Contrary to the recent headline, the Board has not recommended further cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Some Board members would likely now favor such reductions; others would not, but the Board as a whole has made no such recommendation.
What is the source of the misunderstanding? The Board responded to a tasking from that State Department to "undertake a study of how the United States could manage a transition to a world of mutual assured stability." The tasking was a given. The logic of the Board's response was to outline the necessary prerequisites for the end state identified in the tasking. The report identified six essential, but not sufficient, preconditions for such a world, first in the context of U.S.-Russian relations, but also noting that other states would need to be involved.
As the report states, the six essential components require real achievements on cooperative security, transparency of capabilities and intentions, and mutually beneficial interdependence. In short, a transition to "mutual assured stability" would require profound changes in the world we inhabit today. Imagining a more secure and stable world is a worthy endeavor, but it is also necessary to be clear about what is necessary to achieve it.
The report leaves open the possibility that the conditions it identifies may not be achievable, and states that they will require many years and fundamental changes in U.S.-Russian relations if they are to occur. Those who find the preconditions identified by the report to be unrealistic will not find the end state described in the tasking given to the Board to be plausible. Those who believe seeking a world of mutual assured stability is feasible, will at least understand the significant preconditions that their policy goals will require. Either way, the Board's report has added clarity. What it has not done, is advocate further cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.