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Musings on the Hagel Budget

Bryan McGrath

The Secretary of Defense spoke today previewing the 2015 Defense Budget, the first produced under his leadership. It is the defense budget of a declining power, and it represents the triumph of bureaucracy, provincialism, and gridlock. Much of it is wishful thinking, some of it is useful thinking, and some of it is a failure of thinking. But friends, I wish I could say that we deserve better. But we don’t. All levels of the process are failing.

The President is failing because he has not set a national security agenda, he has not described his vision of America’s place in the world, he has not treated national security issues with the attention they deserve, and he has not worked with Congress to solve tough problems and disagreements. His Secretary of Defense goes before the country and laments the difference between the Bipartisan Budget Act and the President’s 2014 Budget Submission, never once mentioning that the PB 2014 submission ignored the Sequester that his staff conjured and that he signed. The Sequester that looms again in 2016. His 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance had a very limited half-life, as the ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review and the Strategic Choices Management Review which predetermined preceded it appear to have made it irrelevant. He has managed foreign and defense policy from the perspective of someone who simply wanted it not to get in the way of his more important legacies, and his indifference has weakened our influence around the world.

Congress is failing because it is a generally speaking, a confederation of cowards and provincials, incapable of seeing beyond narrowly defined local interests and terrified of special interests. A pox upon both parties, as the inability to see the need to shed excess infrastructure knows no party bounds, nor does the inability to face down the Veteran lobby adhere to a single ideology. Some of my friends in the Republican Party have forgotten how national defense has defined us and instead, see defense simply as one more ledger to shave rather than as their most sacred duty. Their mania to cut spending has become an end unto itself, rather than a means to attain other policy goals. A unified and coherent Republican Party could have proven a more worthy negotiating partner to the President, but in our division lay his strength and our dysfunction. The Sequester may have been hatched in the White House, but it was nested in a large part of the House Republican Caucus. Neo-isolationism is on the rise on both the Left and the Right, and the abiding national security consensus has broken down. It is likely that it will someday be remade, but only after a great tragedy precipitates it.

The leadership of the armed forces is failing, because no one is willing to speak plainly, to say what they really think and then let the chips fall where they may. I think I see a glimmer of hope in the Chief of Staff of the Army, but this is only because his service is under the most pressure. Being cut less than others is the new measure of effectiveness in the Pentagon. I have yet to hear of a Service Chief going before the veterans groups and telling them that their lobbying and their intractability is creating hollowness in the active force. I have yet to hear a Service Chief go before Congress and tell them that their provincialism and their intractability saddles him with excess capacity, that he now must seek to compensate for in reducing benefits to the active force. I have not heard a Service Chief go before Congress and tell them plainly that their unwillingness to touch large portions of the defense budget is rapidly hollowing the military and rendering our country less secure. Our military culture does not seem to value the concept of resignation on matters of principle; perhaps the nation would be better off if it did.

On issues closer to my own interest, I find myself unable to comprehend the math behind Secretary of Defense’s statement that our ship inventory “…will continue to grow over the next five years to support the global demands for naval presence…” even as he seeks to place 11 cruisers with useful life into long term storage and cuts the LCS buy by nearly 40%. Perhaps he means a very temporary increase. If so, the parsing is execrable. Additionally, the logic behind his truncation of the LCS program — the suspicion that it lacks firepower—undercuts the suggestion that naval presence is globally demanded. Finally, it surpasses understanding to believe that the present requirements definition and acquisition systems will be nimble enough to come forward with a “frigate” —even one derived of an existing design—in time to prevent the continuing slide in the size of the fleet. We tried to build LCS in a hurry, and in that impatience have been the seeds of some of her early challenges.

And finally, there is we, the American public. We haven’t demanded better from our President and our Congress. We are told that we are “war weary” from wars that have touched very few of us and for which we did not sacrifice. We want to be the world’s most powerful nation, we enjoy the benefits of it, we take pride in it, but we don’t want to pay for it. We circle the wagons when we hear of compensation, healthcare and retirement reform, some of us because we have begun to internalize the feeling that we have earned all of it and much more, and some of us because we feel guilty that “others” do our fighting for us. We go to the polls and pull the lever for a man who tells us he’ll go to Washington and cut spending, and then return him to office for protecting an installation that simply isn’t needed, or for fighting to keep open the commissary that is down the road from the Wal-Mart, the Target, and the Acme.

There is still time. The decline can be arrested, and we can thrive again. We need leaders, and we need leadership. We need people who tell the truth, and we need to be a people who can handle it.

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