“Strategy” vs. Strategy in the Pentagon

The Boston Globe kindly published a piece I wrote about the lack of strategy guiding Pentagon spending, but gave it the somewhat misleading title and subtitle:  “The Pentagon’s Bloat: Accounting tricks and self-interested politicians ensure that US military spending will remain immune from any real ‘hard choices.’”*

The article doesn’t really bemoan bloat, in the standard sense of wasteful or inefficient pursuit of objectives. It complains about excessive objectives—our overly capacious definition of security—and explains the cause.

My argument is that it would be terrific if Ashton Carter, the new Secretary of Defense, and the military service chiefs were correct in their contention that they cannot execute the U.S. security strategy without exceeding the $499 billion cap that law imposes on 2016 Pentagon spending. They made that claim in requesting a budget that requires raising the cap by $34 billion or eliminating it, another $51 billion for war and relief from future years’ caps.

Our current “strategy” isn’t really one. Strategy, by definition, requires prioritization among competing threats and methods of defending against them. Our government uses that word to rationalize the avoidance of those choices. The primacy theory that best describes our approach to security is really a justification for a log-roll of disparate military interests and goals, most only vaguely related to our safety. A poorer state facing more pressing threats would have to choose among those objectives, which is what strategy does. Poverty demands choices that wealth avoids. And as realists explain, big threats unify preferences, lowering obstacles to strategy formation.

The United States has long been rich and safe enough to minimize choices among defenses and avoid strategy. So we get the phony, listicle sort: recitations of nice things that we hope U.S. military power might accomplish, justified as security objectives. That has the effect of conflating safety with values, and promoting a sense of insecurity.

I argue that the current austerity—the Pentagon budget is down almost 25 percent, in real terms, including the wars, since 2010—will not cause us to change course and pick among allies or region to defend, military services to fund, and possible wars to fight. My article’s subtitle notwithstanding, that’s not because of politicians’ self-interest, which, incidentally, is both desirable and imperishable in a democracy.

I blame three other culprits. One is the monopolistic behavior of the military services. If they competed more for each other’s share of the budget, they might offer alternative strategic concepts. Another is the beliefs of the Pentagon civilians who might encourage that sort of competition. They think interservice conflict is always bad, even though it can enhance their management ability, and embrace primacy. Elsewhere I explain why.

A third culprit is the shallowness of the current austerity. The cuts underway take us only back to about 2004 levels of military spending, and two-thirds of that is just declining war costs. So the pressure to make hard choices in the base (non-war) budget is limited. Plus the uncapped war budgets (Overseas Contingency Operations or OCO funding) increasingly include funds that belong in the base. That “accounting trick” pads the budget against austerity and the need for hard choices. Note also that OCO is, like the 2001 Authorization of Military Force, a tool of executive wars powers. Vague AUMFs provide legal authority for wars presidents want to start without further democratic check; OCO provides the funds. Because wars should be hard to start, we should get rid of both.

These factors lead me to conclude pessimistically:

With a trim here and an accounting trick there, the Department of Defense will muddle along its present course, while elected leaders justify it with paeans about American military power’s indispensability to every pleasant noun that “global” can modify. We that object might take solace in the fact that our hubris is a luxury that our fortune affords. Only blessed nations can worry so much about their safety while confusing it with everything they want.

*An article Justin Logan and I wrote for Orbis a few years ago includes a similar but more developed version of this argument.