“Strategy Wears a Dollar Sign”

July 11, 2011

With budget talks stalled and ambitions shrinking, it’s time for bipartisan agreement that defense spending, 55 percent of all discretionary spending and more than double what it was ten years ago, shares in the cuts. As Adm. Mullen has said, policymakers need to answer hard questions about military strategy, matching our means to our ends and securing our economic and national security.

Defense should play a significant part of any deficit reduction deal. It’s crunch time on the budget. As Real Clear Politics reports, “On Monday, President Obama and House and Senate leaders will head back to square one as they try to pare the deficit enough to avert an economic meltdown in August.” President Obama’s budget currently calls for a $400 billion reduction from projected – not actual — defense spending over the next twelve years. But as The Hill points out, deficit negotiators have been contemplating larger cuts: “[I]n the closed-door talks to raise the debt ceiling, larger Pentagon funding cuts have been seriously discussed, several sources said, putting the number between $600 billion and $700 billion over a decade.” Scaling-back the rate of growth in defense spending should be a mainstay of any deficit reduction deal. Here’s why:

Economic health is at the core of our national security. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen has said, “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” As a recent report from the Center for a New American Security explains, “Over time, the economic consequences of indebtedness may crowd out investments in a U.S. military that undergirds international security; render the United States more vulnerable to economic coercion; and erode America’s global stature and soft power. Relieving U.S. indebtedness demands preventive action by American society and government – including DOD.” [Adm. Mike Mullen, 8/27/10. CNAS, 2/11]

The defense budget has exploded in the last decade. As Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress notes, “The defense budget has risen in real terms each year since 1998. In the 13 years from fiscal year 1998 to FY 2012, the baseline defense budget (in constant dollars and exclusive of war funding) has grown to $553 billion from $374 billion – an increase of close to 50 percent.” [Lawrence Korb, 7/7/11]

The U.S. cannot buy perfect security. Korb further explains, “[N]o matter how much money is spent on defense, we cannot buy perfect security. So the president and Congress must always make choices about what threats are most likely and what are the most cost-effective ways to address them.” [Lawrence Korb, 7/7/11]

[Real Clear Politics, 7/11/11. The Hill, 7/7/11]

“Strategy wears a dollar sign.” Gordon Adams, distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, recently testified before the House Committee on the Budget that, “Much deeper reductions than those proposed by the administration are possible, likely, and can be executed with little or no risk to American national security if properly planned. The twelve-year, $400 billion reduction that President Obama announced in April is a very small step in that direction; it could be accomplished while continuing to provide growth with inflation to the defense budget. Deeper cuts are possible and likely. The Simpson-Bowles Fiscal Commission, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Rivlin-Domenici Panel, and the Sustainable Defense Task Force have all endorsed reductions between $500 billion and a trillion dollars over the next ten years. Even those can be accomplished successfully, representing something like 6-13% of the currently projected defense resources.”

“The key to a successful build down will be linking strategic and mission discipline to this need for fiscal discipline. This means setting mission priorities for the military,” Adams noted. “As Bernard Brodie, one of America’s great strategic thinkers, put it more than fifty years ago: ‘Strategy wears a dollar sign.’ A disciplined approach to both will produce budgetary savings and ensure that our military capabilities and global leadership remain powerful and well focused on core missions. This means making choices linked to a realistic assessment of risks, defining missions better connected to a more coherent strategy, and doing so within constrained resources.”  As Adm. Mullen recently explained, “I have said from the beginning that I think defense has to be on the table… I think a haircut, or everybody just taking a little off the top, isn’t going to work. I think we have to be very precise and focused in where we do take cuts, and they will come. I think when you go through a decade like we’ve been through, when you’ve had the money and you haven’t had to make hard choices, we have lost that. Secretary Panetta, the president, myself, the service chiefs, the service secretaries have all said: ‘We’ll make hard decisions.’ One of my goals is to make sure that we make them together.” [Gordon Adams, 7/7/11. Adm. Mullen via Defense News, 7/10/11]

Conservatives are split over military spending; questions linger about their seriousness on deficit-reduction. Politico reports, “The focus on defense cuts is splitting the GOP caucus, pitting budget hawks more willing to consider deep reductions against traditional supporters of military spending in the committees that authorize Pentagon programs and appropriate the money.” That split is tearing the caucus apart. Last week The Hill quoted a former GOP House staffer: “Robust defense spending and lower taxes have been two hallmarks of the Republican Party for years. And those two things are going to be in direct competition with one another” in the debt talks.

But as another Politico story out today explains, when it comes to the defense budget, conservatives’ seriousness about deficit reduction — and their willingness to move beyond rhetoric to action — begins to break down: “After months of tough talk, House Republicans ran away from defense cuts last week… In three days of floor debate, even modest reductions at the expense of military bands or the Pentagon’s sponsorship of NASCAR races to promote recruitment were opposed by the majority of GOP lawmakers. And the $649.2 billion appropriations bill, including $118.6 billion for wars overseas, sailed through Friday with only a dozen Republicans in opposition. When conservative freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina proposed to freeze core Pentagon spending at 2011 levels, he was run over by almost three-quarters of his party. A bipartisan compromise, which would have preserved an $8.5 billion increase, fared no better, getting just 47 Republicans – less than half the number that voted to wipe out the entire Food for Peace program only weeks ago.” [Politico, 7/6/11. The Hill, 7/7/11. Politico, 7/11/11]

What We’re Reading

Pro-regime demonstrators throwing rocks and eggs damaged the U.S. embassy in Syria one day after the U.S. ambassador used Facebook to rebuke the government on Facebook for its crackdown on anti-government protesters.

The Obama administration is suspending and, in some cases, canceling hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the Pakistani military, in a move to chasten Pakistan for expelling American military trainers and to press its army to fight militants more effectively.

With the pace of democratic change stalled or staggering under violent crackdowns in the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco’s recent decision to alter its Constitution provides what some see as an alternative to the bloody confrontations that have marked the Arab Spring.

The White House counterterrorism chief briefed Yemen’s vice president on Washington’s push for a swift transfer of power in the increasingly unstable nation.

The foreign ministers of the Middle East Quartet, which consists of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, are expected to endorse President Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East, which called for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on the borders of a future state based on pre-1967 lines with agreed-upon land swaps.

President Barack Obama led the world in formally recognizing the Republic of South Sudan, giving legitimacy to that country’s declaration of independence.

Mexican officials blamed turf wars between some of the country’s most brutal drug cartels for a wave of violence across the nation that killed more than 40 people in three attacks, including 21 people massacred in a nightclub in the northern business capital of Monterrey.

An explosion has ripped through a naval base in southern Cyprus, killing at least 10 people, injuring dozens more and knocking out the island’s largest power plant.

At least 20,000 Malaysians defied government warnings by marching for electoral reforms, as police fired tear gas and detained more than 1,600 in the country’s biggest political rally in four years.

The UN’s high commissioner for refugees described the drought in East Africa as the ‘worst humanitarian disaster’ in the world.

Commentary of the Day

The Baltimore Sun editorializes that Republicans, who claim to be tough on terrorism, would rather take suspects like Somali militant Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame out of the federal courts, where the penalties are tougher and convictions easier to win, and put them in military tribunals, where the situation is just the opposite.

Greg Chaffin explains that Asia’s status as a significant future geopolitical center of gravity will require strong U.S. engagement in the region, particularly with Pakistan, despite current tension, as well as a willingness to change approach once the U.S. begins to withdraw its troops from the region.

Doyle McManus suggests that the Obama administration is trying to help arrange a slow unraveling of the Syrian regime rather than an abrupt collapse.

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