The National Defense Panel (NDP) issued its report last week, and from the muted response the report has received, you’d think it was another irrelevant Washington blue-ribbon commission. Think again.
The composition of the panel is enough to spark intrigue: What happens when you combine President Clinton’s defense secretary and a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, often referred to as Obama’s general, with former vice president Dick Cheney’s national-security adviser and Mitt Romney’s senior adviser for defense issues? One might have expected acrimony. The result was the exact opposite: a consensus report that highlights the crisis facing our military and national security. One shouldn’t conclude that the consensus suggests that the panelists abandoned their political scruples. (Any of a number of them could be the secretary of defense or the national-security adviser in a future Republican or Democratic administration.) Rather, it reveals that the precarious state of the military and our national security is of such a magnitude that it transcends political differences and makes partisan affiliation irrelevant.
This doesn’t happen often in Washington, and it should alarm anyone who cares about national security. There are many takeaways from the report, but one that exists between the lines of the findings and conclusions is that, amid all the global instability and threats posed by rogue states, terrorist groups, and rising powers such as China, the biggest threat we face may be the way Washington has mismanaged the Pentagon over the past five years. The report suggests that, from steep budget cuts to bureaucratic bloat, we’re doing all the wrong things with our armed forces and, absent immediate action, we may not recover from these mistakes.
The NDP deftly avoids assigning blame for the shocking state of our military, though there’s certainly enough to go around for both the executive and the legislative branches. The NDP chose not to revisit how we got here, and that may be what enabled such a diverse group of defense experts to tackle some of the thorniest issues facing the defense policymakers, such as the amount of funding the military requires, the security threats and level of risk that the United States faces, and the type of conflicts we must be prepared to fight.
To the first question on the Pentagon budget, the so-called top line, the panelists are direct and to the point: The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, coupled with the law’s sequestration provision, constitutes “a serious strategic misstep on the part of the United States.” Thus, to the Republicans who voted for sequestration, particularly those who still think sequestration is a good idea, and to the president, who signed the measure into law, the report’s message is that the BCA and sequestration have not only “caused significant investment shortfalls in U.S. military readiness and both present and future capabilities” but also “prompted our current and potential allies and adversaries to question our commitment and resolve.”
This latter consequence — the impact that sequestration has made on our allies and adversaries — should resonate with anyone who has even a passing familiarity with recent world events. From Eurasia to the Middle East to the East and South China Seas, the world is ablaze with conflicts. America seems paralyzed by these events and unable to shape or influence outcomes. The implication of the report is that our weakening military posture is one reason that the U.S. no longer figures prominently in the calculus of our allies and, most alarmingly, our adversaries. To be sure, military strength is not a replacement for foreign policy or leadership, but it is the stick that Roosevelt famously carried, and, according to the panel, that stick is shrinking at an alarming rate.
Only a couple of years after the White House and the Pentagon decide to reduce the size and capabilities of the armed services, world events quickly reveal the fallacy of such budget-driven decisions: The examples of this are countless. Whether the issue is a complete withdrawal from Iraq that has now boomeranged, with U.S. advisers back in Baghdad and U.S. targeted airstrikes in northern Iraq, or a reduction of forces in Europe that appears to be in reversal in light of Russian aggression in Ukraine, the report successfully argues that the U.S. does not have a strategy or force structure in place to accomplish the missions it will continue to task the military.
Simply saying sequestration is weakening our military and that it invites risk is not a novel claim. In fact, the military service chiefs have been warning of that with greater urgency for the past few years. What is new is that the panel recommends that the military undergo a robust rebuilding program, that Congress immediately pass emergency appropriations to restore military readiness, that the Pentagon receive funding at pre-BCA levels (over $100B more a year), and that when the military rebuilds it should tailor itself in a manner that conforms to the current threat environment. So, whereas the Obama administration seemed to depart from fielding a force capable of prevailing in two conflicts, the panel, taking heed of the “worsening threat environment,” calls for a more expansive force capable of deterring and defeating large-scale aggression in one theater while simultaneously and decisively deterring or thwarting aggression in multiple other theaters. That’s military speak for fielding a military sized to accomplish a peace-through-strength policy.
Perhaps the lack of attention paid to the NDP reflects that few believe that the report’s ambitious recommendations can be accomplished in the current political environment. That may be the case for now. But hiding behind the political impasse afflicting Washington carries its own political risk. It’s neither hard nor alarmist to contemplate a crisis triggering a public outcry over the state of our military. And while Congress and a lame-duck administration might be able to avoid dealing with the legacy of sequestration and the recommendations of the NDP, candidates vying for their party’s nomination in the upcoming presidential-primary season will not have the luxury of ignoring the state of the U.S. military. Anyone who hopes to be the next commander-in chief would be well advised to heed the recommendations of the panel.
— Roger Zakheim is an attorney and a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. He is a former deputy staff director and general counsel on the House Armed Services Committee. Follow him on Twitter @Rogerreuv.