Donald C. F. Daniel on Strategic Adjustment and the Benefits of Sequester

August 2013

The adverse consequences of hangings and budgetary cutbacks preoccupy those who face them. There may be no silver lining for those about to die, but there can be for those who must live with less. Cutbacks can force evaluation of priorities and the slimming of organizations whose bloat clouds institutional concentration and hampers agility. The DoD is one such organization: it has too many cooks concocting too many broths that either should be the responsibility of other elements of the US government or of no elements at all. Thus, the sequester can be a blessing.

The DoD is like most organizations; if leaders do not have to make hard choices, they will avoid doing so. Even the hard-nosed Donald Rumsfeld, a man with his own settled views, signed off on Quadrennial Defense Reviews that were criticized for their failure to provide the guidance necessary to choose between this or that entity, program, or provider of services. But such guidance would probably have been superfluous; budgets after all were rising dramatically and (over)matching the increases in demands levied on the DoD. The people asking the DoD to do more were understandably not interested in giving it less to do it with.

Secretary Gates struck the right tone when he did three things. One was to “re-balance” priorities to concentrate on the ongoing wars at the expense of preparing for wars against a future regional hegemon. A second was to cancel hugely expensive programs that were over budget and overdue. A third was to argue for a “whole of government” approach when evaluating who should do what to secure US national interests. He believed that the DoD had taken on or been assigned too many functions which were better suited to State Department, the Agency for International Development, and other civilian agencies. He even did something that many saw as an unnatural act for a department head: recommend to Congress that it re-program DoD moneys to the State Department so that State could better carry out the nation-building that the DoD had been doing.

Gates’ third initiative was the most important. How much of a blessing the sequester will be depends on how well our nation’s leaders (and not just the DoD’s) undertake to prioritize what they want for this country and to specify which department or agency is best fitted to carry it out. Those discussions have remained muted or in the background for too long, and that reality lessens the ultimate utility of the continuous stream of DoD budgetary studies, proposals, and commentaries coming out of the DoD, the Congress, think tanks, talking heads, and pundits. When national security experts (including former JCS Chairman Mullin) tell us that our most important national security priority is to get our economic house in order and that our greatest security threat is our debt, we should acknowledge that the defense budget is more tail than dog.

Too many Americans are not used to thinking that way. The Cold War conditioned many of today’s older Americans in particular (many of whom hold the reins of power) to overvalue the military instrument and to readily accept debt to pay for it—in other words to prioritize military needs over economic considerations. (Indeed, Vice President Cheney went so far as to argue that the Reagan years proved that debt did not matter.) Containment was the overarching national strategy that provided the framework for deciding on the priority to be allocated to the politico-diplomatic, economic, military, public outreach, aid, covert action and other ways to defend and advance US interest. But even then how to choose among these choices was not obvious. It hardly ever is. The original author of containment, George Kennan, was unhappy with the overemphasis (in his mind) on the military dimension of containment as advocated by Paul Nitze, Kennan’s successor as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. After the onset of the Korean War, Nitze’s conception largely dominated thinking through the end of the Cold War even when some Presidents—Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon (with heavy input from Henry Kissinger), and Jimmy Carter (up to the Afghan invasion)—sought to push back.

It was not until the Bush (43) Doctrine of preventive war (supplemented with democracy promotion) that the US had a grand strategy comparable to containment. Depending on one’s point of view, the Doctrine provided the ex ante rationale or the ex post rationalization for the strategically-disastrous Iraq War, but there was no confusion as to the centrality of the military instrument and the need to raise the DoD’s budget accordingly.

We are in a new era, and the sequester is nicely setting the scene to re-evaluate what we are about and how we should go about it. From a top-down perspective, we need for our national leaders to explicitly call for a national discussion. At the top of the agenda is the question: What are my country’s requirements? Reminiscent of Walter Russell Mead’s framework, should we give priority to a Jeffersonian emphasis on internal development and well-being? A Hamiltonian priority on international economic engagement? A Wilsonian priority on instilling American values abroad? A Jacksonian priority on the autarchic preservation of American honor and the achievement of military victory? What is the priority among them? How will we meet them? What ways—economic, politico-diplomatic, military, covert, etc—make the best sense and what are the priorities among them? Each way implies the generation and maintenance of resources and prioritizing among them. Generating resources in turn implies generating the capital to pay for them. In the best of all possible worlds, the capital would be there to allow the process to be top down only from requirements to resources, but that circumstance is rare and there must always be a bottom-up perspective: how much can I afford and how much must I trim my requirements? How much must I scale back on the ways on which I will rely? Which will be favored and within them which resources will I buy and to what extent? What bets will I place when making those choices? Where can I skimp in the purchase of resources in the hope that I will not regret it later? Alternatively how many contingencies—ranging from threats to domestic economic wellbeing to threats to our external influence—am I committing myself to respond to in the hope that I will never have to respond to too many at the same time? Indeed, how much is my commitment stance in any area more bluff than real, more hope than readiness?

The sequester provides an opportunity we should not forego.

Donald C. F. Daniel teaches security studies at Georgetown University. Previously he was Special Assistant to the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and prior to that he held the Milton E. Miles Chair of International Relations at the US Naval War College, Newport, RI, where he also chaired the Strategic Research Department in the College’s Center for Naval Warfare Studies.

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