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On 3 March 2010, CounterPunch carried my critique of the Pentagon’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which was released in February. QDRs have a long history of producing rubbish, and President Obama’s first attempt was no exception. Indeed, notwithstanding the expenditure of tens of thousands of man hours and over a year of preparation, Mr. Obama’s QDR set a new low for ducking the hard decisions needed to fix the real problems afflicting the military, and by extension, the taxpayers who pay the bill. Recent events, however, show why it would be a mistake to consign the 2010 QDR to the dustbin of history. The QDR serves a useful purpose for the gamesters inhabiting the hall of mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac.
The players in the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex (MICC) regard hogwash like that produced in the QDR as essential weapons for waging their unremitting budget war to extract money from the American people. Sun Tzu would have recognized the QDR for what it is: a Cheng (a dazzle) to set up a Ch’i (a stroke). When I worked in the Pentagon, we had a more prosaic name for Master Sun’s timeless principle of using a distraction to set up a decisive maneuver: The QDR is part of a cape job to set up a phony debate over the need for ever rising defense budgets while putting the rest of the government on a diet (in a recession).
The 2010 QDR was one of the opening moves in a cynical budget battle that will probably end, temporarily at least, sometime before this year’s congressional election in November. The role of this particular distraction became clear at the end of July and in early August, when the congressionally appointed independent bipartisan QDR Review Panel, co-chaired by William Perry, a defense secretary during the Clinton Administration, and Stephen J. Hadley, a National Security Advisor during the reign of Mad King George, delivered its own sweeping critique of the QDR to the Armed Services Committees in the Congress. These committees established both the QDR and the requirement for a so-called independent review of the QDR for the unstated purpose of ensuring there would always be a head of steam to pump up defense budgets.
The Armed Services Committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate are the operational headquarters of the congressional wing of the MICC. Their members get reelected year after year, and with their increasing seniority, these members become ever more powerful and secure in their positions, because they use Congress’s power of the purse to shovel gobs of defense dollars to their home districts or states to pay for the vast array of contractors and military bases that sustain the domestic economic wing of MICC. Assignment to one of these committees, especially for a freshman, is one of the most sought-after plums on Capital Hill, because it provides a huge source of patronage that virtually guarantees reelection. As one highly moral congressional staffer explained to me years ago, the mission of the Armed Services Committees is to perform “overlook” not “oversight of” the torrent of dollars they unleash on their home districts.
The report produced by the bipartisan panel is aimed at helping the committees perform that mission.
It should be thought of as a follow-on effort to reinforce the original cape job by stating the obvious criticism, while also ducking the hard questions implied by that criticism: Namely, the obvious conclusion that the Pentagon’s QDR did nothing to head off the looming programmatic train wreck, because the QDR did not deal with the existing modernization, readiness, and force structure programs that are grossly underfunded. The only solution, according to the bipartisan panel: Send more money, and send it now.
Of course the committee’s report, like the QDR itself, said nothing about how this underfunding problem came into being, or why this problem is the inevitable result of the MICC’s deliberate gaming strategy to create a perpetual equipment aging crisis by the ubiquitous bureaucratic power games of front loading and political engineering. The panel cannot claim ignorance about these games, since one of its most prominent members, John Lehman, coined the term “front loading” at a Brooking Institution seminar in December 1982, when, as Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, he bragged that it was too late to stop Reagan’s naval buildup, which due to production lead times, had not yet begun, because in Lehman’s words, “we front loaded the budget.” Nevertheless, despite the intimate understanding of these power games by at least one of its most prominent members, the independent bipartisan review, like the QDR itself, provided no insight into how these bureaucratic games create a situation wherein the costs of ever more complex weapons always grow faster than the budgets paying for those weapons, even when budgets increase at stunning rates as they did in the early 1980s, and especially after 1998, when the defense budget almost doubled in real terms.
Like the QDR, the bipartisan panel ignored another self-evident question about underfunding: Namely how could today’s defense budget, which is clearly at its highest level since the end of WWII (after removing the effects of inflation), not be sufficient to pay for the modernization and support of what is clearly the smallest force structure since the end of WWII? Or by extension, how could such massive spending place the Pentagon on a pathway to what Mssrs. Perry and Hadley called a “train wreck” on page 4 of their 29 July statement to Congress?
Finally, like the QDR, the independent review panel was totally silent on the subject of how the Pentagon’s accountability and auditing problems make it impossible to sort out the details of the front loading and political engineering decisions that deliberately created the train wreck it now deplores. (Readers interested in these issues and their implications can find a comprehensive analysis of them in my June 2002 testimony to Congress.)
Therefore, by mirror imaging the data-free analysis and analysis-free logic used by the authors of the QDR, the bipartisan panel concluded the Defense Department (really the MICC) needs much larger budgets, both now and for evermore — even though the auditing shambles means the Pentagon cannot tell Congress how wisely it is spending the money it already has. Instead, the panel’s report subjects the reader to the following vapid bureaucratese on page 61: “Meeting the crucial requirements of modernization will require a substantial and immediate additional investment that is sustained through the long term.”
Of course, the authors of the QDR in the Pentagon could not mention the self-evident train wreck; nor could they make a recommendation for much higher budgets; nor could they mention the managerial implications of the bookkeeping shambles. How could they? To do so would be to undercut the budget and programmatic decisions they recommended to and maneuvered their boss, President Barack Obama, into approving. So the authors of the QDR took the greasy low road by simply ignoring the obvious, knowing full well that someone in the Congressional wing of the MICC or entity empowered by that wing (e.g., like the bipartisan Congressional panel), or in the mainstream media, would draw the Pentagon’s desired conclusion (no doubt with under the table help from operatives in the Pentagon) and do the dirty work.
That Mr. Obama is made to look like a fool is merely a cost of doing the MICC’s business, and perhaps he will learn the same lesson Bill Clinton learned: don’t mess with Mother MICC. In fairness, some of Obama’s political appointees, particularly those in the spectacularly incompetent policy shop charged with managing the QDR, probably did not know what they were doing and were merely duped by the far more seasoned military and civilian career operatives in the Pentagon. On the other hand, it is important to remember that placing incompetent political appointees into crucial positions is an artful part of the MICC’s gaming tactics.
Moreover, even though the report of the bipartisan panel exhibited no comprehension of the bureaucratic pathologies that created the train wreck it purported to deplore, it devoted Chapter 4 to a discussion of gaseous platitudes for reforming the acquisition system. Such disconnected promises of reform, based on a deliberate failure to connect cause and effect, are a staple of blue ribbon panels in the Hall of Mirrors that passes for a representative democracy with vigorous oversight and checks and balances. The promised reforms always embody the same shopworn snake oil to buy time as well as the acquiescence of the masses to a continuation of business as usual: Don’t worry about the past; history is not relevant, because the reforms we are putting into place will make the future different from the past. We urge patience, send the money, and trust us.
Of course, the unstated implication of this latest round of charades is that the Pentagon’s budget should be allowed to continue growing as usual … forever. The underlying idea is to increase the political pressure on a hapless President Obama to take defense spending off the table in the negotiations to reduce the deficit, under the auspices of yet another Blue Ribbon Panel with yet another hidden agenda. With the Pentagon off the table, the effect will be to Hooverize Obama by maneuvering him into cutting back Medicare and Social Security expenditures, but not the regressive payroll taxes that pay for these programs, as well as any economic stimulus initiatives the President may be contemplating.
That William Perry, a leading “greybeard” of the MICC’s Democratic wing, a man who has made millions moving back and forth through the revolving door between the Pentagon and the industrial wing of the MICC, is a co-chairman of the review panel making this kind of critique is particularly brazen. As Deputy Secretary of Defense (1993 – 1994) and Secretary of Defense (1994 – Jan 1997), he approved the acquisition decisions that front loaded the defense program of the Clinton Administration with all sorts of new, more expensive weapons. Those decisions (e.g., like the decision to front load the JSF/F-35 program), coupled with front loading decisions made just before his tenure during the waning days of the Bush I administration (e.g, the F-22 and F-18E/F decisions), deliberately created the pathway toward the disastrous train wreck Perry now says we must throw money at to prevent.
Moreover, Perry has the chutzpah to tell us that the only solution is to pump even more money flowing through all three wings of the MICC, although a doubling of the defense budget in inflation adjusted dollars since 1998 has clearly made the train wreck even worse than was predicted by the Pentagon’s own aging data assembled during his watch as Secretary of Defense. (An analysis, based on official DoD data, proving that Perry could and should have understood the long range implications of the “train wreck” problem while he was Secretary of Defense can be found in my 6 March 1996 report Defense Budget Time Bomb, which I produced as a member of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and submitted to my chain of command.)
All of this QDR nonsense goes to show that the name of the real game is to protect the MICC, or as the late American strategist and reformer Colonel John R. Boyd (USAF Ret) used to say, “People say the Pentagon does not have a strategy. They are wrong. The Pentagon does have a strategy; it is: Don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it.” The bipartisan review of the QDR, like the QDR itself, is merely a handmaiden to that strategy.
We tried throwing money at the Pentagon to fix its problems twice in the last thirty years, in the 1980s and after 1998. It is now indisputably clear that these spending sprees created conditions that worsened the pathway toward the deliberately self-induced train wreck. Adding more money simply repeats the process on a more destructive scale. When such behavior repeats itself over and over, it inevitably boils down to another of Colonel Boyd’s aphorisms: “The issue is now reduced to a question of incompetence, corruption, or both.”
On the other hand, there is one thing the bipartisan report on the QDR inadvertently proves: It is now time to clean out the MICC’s Augean Stables.
We know what does not work: Adding money
The only real alternative is to take away the money, and force the MICC’s decision makers to think before they spend.
We should freeze the defense budget, or better yet, reduce it each year on a glide path of one or two or three (or more) percentage points per year in current dollars until the Pentagon can pass an audit that provides decision makers with enough reliable information to sort out the mess deliberately created by the MICC’s front loaders and political engineers. This is hardly an extreme requirement; accounting for money appropriated and expended is an absolute requirement of the Constitution (re. Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7), which every member of the federal government has taken a sacred oath to protect and preserve.
There are those who will howl that we cannot take such a drastic action in time of war.
This claim is a red herring that approves trashing the Constitution to defend a country defined by its Constitution. Moreover, even if we assume we want to continue pouring money into those unaccountable bottomless pits, we could continue the policy of throwing money at these wars with supplemental appropriations, while putting the core defense budget on a diet.
Just how much money does that leave us to work with?
On March 4, George Wilson, the dean of Washington’s defense journalists, and one of the few journalists who actually understands how the Pentagon and Congress operate, analyzed the President’s FY 2011 budget and reported in Congressional Daily that Obama’s annual national security expenditures would total more than a trillion dollars, if one adds to the Pentagon’s core budget: (1) the costs of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere; (2) the defense related expenditures in the Energy, State, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security Departments; and (3) the defense share of interest on the federal debt. Of course that is an optimistically low estimate, because as Wilson implied, it assumes there will be no more cost growth.
If we placed the war expenditures, Veterans Affairs, and the interest expenditures off limits, we are left with $713 billion to work on and make accountable to the American people, which is still a larger defense budget than the comparable budgets for the rest of world combined.
Surely, $713 billion is a large enough stall in the MICC’s Augean stable to warrant a serious cleaning operation.
Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at email@example.com