Tag: robert gates

Cut (Really Cut) Military Spending

Today ForeignPolicy.com has a feature article examining possible “Plan B’s for Obama,” with contributions coming from numerous experts. My contribution to the feature is titled “Cut (Really Cut) Military Spending.”

It is time for President Obama and the administration to finally notice the increasing calls—from across the political spectrum—that the Pentagon’s budget should not be off limits when reducing the deficit.  From the Foreign Policy article:

Despite all the hype about Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his cuts of big-ticket military projects, the Pentagon’s $680 billion budget is actually slated to increase in coming years. This is unconscionable at a time when taxpayers are under enormous stress and when the U.S. government must reduce spending across the board. Barack Obama can save big bucks without undermining U.S. security – but only if he refocuses the military on a few, core missions.

The hawks will scream, but America will be just fine. Obama can capitalize on the country’s unique advantages – wide oceans to the east and west, friendly neighbors to the north and south, a dearth of powerful enemies globally, and the wealth to adapt to dangers as they arise – by adopting a grand strategy of restraint. The United States could shed the burden of defending other countries that are able to defend themselves, abandon futile efforts to fix failed states, and focus on those security challenges that pose the greatest threat to America. A strategic shift of this magnitude will not only reduce conflict and make the United States safer, but it will enable Obama to reshape the military to suit this more modest set of objectives, at a price that’s far easier for taxpayers to swallow.

Click here to read the full article

Obama Team Sounding the Right Notes on Export Controls

Certain headlines seem to re-appear in one form or another on a regular basis, such as “North Korea Threatens Military Action” or “Myanmar Junta Tightens Grip.” A leading example from the world of trade is, “Congress Weighs Export Control Reform.”

For the past 20 years, variations of that headline have appeared regularly, yet Congress never gets around to actually reforming our Cold-War-era restrictions on what U.S. companies can sell abroad. This week, in a welcome move, the Obama administration plans to announce administrative changes that will help to bring our export control regime into the 21st century.

As part of their constitutional duty to provide for the national defense, Congress and the executive have the legitimate power to regulate the sale of sensitive military products and technology to foreign entities. The problem is in the implementation. Export controls today cover products that have no real connection to national security, but the controls do make it more difficult for U.S. companies to compete effectively in global export markets.

The Obama administration has an extra incentive to reform export controls. In his State of the Union speech in January, the president announced the National Export Initiative, with the ambitious goal of doubling U.S. exports during the next five years. But as I pointed out in an op-ed a few weeks ago, our current export-control regime is a significant impediment to that goal.

The administration has been sounding the right notes. In a speech in April by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and an op-ed today by National Security Adviser James L. Jones, the administration has signaled that it will allow a wider range of products to be sold abroad without special licenses while more effectively controlling the sale of technology that really would pose a danger in the wrong hands.

The next few days will tell us whether this administration is willing to take the steps necessary to make the long-promised reforms a reality.

Korb and Thompson on Military Spending

Today’s Los Angeles Times features an op-ed by Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, and Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, that is worthy of attention. The theme, cutting military spending, isn’t particularly original. It has grown into a regular topic of conversation across the media spectrum, with the New York Times featuring an editorial this past Sunday making the case for real cuts in Pentagon spending, not the half-hearted cost-shifting that Defense Secretary Gates is busy selling these days. Ben Friedman and I wrote about cutting military spending in the LA Times a few months ago, and I collaborated with Larry Korb on this same subject at The National Interest Online. Nothing particularly newsworthy there.

Loren Thompson’s contribution is significant, however. Building on his entry at the National Journal’s National Security Experts blog earlier this month,he signals a willingness on the part of an established Washington insider to reconsider some fundamental propositions that have guided his work – and inside-the-Beltway thinking – for years.

One of Lexington’s bread-and-butter issues has been finding ways to grow the military budget. I don’t expect that to change entirely. Perhaps now, however, the focus will be on steering a finite and shrinking military budget to particularly worthwhile projects, and jettisoning the force structure that serves decidedly unnecessary or unwise missions (e.g. invading and occupying medium-sized countries in Southwest and Central Asia).

A related goal is to give U.S. taxpayers a break, and get others to spend more for their own defense. In this vein, I don’t agree with all of their predictions. I doubt that the Littoral Combat Ship will have much of a foreign market with a price tag exceeding $600 million a piece (when one includes the mission modules that each LCS will carry). I likewise am skeptical that the Joint Strike Fighter will attract a lot of buyers if the price continues on its current path – approaching $150 million a piece. Some countries that had previously committed to the JSF program, including Denmark and the Netherlands, are now getting cold feet.

That said, the bottom line in the Korb-Thompson collaboration is spot on, and worth repeating:

The big question for policymakers is not whether defense spending will be cut — that is inevitable — but how global security will be maintained as the U.S. role diminishes….

It appears the only way this can be accomplished without encouraging aggression is to expect more of allies and friends. In other words, countries such as Germany, Japan and India must help fill the strategic vacuum created by America’s retreat.

[…]

The White House has already embarked on a series of initiatives to engage allies in more robust security roles while loosening the export restrictions that impeded arming them. These steps may have trade benefits for America, but their real significance is that America’s eroding economic might makes unilateralism too costly to be feasible. Washington needs to help overseas friends play a bigger security role so it can concentrate on rebuilding its economy.

Congrats and kudos to them both for setting forth such a clear and convincing argument for a dramatic change of course.

More on Phony Defense Spending Cuts

On Saturday the Washington Post published a letter I wrote chastising their editorialists for inventing defense budget cuts:

The Aug. 12 editorial “Mr. Gates’s rough cuts” and David S. Broder’s Aug. 12 column, “Gates’s budget warning shot,” applauded the defense secretary for his plans to cut spending even though the plans will do no such thing. As Mr. Broder wrote, Mr. Gates proposed closing the U.S. Joint Forces Command and shedding contractors and generals in the Pentagon’s employ. But neither piece noted that these proposals are part of a plan to shift some Pentagon spending from administration to force structure – not to cut total spending.

The impetus for the cost-shifting plan is the White House’s reluctance to increase Pentagon spending by more than 1 percent above inflation for the next few years. Rapid growth in procurement and personnel spending makes that increase insufficient to cover the military’s programmatic costs.

Bloated administrative overhead is a good place to find funds for that end. But taxpayers gain nothing.

Mr. Gates has requested substantial increases in defense spending every year that he has been secretary. He opposes spending cuts, even after the wars end, even though the United States now spends more on defense than at any time during the Cold War, adjusting for inflation. He openly hopes that these proposals to heighten administrative efficiency deflect pressure to cut spending. By pretending that these changes do so, The Post helps shield Pentagon spending from scrutiny.

The point is straightforward: Stop confusing reforms explicitly intended to prevent spending cuts with real spending cuts.

The Post, however, repeated the error that my letter complained about in the title they gave it both online (“Will the defense cuts do what Robert Gates says they will?”) and in the actual newspaper (“Scrutinizing Mr. Gates’s Defense Budget Cuts”). The editor has yet to respond to my email noting the irony.

I wrote more on the media’s failure to portray these reforms accurately for the National Interest’s new Skeptics blog. (Chris Preble and I have already discussed this topic here.)

The Post’s editorial page typifies the fawning coverage that the Washington commentariat gives Gates.  He has a knack for getting even otherwise discerning analysts to portray him as a pragmatist/ realist/ conservative even as he asks Congress to increase a defense budget that is already larger than at any point during the Cold War and advocates endless nation-building warfare in Afghanistan. The keys to his success, I say, are (a) appearing moderate in contrast to the rest of the foreign policy elites in his party, which is easy, (b) skillful management that distracts people from his embrace of policies that are not realistic, pragmatic, or conservative, and (c) eloquently saying things that contradict his actions.

Fareed Zakaria’s latest column, for example, asserts that the only two conservatives in Washington are Gates and the portrait of Eisenhower hanging in his office. Like many, Zakaria is taken with Gates’ recent speech at the Eisenhower library, which praised Ike for restraining defense spending and avoiding intervention in Vietnam. It was such a good speech that you can almost forgive those that fail to note the irony of Gates’ sounding like someone proposing defense cuts and exiting Afghanistan.

The Financial Times on Robert Gates

Kudos to the Financial Times (subscription may be required) for figuring out what most other journalists and editorial writers haven’t seemed to grasp concerning Robert Gates’s economy initiative at the Pentagon.

[H]is aim is not to cut the overall budget radically; it is merely to achieve savings in the military bureaucracy and thus, against a background of broader fiscal constraint, protect spending on new weapons and other outlays.  (my emphasis)

The reforms in and of themselves are “commendable,” the FT notes, but they don’t amount to very much in the grand scheme, and they therefore do not go nearly far enough. Indeed, as I and others have noted, U.S. military spending will continue to rise if Bob Gates gets his way. This isn’t good enough.

The FT editors agree:

The US needs a much more searching review of its military spending, one that aims to do more than merely curb its growth.

Anyone interested in a comprehensive proposal (three, actually) for substantially reducing U.S. military spending by revisiting the roles, responsibilities, and missions that are currently assigned to Gates’s department can find it here.

Bob Gates Against the World

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has again made headlines with a proposal to slow the growth of the Pentagon’s budget – already higher than at any point since World War II – by cutting overhead, waste and a top-heavy command structure.

The proposed shuttering of Joint Forces Command (Jif-Com) has elicited most of the press attention today, and prompted an impassioned plea from Virginia politicians, including Gov. Bob McDonnell, that the command remain open. Unhelpfully for Gov. McDonnell, outgoing Jif-Com head James Mattis (who will assume the title of CENTCOM), reportedly supports Gates’s decision.

But this isn’t the first time that opportunistic politicians have latched onto defense spending as a way to sprinkle economic benefits to their constituents, and at the expense of the rest of us. (In the same vein, Gates reportedly repeated his pledge to kill the entire DoD appropriation if it includes the unwanted C-17 and the alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter that some members of Congress continue to push.)

Leaving aside the predictable political wailings, the reforms that Gates proposed are neither revolutionary, nor particularly controversial to most objective observers. Politico’s Gordon Lubold and Jen DiMascio in their ever-helpful Morning Defense newsletter point out that “The cuts seemed to take several pages out of the Defense Business Board task force led by [Arnold] Punaro that recently recommended many of the same trims.” (For more on that report, see here.)

The true object of Gates latest round of economizing is to forestall calls for deeper cuts by a public frustrated by the high costs and dubious benefits of our military’s exertions over the years. Gates explained:

“What we need is modest, sustainable growth over a prolonged period of time that allows us to make sensible investment decisions and not have these giant increases and giant decreases that make efficiency and doing acquisition in a sensible way almost impossible.” (my emphasis)

But Gates either misapprehends or mischaracterizes the true source of the problem. U.S. military spending has grown for 13 years, 86 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars from 1998 to 2011. Claiming that uncertainty over future military spending impedes effective planning and creates waste ignores that relative certainty over ever-rising defense budgets has enabled the very waste and mismanagement that Gates now proposes to cure.

Gates also succumbs to (or, worse, propagates) the sort of threat inflation that has afflicted U.S. foreign policy for decades, and about which Ben Friedman and John Mueller have written much. Gates claims that the U.S. military needs to grow because the world is becoming “more dangerous.” More dangerous than what? The notion that a few hundred al Qaeda ragamuffins and their Taliban allies poses a greater threat to Americans than a nuclear-armed Soviet Union is absurd on its face, and yet we spend more on our military today than at the height of the Cold War.

This threat inflation distorts our strategic planning, and does more harm to our long-term security than too many high paid civilians in the Pentagon. Although Pentagon waste and excessive overhead is a problem, it isn’t the problem. The fact that we have too many flag officers doesn’t explain why the United States spends more on its military than every other country in the world. Rather, it is our overly ambitious foreign policy that needlessly wastes U.S. taxpayer resources around the world in quixotic enterprises to rebuild failed states, reform sclerotic political systems, hunt after terrorists, and otherwise defend other countries who should defend themselves.

Cuts in military spending – real cuts, not merely slowing the rate of growth – would impose some short-term pain on an overburdened military that has been used and misused by our political class since the end of the Cold War. A better solution would be to adopt a more restrained grand strategy, one dedicated to defending our security and advancing our interests, but that forced other countries to play a larger role in doing the same. Restraint would allow for a much smaller – and less expensive – U.S. military, and would result in no diminution of American security.

The Washington establishment is unlikely to embrace such a strategy any time soon, however, because it would impose some real constraints on both the military and on Congress, the latter of which continues to use the Pentagon’s budget as a vehicle for dispensing pork under the guise of making Americans safer.

Unhappily for Gates, but especially for our troops, cuts in military spending are likely to come without an attendant change in how our military is used.

Does McChrystal Rhyme with MacArthur?

Apparently not. Unlike Douglas MacArthur, Stanley McChrystal has tendered his resignation. President Obama should accept it, and move swiftly to put this unfortunate incident behind him.

This story moved so quickly that I wasn’t able to keep up. In the early morning, we learned that McChrystal had been called to Washington for face-to-face meetings with President Obama (aka The Commander in Chief), and Robert Gates (the SecDef who has built a reputation for sacking generals). McChrystal’s press aide was fired. By early afternoon, others, including those sympathetic to the general, were predicting that he would step down, or that he should be fired if he did not (Eliot Cohen “This is a firing offense”; Peter Feaver “This is clearly a firing offense”).

I won’t repeat what Justin Logan, Malou Innocent, and I said in our statements this morning. It is obvious that Gen. McChrystal showed very poor judgment, and this is not the first time. When his assessment of what was required in Afghanistan (More Forces or “Mission Failure”) was leaked before the president had settled on a strategy, the White House was furious. They felt that he was trying to bully them. Strike one. When he challenged the chain of command with his remarks in London in October, dismissing Vice President’s Biden’s preferred counterterrorism approach as “shortsighted,” Obama summoned him for a private meeting on Air Force One. Strike two. There was more than enough material in the Rolling Stone story to constitute strike three. And four, five, and six.

I urge people to read the story. It might be remembered as the article that put an end to Stanley McChrystal’s storied career. I wonder if the article might serve a broader purpose: undermining the already wavering support for COIN. Look past McChrystal, a man who has given his life to the military, and has much to show for it. Look at the enlisted guys who are just beginning their careers, or the NCOs or junior officers who are in the third or fourth tours (in either Iraq or Afghanistan). They’re growing frustrated. They’re in an impossible situation. They are fighting a war that depends upon strong support here in the United States, and that aims to boost support for a government that no one believes in. And while they understand COIN as preached by McChrystal, they struggle with the rules of engagement that COIN requires.

One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given. “Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force,” the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that’s like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won’t have to make arrests. “Does that make any [expletive] sense?” asks Pfc. Jared Pautsch. “We should just drop a [expletive] bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself: What are we doing here?”

I give up. What are we doing there?