Jim Mattis took a gigantic step forward when he testified Monday before the House Armed Services Committee about the state of America’s defenses.
He told Congress the truth: At a time of rising threats, America is disarming — and the defense-budget sequester is the reason.
Five years ago, Congress passed the Budget Control Act and sequester which, in simple terms, capped defense spending at a level at least $100 billion below the minimum necessary to preserve current readiness and prepare the force for the future. The cap was chosen out of thin air. There was no analysis whatsoever about its impact on the military, or the national military strategy, or the national security.
President Obama signed the measure, even though it cut by a trillion dollars his own administration’s defense-budget proposal, which he had submitted to Congress less than six months before.
Even for Washington, this was an astounding act of irresponsibility. It was exactly the wrong thing to do, at exactly the wrong time, and in exactly the wrong way.
And in any case, it takes no great expertise or scholarship to understand what is happening to the armed forces and why it is happening. The stupidity of the sequester was so great, and the consequences of it so foreseeably disastrous for America, that as my mother used to say, “a blind man could see it with his cane.”
Mattis couldn’t put it that plainly in his testimony, of course. But he did say this:
I retired from military service three months after sequestration took effect. Four years later, I returned to the Department and I have been shocked by what I’ve seen with our readiness to fight. For all the heartache caused by the loss of our troops during these wars, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of our military than sequestration.
Other secretaries of defense, and many chiefs of staff, have said similar things about the budget caps on their department. Mattis’s testimony was notable and needed, however, because he made the sequester the centerpiece of his remarks, and because he did not hesitate to place the responsibility where it belonged: on the highest level of political authority.
Mattis also testified about the steps that his department is taking to make sure that it uses its funding wisely and well. That was appropriate, but going forward Mattis must continue to put defense-management issues squarely in the context of the fundamental inadequacy of the department’s topline budget — the total amount appropriated for the armed forces.
Acquisition reform and personnel reform and base closing and auditing the books of the DOD are well and good; they will save some money, and what is more important, they will make the department a better warfighting force. But the secretary should not kid himself or his political masters that those reforms, even if successfully completed, will deliver more than a small fraction of the money he needs to execute the president’s defense plan.
They won’t. The secretary’s two top priorities must be, and must remain: a) getting more money, and b) spending money effectively so that Congress gives him more money. For the rest of his tenure, the secretary will have to fight like a junkyard dog for those priorities everywhere. He must herd the chiefs, rally the public, coopt the president’s inner circle, face down the Office of Management and Budget, and lobby furiously on both sides of the aisle in Congress.
Mattis was not wrong when he testified that America faces “a more volatile security environment than any I have experienced during my four decades of military service.” To be sure, reducing the risk, and restoring a margin of safety for the United States, will require the right policies pursued consistently and purposefully over time. It is no small comfort that Mattis has a say in determining those policies. But the policies won’t matter without power, and in foreign affairs, the first and most important index of American national power is the strength of its armed forces.
Jim Mattis has the position, the credibility, and the expertise to engineer a restoration of the force where he spent and sacrificed the better part of his life. He had a sterling career as a commander in the field. Now his task is to intervene decisively on a different battlefield. The fight may seem strange to him, but the stakes — for his country and his comrades — will be no less high.