Forget the QDR

There is a lot not to like about the Quadrennial Defense Review, which comes out today (the National Journal posted a leaked copy Friday). Like past QDRs, this one uses vague, trendy ideas about international relations to inflate threats and justify our massive defense budget. As usual, we hear the evidence-free claims that non-state actors are getting more powerful and that the world is getting more complex and unpredictable (“change continues to accelerate”). I believe that states are hanging onto or even gaining power relative to other sorts of social organizations and that the world is no less predictable than it was in 1900 or 1950. The QDR also says that climate change is a national security problem. That’s a popular line, which as near as I can tell is a marketing gimmick. Then there the usual tripe about how great our alliances are, how strategic every country with a Marine in it is, how terrific interagency cooperation is, and so forth.

The good news is that it doesn’t really matter. Newspapers confuse the QDR with law, but it is closer to PR. It’s like a particularly important speech. It sells what Secretary of Defense is selling and justifies what the Department of Defense does. Because it comes in part from agencies it is supposed to guide, it rationalizes rather than leads. Because it is largely a consensus document, it says only what half of the Pentagon can agree on—various strains of mush. Can anyone explain what past QDR’s have accomplished? I think nothing. Sure, there are interesting tidbits about forces structure plans, but these are in the budget documents too. At best it causes DoD to justify itself, giving us analysts something to argue about.

The administration’s proposed defense budget, also being released today, matters much more to policy. It reveals more about the nation’s defense strategy than the vacuous documents that purport to do so.

Policy types love strategy documents because they are mostly technocratic idealists. They want government polices to be made by rational processes that reveal national interests, which are then laid out in plans like the QDR. They want policy to be like science. But democratic government is the push and pull of competing ideologies and interests. Public plans or strategies are part of that process. Congress should thank DoD for these mind-numbing 120 pages, throw them away, and focus on the budget.