Friday, July 23, 2010

Why the Obama Administration won't cut defense spending

Today's Times has front-page article reporting the first whispers in U.S. government that defense cuts may have to be part of any long-term deficit-reduction plan. The end note brings the assumptions precluding those cuts into into sharp relief.

First, the terms of debate. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has long spoken, written and acted on the need to reform Pentagon priorities and procurement practices and eliminate nonessential weapons programs, has called for real growth of 1% per year in the Pentagon budget. Gates does not envision any force reduction, and personnel costs account for two thirds of the Pentagon budget. Some budget planners are beginning to talk about reductions in "end strength" (total personnel) once Obama begins reducing troops in Afghanistan.

Why not? The U.S. significantly reduced military spending during the Clinton years. Outgoing budget director Peter Orzag responds:
“During the end of the cold war, one could imagine a significant downsizing of the American military,” Mr. Orszag said. “That is a fundamentally different proposition than the situation we find ourselves in today.”
Why is our situation "fundamentally different" today?  Gates himself has stressed that we will not face any significant major-power competition in the foreseeable future. He wants the money for the kinds of war we are in -- without apparent end. Here's what he told the Heritage Foundation about major-power competition in May 2008:

Today, rising and resurgent powers with new wealth and ambition are pursuing military modernization programs. They must be watched closely and hedged against.

But in a world of finite knowledge and limited resources, where we have to make choices and set priorities, it makes sense to lean toward the most likely and lethal scenarios for our military. And it is hard to conceive of any country confronting the United States directly in conventional terms – ship to ship, fighter to fighter, tank to tank – for some time to come. The record of the past quarter century is clear: the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon, the United States in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Smaller, irregular forces – insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists – will find ways, as they always have, to frustrate and neutralize the advantages of larger, regular militaries. And even nation-states will try to exploit our perceived vulnerabilities in an asymmetric way, rather than play to our inherent strengths.

Overall, the kinds of capabilities we will most likely need in the years ahead will often resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today...

I would stress that the perennial procurement cycle – going back many decades – of adding layer upon layer of cost and complexity onto fewer and fewer platforms that take longer and longer to build must come to an end...

It is true that we would be hard-pressed to launch a major conventional ground operation elsewhere in the world at this time – but where would we sensibly do that? The United States has ample and untapped combat power in our naval and air forces, with the capacity to defeat any – repeat, any – adversary who committed an act of aggression – whether in the Persian Gulf, on the Korean Peninsula, or in the Straits of Taiwan. There is a risk – but a prudent and manageable one.
Gates, who I would trust above all others to rationalize Pentagon spending structurally, is resigned to a "long war" of countless counterinsurgencies, large and small, that will keep our military commitments growing, however slowly:
What has been called the “Long War” is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity. This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There are no exit strategies (West Point, April 2008).

It is true that for the long term, he has stressed seeking nonmilitary approaches to states where terror might breed:
Where possible, U.S. strategy is to employ indirect approaches -- primarily through building the capacity of partner governments and their security forces -- to prevent festering problems from turning into crises that require costly and controversial direct military intervention. In this kind of effort, the capabilities of the United States' allies and partners may be as important as its own, and building their capacity is arguably as important as, if not more so than, the fighting the United States does itself (Heritage Foundation, May 2008).
And again, from his Foreign Affairs article "A Balanced Strategy" (Jan/Feb '09; subscription required; link to my summary in second paragraph above):
What is dubbed the war on terror is, in grim reality, a prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign -- a struggle between the forces of violent extremism and those of moderation. Direct military force will continue to play a role in the long-term effort against terrorists and other extremists. But over the long term, the United States cannot kill or capture its way to victory. Where possible, what the military calls kinetic operations should be subordinated to measures aimed at promoting better governance, economic programs that spur development, and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented, from whom the terrorists recruit. It will take the patient accumulation of quiet successes over a long time to discredit and defeat extremist movements and their ideologies.

It is also true that Gates has been preoccupied with the enormous strain that ten years of intense combat has placed on the armed forces -- and that the U.S. will have at least 100,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan combined for a long time to come. Hence, it's hard to see how reductions in "end strength" can happen any time soon -- especially as Gates envisions a long string of similar, if smaller-scale, engagements.

To me, though, that reality, driven by the assumption that we're in a "long war" with militant Islamists, highlights the extent to which al Qaeda has succeeded. Not in building anything - -there is no real danger of an extended caliphate.  But in changing, damaging, endangering America -- by inducing us to change, damage, endanger ourselves. 

As I read through layer after layer of the Washington Post's encyclopedic overview of the metastasizing of the U.S. intelligence apparatus since 9/11 -- tens of billions in new money and dozens of new agencies created each year -- Osama Bin Laden's post-9/11 boast kept reverberating:
Here is America struck by God Almighty in one of its vital organs.

That proved to be true. The Constitution and the Federal budget alike are "vital organs" -- and both have been gravely wounded.  A two-bit Islamist militia, which is what al Qaeda is, scored one giant hit and scared the United States shitless. We've ramped up to beyond Cold War spending to chase mosquitoes, mowing down the cows they swarm among along the way  -- and in the process stumbled into two wars, instituted a torture regime, accelerated growth of a surveillance state that could be prelude to a police state, and radically unbalanced our budget.  The country has been bled white, its resources diverted into war and surveillance, its soft power drained, its civil liberties placed at what seems now permanent risk by one of its two main political parties' total investment in defense of torture and unchecked executive power, a dangerously large percentage of its population receptive to militarist demagoguery.

We cannot easily extricate ourselves from the commitments engendered by Bush's blunders -- invading Iraq, neglecting Afghanistan.  But is the "long war" as currently fought making us safer, or providing vital nourishment -- always inciting new hatred, spurring fresh recruitment -- to our enemies?

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