The invitation came to me from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's Public Affairs Office to attend a "conversation" with Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the prestigious National War College in Washington. Although I knew it wasn't me they wanted to talk to, I sat in the audience to hear Panetta and Clinton in action, especially on the subject of my prime interest: the defense budget.
The "conversation," it turns out, was with Frank Sesno, the former CNN personality and currently the Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. Sesno took the "conversation" assignment seriously; although he boldly said that it was important to "ask the tough questions" -- just like a journalist -- he did no such thing. Lofting over shallow dinner-talk queries, Sesno chummed it up with Panetta and Clinton and permitted them to say anything they wanted without fear of challenge.
Clinton tended toward impromptu speeches on whatever she was asked about -- well articulated and forceful, much like she did as a senator at hearings where, rather than conduct oversight asking informed questions and following up, she would express her political points and neither seek nor reveal any new or deeper information.
Panetta was more subtle and single-minded. Although he comes from the same political background -- White House insider and Congress -- his answers were shorter and more softly stated, but they were directed at one and only one objective: defending the Pentagon's budget.
Sesno started the "discussion" asking about budget cuts beyond the $350 billion the Pentagon has already committed to over the next ten years -- saying "What's really at stake?" Panetta whacked the softball question hard: "Very simply, it would result in hollowing out the force," and "it would break faith with the troops and with their families," and finally "it would literally undercut our ability to provide for the national defense."
The bureaucrat moguls at the Pentagon, who currently preside over the largest defense or non-defense agency budget since the end of World War II, must have been delighted. After four years of sometimes tough guy Robert Gates, who fired senior officials for not toeing his line, DOD's high spenders must be elated to have at the top someone who has leaped so quickly and with such eagerness to defending their agenda.
The $850 billion cut that Sesno was referring to does sound like a lot -- if you are ignorant about the background and budget history. He offered no pushback and did nothing to probe Panetta's budget preserving agenda, to question Panetta's assumptions, and or even seek the data behind them.
Things didn't get any better when Sesno allowed the audience a grand total of one question on DOD budget issues. The individual Sesno selected asked about funding for foreign language training. Panetta dutifully said it was important and that he wanted to look for "creative ways" to protect it. Clinton gave a speech about it, and the remaining 99.9 percent of the national security budget went unaddressed.
Instead of this feather-stroking chitchat, consider the following:
If the Pentagon's "base" (non-war) budget were to be cut $850 billion, or so, over ten years, it would go down to about $472 billion annually, the approximate level of the base DOD budget in 2007. (This, not coincidently, is about the same level of a new round of defense budget cutting hysteria circulating in Washington in response to a just released memo from OMB Director Jack Lew.)
Using the Pentagon's "constant" dollars that adjust for the effects of inflation, that $472 billion level would be more than $70 billion higher than DOD spending was in 2000, just before the wars. Over ten years, base Defense Department spending would be almost three quarters of a trillion dollars above the levels extant in 2000. And, none of the additional monies to be spent on the wars would be eliminated.
At $472 billion per year, the Pentagon budget would be almost $40 billion more than we averaged, in inflation adjusted "constant" dollars, during the Cold War when we faced an intimidating super-power, the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact allies and a hostile, dogmatically communist China.
At the 2007 $472 billion level our defense budget would remain more than twice the defense spending of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Cuba and any other potential adversary -- combined.
The problem is not money. Under this so-called worse case scenario, the Pentagon would be left quite flush with money, plenty of it in historical terms.
The problem is that the Pentagon, as it exists under its current leadership, is incapable of surviving with less money. They quite literally do not understand how to face a future where the DOD budget exceeds any and all potential enemies by a multiple of only two.
Many -- including Obama's bipartisan 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a separate task force put together by congressmen Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX), yet another commission headed by former budget leaders Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) and OMB Director Alice Rivlin, and two alternative budget proposals from Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) -- have itemized how to save about $900 billion from the National Defense budget. The political landscape is littered with competent recommendations to remove many of the thick layers of hydrogenated fat from the Pentagon.
These proposals hit on many of the same soft spots in the DOD budget, such as the unaffordable, underperforming, years behind schedule F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The implied consensus on such ideas and on the approximate amount (roughly $900 billion) suggest that the slightly lesser $850 billion in Pentagon savings is not "doomsday" (Panetta's word) but quite endurable -- and would actually leave DOD quite flush with money.
But, it is unthinkable to Secretary Panetta, as it is to those who perform the enabling chitchat.