Matthew Leatherman on Strategic Adjustment

July 2013

One of the Pentagon’s earliest and catchiest bumper-stickers for the automatic cuts of sequestration came from then-Secretary Leon Panetta during the first week of January 2012. If that cut arrived – as it did – the Pentagon would “probably have to throw that [strategy] out the window and start over.”

Eighteen months have come and gone with steady, uncomfortable murmuring about strategy but no definitive change. Most recent is Secretary Hagel’s July letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee. This tension is a reminder that politics drive budgets, not just strategy.

Top-line budget request decisions belong to the White House and, like Congress’ defense committees, it has its own political reasons for not acknowledging sequestration. Even if the Pentagon wanted to submit plans for matching strategy to sequestration-level spending, it likely couldn’t – the political system will not accommodate that conversation right now. So strategy stays where it is, sure to adjust because of the size of the cuts but not yet adjusted.

This is less concerning than it might sound.

A rudimentary description of strategy would be that it is a statement of goals, an ordering of those goals by priority, and a cut line demarcating how far down the list the US can afford to go. When less money is available, the cut line moves up and fewer goals are financed. The priority order of these goals should not change, however. Priority #1 always gets bought and, in accounts as large as the Pentagon’s, priorities much further down the list are just as safe.

Under any resource circumstance, though, there comes a point at which the money goes no further. This can become a problem if things falling off the list are essential for national defense, if the priorities are ordered unwisely, or if the cuts aren’t made according to the list. Today’s problem isn’t the first – our national defense doesn’t hinge on the savings margins at play – and the second issue is subjective. Instead our consensus problem is that cuts aren’t being made according to the list.

Sequestration is the obvious example. Applying a formulaic cut across-the-board isn’t strategic. But it’s not the only example. Secretary Hagel’s letter forewarned that “cuts of that magnitude” place “at much greater risk the country’s ability to meet our current national security commitments,” overlooking that strategy-driven drawdowns aren’t about holding current commitments constant and accepting risk everywhere. To the contrary, they’re about raising the bar so that goals our strategy prioritizes are unaffected and goals that barely snuck into earlier budgets fall away.

The Budget Control Act and the dynamic it has fostered between Congress and the White House are about the politics of taxes and entitlement spending, not defense. Even the most astute, realistic strategy won’t change that, and various political pressures aren’t permitting adjustment of any kind. But the way ahead is much clearer than Panetta’s “throw it out the window” statement suggests, or even General Dempsey’s more recent comment about a “redo.” Once Congress and the White House make a decision on handling sequester and the federal debt ceiling, the Pentagon can give us a clearer sense of how it prioritizes goals from the 2012 strategic guidance and which of the lowest will fall away.

Matthew Leatherman is resident fellow at the International Affairs Council of North Carolina and former budget analyst at the Stimson Center, Washington, DC.

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