Over at Danger Room I have a piece about a forthcoming report from CNAS on how to cut the defense budget. The report's most shocking section was one I couldn't really write about in the piece. It's a footnote.
The Tony Capaccios of the world may already know this. But to me, it was eye-opening. And it explains so, so much about why the means and the ends of national defense are massively out of alignment.
First, some background. Every four years, the Defense Department produces a congressionally-mandated strategy document called the Quadrennial Defense Review. It's supposed to be the master blueprint for the next four years inside the Pentagon. It sets out what the near-term geostrategic goals of the Defense Department are: what the immediate threats are, what capabilities the U.S. must field in response, and how the U.S. military's civilian masters see the opportunities to shape the U.S. security environment so those threats don't come back on us. Then it sets out the stuff the U.S. needs to buy and maintain: carrier battle groups for the Navy, stealth fighter aircraft for the Air Force (and the Navy and the Marines), Army brigades, etc.; their weapons; and particular areas on the globe to put them all. Among the most important reasons the QDR, as it's known, does all that is so the Pentagon can craft its budget for the next four years.
This year, something unexpected happened. In April, after the Pentagon crafted its budget, President Obama announced that the Defense Department needed to chop $400 billion out of its budget over the next decade. (Since the Pentagon will spend, unimpeded, $5 trillion over the next decade, that might not look like such a big number.) Outgoing Secretary Gates reluctantly said that the Pentagon would conduct a review of "roles and missions" to proritize -- and potentially jettison -- to guide the cuts.
Wait a minute, you might think. Why not just use the QDR for that?
CNAS' footnote finally provides me with an answer. "[C]ongressional legislation," the CNAS report announces, "prohibits the QDR from addressing [financial] constraints." See Footnote 28:
Pursuant to 10 U.S.C. 118b, each Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) shall be conducted so as "to make recommendations that are not constrained to comply with the budget submitted to Congress by the President." This stipulation was added in the [Fiscal Year] 2007 National Defense Authorization Act.
Aaaaaand that's my jaw hitting the floor. Congress specifically instructed the Pentagon to plan for the future without regard to the money necessary for making its plans reality. At the time, I thought the 2009 QDR was a pretty good document. Others looked at it and saw a wish list. Still others looked at it and saw an incomplete wish list. Now I see that those who considered it a wish list were quite literally accurate.
Imagine legislating that the Social Security Administration to design a retirement benefits package for everyone over 65 without regard for financing it. Imagine legislating that the Department of Education should support curricula around the country designed to boost science, technology, engineering and mathematics test scores to levels commensurate with Chinese students. (You can see I have no idea how the Department of Education works.) Imagine any social or domestic-policy program getting told to shoot the moon and not to worry about how to pay for it.
Update, 12:45 p.m. EST: Andrew Exum says I shouldn't be so excited about this, because it's the elected officials who should be telling the Pentagon how much money there is to spend & the Pentagon's job to say what it thinks it needs to do. Not really objectionable, but I don't understand why it's either/or. Elected officials should help the Pentagon set defense strategy. Defense officials should understand that strategy operates within budgetary constraints. Doesn't seem problematic for either group's chocolate to get into the other's peanut butter, since that's what happens on the back end of the appropriations process anyway.
This, however, I think I should respond to.
I also think Spencer gets it largely wrong in this Danger Room post as well. I am not sure why advocating for resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaigns to salvage what were rapidly deteriorating situations in Iraq and Afghanistan necessarily means that scholars and practitioners working at CNAS would continue to push for the same capabilities to wage such campaigns after a transition in Afghanistan. You might have needed capabilities and resources in 2007 that you will not need in 2017. If President Perry or whoever invades Iran, that may well change, but I guess I thought it to have been reasonable to assume we should invest fewer resources in our conventional ground forces and more resources in our air and naval forces after 2014.
Put another way, what is strong, pragmatic and principled defense policy one decade might not be so strong, pragmatic and principled the next.
I think a reading of my Danger Room piece will show that I describe the report's turn away from counterinsurgency in neutral, value-free terminology. It is newsworthy that a think tank that a few years ago served as the intellectual nerve center for counterinsurgency in D.C. put out a report that turns the page on COIN as an area of military focus. It's also newsworthy that a think tank so associated with the ground services would advocate that those services, and principally the Army, ought to be cut during an era of defense austerity. And that's why I crafted the piece the way I did.
I do not think a reading of my piece supports the proposition that I treated the "Hard Choices" report as a gotcha! moment for tilting away from COIN. Nowhere do I criticize the report for doing so; nor do I so much as put forth an argument for the continued relevance of counterinsurgency. Ex writes, "what is strong, pragmatic and principled defense policy one decade might not be so strong, pragmatic and principled the next." There's no argument with that statement in my piece. I suspect Ex is really arguing with CNAS' critics on Twitter, who leaped on my piece to snark at the think tank, but the piece itself doesn't actually give them the ammunition they might think it does.
Update, 4:20 p.m. EST and yes I know hee hee that joke is over: Much, much, much more from Gulliver. The wonkery seeps from the pores in this post. He argues that the footnote is actually wrong about the law's mandate for the QDR:
If we consider this language on its face, it makes perfect sense: the Congress requires the DOD to make a full accounting of what missions, capabilities, and systems are required to execute national strategy with a low level of risk in order to understand how much must be appropriated to that end. Of course, it's hard not to be cynical (aka realistic) about the whole thing and conclude that this mandate exists to facilitate the sort of military-legislative-industrial collusion that ensures near unimpeded increases in defense spending; if legislators require the military to lay out its "requirements" irrespective of administration funding priorities, they can hammer the president for imperiling national security by failing to adequately fund their favored defense programs. This is Congress saying to the Pentagon "do not take the president's guidance about future funding levels as an appetite supressant. Tell us what you need to defend the country and we'll worry about getting the cash."
I dunno, that's a pretty credulous reading. CNAS seems to have the right interpretation here.