Fred Kaplan at Slate writes about how Leon Panetta, in his new role as Secretary of Defense, is charged with initiating large and rapid savings in the defense budget in the near term. The country’s pervasive and seemingly static economic woes mean that cuts must be made someplace, and the Democrats’ target of choice has always been the Defense Department.
My first thought on this topic is that, although DoD was not the recipient of any of the massive stimulus (I suppose ‘stimuli’ would be more accurate, as they came in bundles of +/- a trillion dollars – amounts that would make Everett Dirksen swoon), it is yet somehow responsible for finding savings after the failed expenditure of our patrimony.
The thrust of the article is that DoD must be seen to show perceptible savings, and quickly. Kaplan’s analysis is that cutting large new weapons systems will not show an immediate savings since the programmes are spread out over several years (e.g., in the first year of cancellation, only about 15% of the cost would be saved). Another good source would be the Operations & Maintenance (O&M) budget – covering all the incidentals that make the military run, and as a former budget chief for Clinton, Panetta would whittle away at that to some extent but not nearly to the point that it would matter.
Instead, such a savings can only be done by a rapid draw-down of personnel (another infamous reduction-in-force, or RIF), and since the Army is the biggest target, then it’s likely to take the biggest hit. The cuts in personnel would not be limited to the Army (the Marines, for example, are expected to draw down by over 20,000), but the ‘good news’ of Defense savings will be realised by turning out thousands of veterans into an already-inflated unemployed (and otherwise under-employed) population. (Today’s news announces that unemployment has risen yet again, to 9.2% – unexpectedly(!) – despite administration assurances that it would not exceed 8%.)
We should see some competing objectives coming to play here. In the Middle East, Obama seems to be heeding the purported advice of the misquoted George Aiken during Viet Nam, in that we should just declare victory and come home. He has announced that we will draw down some 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan by year’s end, with over 30,000 redeployed from there within a year. (I cannot help but think of a variation on ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’*.)
At the same time, General Petraeus is explaining how our strategy there is commencing a new phase. In the aftermath of the rout of the Taliban and installation of the Karzai regime at the end of 2001, effective control and security in the country was only around Kabul. The US and NATO forces began a policy of establishing control over the country in sections, starting with the north in 2006, then the west. We are confident that we have tackled the remaining and traditional Taliban stronghold in the south around Kandahar, and Petraeus announces a push now to the east, into the border region with Pakistan. Overtly, our goal is to eliminate the threat in that remaining region, but that can only be effectively accomplished by cooperation with our tenuous ally on the other side of the Durand Line. Covertly, we must play hammer and anvil by hammering the Taliban against the anvil of Pakistani operations on the opposite side. So we are to step up a final and most important push in the war while we are drawing down our forces? We are setting this up to be a very close run thing indeed.
(This cyclical, masochistic, bureaucratic idea of “do more with less” – after all, the bureaucrats will not be the ones who will suffer – calls to mind Churchill’s remembrance of a similar situation in the poorly-executed Boer War: “The British War Office of those days was the product of two generations of consistent parsimony. So utterly unrelated to the actual facts were its ideas at this time that to an Australian request to be allowed to send a contingent of troops, the only reply was ‘Unmounted men preferred.’")
As for Iraq, which candidate Obama claimed would see no more US troops after August of 2010, we have unilaterally declared that we are willing to keep 10,000 troops there after the end of 2011, a deadline for total US troop removal declared by the Iraqis and agreed to by the Bush administration. The Obama administration admits that Iraq has not asked for an extension:
Noting that Iraq had not asked yet for troops to stay, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said: "There's only so much time here available for the Iraqi government to make such a request. If they do, we will consider it. Otherwise, we are keeping on schedule."
Thus we are setting up the Maliki government, already sensitive to being portrayed as an ‘American puppet’, for an image of responding to a back-handed US directive about keeping troops in Iraq, well beyond a deadline that Obama had promised.
And what other areas loom that are ripe for conflict? We are still tied to a wack-a-mole NATO operation in Libya that staggers on after over three months, hoping that Qadaffi steps in front of a bullet. This is after Obama stated last March that the operations would last "days, not weeks". The end of Assad’s Syria is far more important to US interests than Libya, and if we were justified in getting involved in Libya due to potential threats to civilians, then would we be more justified with Syria, which is actually carrying out the killing of its protestors in real numbers? You know, Syria – ally of Iran, supporter of Iranian interests, supplier of Hezbollah and Hamas, suzerain of Lebanon, ex-site of the North Korean potential nuclear weapons-grade facility? And what of a potentially (and at this point, a likely) nuclear Iran, declaring that Israel should be “wiped off the map” – what potential for conflict exists there?
Are we going to simply acquiesce to these threats by taking our military option off the table, or at least seriously degrade our potential power to respond by this economy-driven downsizing? Does Obama intend to adopt a policy of “if you can’t beat them, join them”, just as we have recognized the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?
It is a Liberal axiom that that they must be seen to be doing something. We are being caught up in a ‘good accounting but bad business’ model that is likely to be precipitous and ill-advised. The military, and by extension the country, is again paying the price for poor stewardship of the economy and foreign policy flights of fancy.
*Barack Obama said
He’d fix Afghanistan.
He sent 30,000 troops and then he sent them home again.