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Time to Discipline DOD: The Disappointing Perry-Hadley Report

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The struggle to discipline the defense budget and reign in the Department of Defense has begun. Growing concern about the deficit, combined with growing disenchantment at the ever-expanding global US military presence and the growing role of DOD in our foreign policy have combined to put this issue squarely on the table.

The latest round in this debate is the report of the Independent Review Panel on the DOD Quadrennial Defense Review. This report, chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former National Security Adviser Steven Hadley, is longer than the Quadrennial Defense Review itself. The following column on that report is one I wrote for the National Journal national security experts' blog, published today, August 2, 2010:

The Perry-Hadley report, for all its detail, is a great disappointment. It betrays the continuing "suspension of disbelief" already painfully evident in the report the panel was created to critique: the Quadrennial Defense Review. Instead of bringing realism and discipline to defense planning, the report simply "doubles down" on the QDR, calling for even more forces and more spending. The report willfully avoids three pressing national security realities.

The first is our looming fiscal crisis, which JCS Chairman Mike Mullen has called "our biggest national security threat." The report simply waives this issue aside; DOD planning, it seems to argue, must be done outside this context, as if budgets and the need for restraint did not exist.

Second, the Perry-Hadley report, like the QDR, assumes that all military missions are a priority, all are urgent, and the forces must grow to perform all of them. From counter-insurgency/stabilization/occupation/nation-building on the one hand, to a massive expansion of the forces for conventional war/deterrence/allied reassurance on the other, the report calls for more mission expansion, and, by implication, for even more funding than the unprecedented level of defense spending we already have today. There is, here, no realistic assessment of the likelihood of challenges, no prioritization of missions, and no discrimination about US choices and interests.

Third, the report, like too many of our national security documents, assumes that US strategy should be driven by a Manichean world view, where threats around the globe are ever more present, dangerous, and challenging. While it pleads for a "whole of government" approach to our security, the focus of that "whole of government" is intended to pull all the US civilian architecture into the dark hole of perceived growing global violence and threat, to support military planning and deployment, focusing our civilian institutions on the way DOD should see the world.

The report is wrong on all three counts. The fiscal crisis is real, it poses serious, long-term threats to American well-being and our global position. The only solution, as already experienced from 1985 to 1998 (when we hit a surplus) is for all parts of federal spending and revenues to be on the table, including defense. Defense budgets are now as large as any of the means-tested entitlement programs, and more than 55% of discretionary spending. DOD budget planning has been undisciplined for more than ten years, leading to massive growth in defense overhead, a uniformed work force nearly half of which has never been deployed, many of whom are doing commercial functions, as the recent Defense Business Board interim report made clear. Hardware program costs are out of control, with most being well above or significantly above projections, according to the Government Accountability Office.

It is time for budgetary restraint and discipline. Even Secretary Gates recognizes this reality, though the very small savings he seeks through management, structural, and overhead reforms are too easy to achieve and unlikely to reform an undisciplined institution. Defense budget reductions would provide such discipline and focus to DOD that it badly needs. And outside realities - the deficit reduction focus and the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan - are making such reductions necessary, even inevitable.

Second, the commission seemed swayed by headline writers but not by reality. Conflict makes good headlines, but the reality is that the US has never been more secure or less vulnerable to existential threats. Its military is second to none, vastly superior in capability and technology relative to any global power, including China. Global conflict, moreover, for all the battle reports from Iraq, is down, not up, as are terrorist attacks. Outside of insurgents fighting the US military in Afghanistan, the world simply does not seem full of the insurgencies COIN doctrine was invented to fight.

Oddly, the high level of US security has stopped neither the QDR nor Perry-Hadley from arguing that we simply must expand the military to be the cutting edge of US global engagement, deterring threats, fixing fragile states, fighting insurgents, countering terrorists, building states, restoring economies and all of this on a global basis. There is no discrimination here; every threat seems equal, every challenge is an American problem.

Historically, only imperial statecraft has assumed that all threats and challenges are the same and that the most powerful state has responsibility for all of them. But for the United States, clearly, not all terrorists are alike; not all insurgents matter to us, and not all weak states need an American intrusion to fix them. A more normal, discriminating statecraft would make those distinctions and lay out some choices. Neither the QDR nor the Perry-Hadley report is discriminating; neither of them make the choices that are clearly open to us. The end result is a set of missions and forces that constitute little less than an open raid on the Treasury and the taxpayer, for no sum of money would ever be enough to meet the open-ended needs they describe.

Third, the report, like the QDR, betrays, sadly, an all-to-common reality of US strategic planning. It is all done from a military perspective, and has been since the Nitze containment analysis of the late 1940's. The challenges we face are all described as military challenges, and the missions of the military now continually expand to meet new challenges - from nation-building to public diplomacy to foreign assistance to advice on how to govern to solving the energy crisis to climate change. There seems to be no end of the mission list and no end to the role of the military. This is what Adm. Mullen was worried about when he warned of "the militarization of US foreign policy."

The Perry-Hadley report continues this tradition. It certainly endorses a strengthened civilian national security architecture, but it calls for this, in the very first instance, in order to deploy civilians alongside the military. This is the "Iraq-Afghanistan" fallacy, which now permeates US strategic planning - all future wars will look like Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is important to be clear: in Iraq and Afghanistan the US intentionally invaded another country, in one case with a very large force, with the intent of taking down a regime. It then inherited the occupation of those countries, with minimal allied support, and found itself unready to be an occupying power.

Unless the plan is to reproduce such invasions, take down other regimes, and inherit an occupation, the "whole of government" approach advocated by Perry-Hadley makes little sense. It is not clear where such invasions are likely, not clear any other country would welcome them (especially given the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences), and not clear the American people are prepared to support the continuation of such a policy.

Creating a civilian capability to execute such a policy, side-by-side with the US military, is a mistaken enterprise, both expensive and unnecessary. Instead, the strengthening of our civilian institutions should be focused on the broader problems of development and governance, which are civilian issues demanding civilian-led solutions. The military should only play a secondary, not a leading role, in such efforts, and only when needed, invited, and welcomed.

This issue is one that needs to be urgently addressed by State and USAID in the context of the forthcoming Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. It involves strengthening the civilian institutions, while disciplining the defense institution to focus on its core missions and only the supporting role it ought to be offering civilian statecraft.

Perry-Hadley does not move the agenda forward; it is a step back from budget realities, from the urgent need for defense discipline, and from the real need for a civilian strategy for US engagement.

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