A budget strategy that courts disaster

A budget strategy that courts disaster

My colleague Kori Schake goes some way toward taking the administration to task for what it calls a new strategy. But she does not go far enough; her critique appears to postulate that the strategy is not new. On the contrary, in my view it is indeed a new strategy of sorts, and a very dangerous one at that.

This is, of course, a budget-driven strategy — after all, the DoD’s Strategic Guidance, which was released together with the president’s announcement, specifically states that the strategy "supports the national security imperative of deficit reduction through a lower level of defense spending." Leaving aside for a moment the question of how a reduction of some $50 billion a year will enhance national security given an annual deficit that exceeds $1 trillion, such an assertion leaves little doubt regarding the reason for a new strategy.

It should be recalled that the administration’s own Quadrennial Defense Review, written in the shadow of the president’s pledge to depart from Iraq, was committed to "maintain ability to prevail against two capable nation-state aggressors." Now, however, the administration proposes to plan for our forces to fight just one war, while being "capable of denying the objectives of – or imposing unacceptable costs on – an opportunistic aggressor in a second region" (emphasis in original document). What changed since the QDR appeared, other than the explosive growth of the national debt? What exactly does denying the objectives mean? Would we necessarily know what those objectives are? Where would we find the forces to deny those objectives if they were enmeshed in a major conflict elsewhere?

This budget driven strategy is a throwback to the discredited "win-hold-win" strategy that the Clinton administration proposed early in its first term. At that time, it quickly became clear that the strategy could not work. There was no way of knowing whether forces engaged in one combat theater could be freed to fight in another theater, and, even if they could be freed, whether they could arrive in a timely fashion to defeat the enemy.

The Obama administration does not even offer the pretense of "holding" an enemy. The troops fighting elsewhere will somehow miraculously arrive in time to fight a second war. But our forces are not the cavalry in a 1940s Western. With the cuts that are being proposed, there is no way that they can arrive in time to fight a second war, assuming there are enough of them to do so. As for our enemies, it is a virtual certainty that they would do all they could to ensure that our forces do not arrive in time and, indeed, would exploit American preoccupation in another theater to realize long held objectives of their own. North Korea and Iran both come to mind in this regard.

The new strategy asserts that "everything is on the table," meaning perhaps, that everything is subject to cuts. Given the administration’s concomitant commitment to preserve benefits and avoid a hollow military, it is clear that, in addition to force structure (which must mean the land forces, since naval and air forces have been cut significantly over the past decade), the acquisition accounts will be the bill payers.

There is nothing in the two regional contingency strategies that needs fixing. We have potential and real enemies in several theaters, and encountered difficulties conducting two wars in the same regional theater. What is needed is a focus on accounts that the administration shies away from: civilian personnel, staff augmentation contractors (which Robert Gates identified as a major budget concern) military retirement, and military entitlements. The latter have grown as much, if not more quickly, than civilian entitlements and both need to be ratcheted back.

The administration itself acknowledges that the world remains a dangerous place. It wants to maintain its commitments to Europe and NATO, and to the Middle East, and to our Asian allies and friends. It wants to do so with a strategy and budget priorities that belie its high flown pronouncements. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs asserts that the new strategy accepts more risk. That is quite the understatement. This is not a strategy that merely invites risk, it is one that courts disaster.