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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Defense Insiders Lament Sudden Loss of Political Clout
Defense Insiders Lament Sudden Loss of Political Clout
By Sandra I. Erwin

Left: Eric Edelman, Center: Dov S. Zakheim, Right: Rudy de Leon

The defense establishment has been rattled over the past three years by the rise of tea party isolationism and hostility toward the federal government.

A precipitous loss of political stature has not only cost the Pentagon hundreds of billions of dollars in spending power but also has upended the military’s budget and strategy planning process. The Defense Department and its contractors have been buffeted by the uncertainty of where budgets are headed. The prospect of a trillion dollars in spending cuts and last month’s government shutdown only added insult to injury.

Washington insiders see the sudden turn of events and wonder why Americans are not outraged and embarrassed. And they question why American voters allow their elected officials to wreak havoc on the nation’s standing as a guarantor of global stability.

“It's not isolationism. It's ignorance,” said Dov S. Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller during the Bush administration. Voters do not seem to understand the damage that budget games of chicken inflict on the nation’s security and economic prosperity, he said Oct. 22 at a Foreign Policy Initiative forum in Washington, D.C.

FPI is a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes the role of the United States as a superpower.

“America's economic security, which we all care about, really depends on stability. And stability depends on the United States' ability to maintain its military capability,” Zakheim said.

The accepted consensus of the past 60 years has been that the United States is a global power that operates forward, is involved with allies, provides across-the-board deterrence and enjoys relatively stable defense budgets, he said. But a succession of budget showdowns that culminated in this month’s 16-day shutdown of the federal government has all but rendered that consensus immaterial. 

“Getting back [to the traditional thinking] is not going to be easy,” said Zakheim, unless voters make other choices at the ballot box. “Getting back is going to be the responsibility of the voters of this country,” he said. “Informed folks have to put the word out that you just can’t mess with defense. You can disagree about how many nuclear weapons you should have, or how many aircraft carriers” but not on the “fundamental fact that this country’s prosperity and way of life rests on its national security.”

The notion that defense issues should rise above partisan politics has underpinned the policies of U.S. administrations and congresses for 60 years, said Zakheim. “But if voters do not understand this and are fed all kinds of pap, [they are] led to believe that defense is just another budget item that gets traded off with entitlements,” he said. “This is a serious problem because they will elect people who believe the same thing. And I don’t think we can afford that.”

Eric Edelman, FPI director and former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, said the current situation should serve as a wakeup call. “Internationalists have gotten intellectually lazy in making the case for [the role of the United States] in providing global security,” he said. “We need a national debate about U.S. leadership.”

The traditional pro-defense coalition that existed on Capitol Hill —internationalist Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats — doesn't exist any more, Edelman said. “Most Blue Dogs have been defeated. And Republicans are deeply divided,” he added. “One faction believes defense spending is just like any other category of government spending and is perfectly useful as trade bait in budget negotiations.”

Although they stand for a strong military, Zakheim and Edelman would like to see the Defense Department better manage its still very large budget.

“The Pentagon is not managed well,” said Zakheim. “There are efforts to manage it well. But it's not managed well,” he stressed. “We have too many civil servants, too many contractors, an acquisition system that is so bad that we set up a new ‘rapid acquisition system’ to get around our own acquisition system.”

Something is fundamentally wrong, he said. Every undersecretary of defense for acquisition comes into office with a new set of buzzwords, promising to shake things up. “And nothing changes.”

Many of the managers in charge at the Pentagon are unqualified, he said. “We have defense agencies that are equivalent to Fortune 500 companies run by GS-14s,” he said. “Can you imagine a GS-14 running ExxonMobil? Or”

There is too much inefficiency in defense, he says. “We have to rethink how we manage budgets. These are budgets, despite the cuts, in excess of $400 billion a year. It's a lot of money,” Zakheim says. “We have too many facilities. … We have to get our arms around healthcare. We have to do something about the $49 billion a year we spend on military healthcare without hurting the people who signed up.”

The chances of having a reasonable debate on these issues are slim, however, said Rudy de Leon, former deputy secretary of defense during the Clinton administration. “How can we cross the aisle when the dialogue in Washington has moved from committee rooms and caucus rooms to blogs and talk shows where we focus on our differences?”

Photo Credit:
Foreign Policy Initiative


Re: Defense Insiders Lament Sudden Loss of Political Clout

When Zakheim was comptroller at the Pentagon cost overruns on the U. S. weapon systems were approaching or exceeding $300 billion.  He sure had a handle on things, and he wasn't a GS-14. He took the Tea Party Republican Party line by addressing healthcare as a primary problem with inefficiency in defense. C'mon Man!
Jim Nichols at 10/23/2013 2:07 PM

Re: Defense Insiders Lament Sudden Loss of Political Clout

Boo hoo - those playing empire has been put on a leash. Yes, there are still faint flickers of democracy left in this country - Bush didn't wipe them all out. So, get used to it - this country is going to be run to help its citizens, not the elites that want to play God with the world. We can return our focus to making a good living for the people who live here, not starving the populace so you can play power games and feel important.
Joe Dokes at 10/23/2013 10:55 PM

Re: Defense Insiders Lament Sudden Loss of Political Clout

Zakheim starts by blaming the tea party and isolationists, then completely destroys his own argument in the last five paragraphs.
He should stick to what he knows and avoid political talking points.
G. M. Waltensperger at 10/24/2013 12:40 PM

Re: Defense Insiders Lament Sudden Loss of Political Clout

I think this is the key line

“One faction believes defense spending is just like any other category of government spending and is perfectly useful as trade bait in budget negotiations.”

Having studied and experienced decades of half-measures in defense acquisition reform that, while often helpful, have repeatedly failed to force fundamental changes in incentives and accountability, I think this heavy-handed approach may finally succeed in forcing truly tough choices.  The fact that the Tea Partiers do not give DOD a pass is about the only thing that makes their position credible.....EVERYTHING is on the table, no sacred cows.
M. Lippitz at 10/29/2013 9:28 PM

Re: Defense Insiders Lament Sudden Loss of Political Clout

I have heard the comment from Generals, Admirals and Congressmen.  The greatest threat to our national defense is the national DEBT.

Defense insiders can deplore the actions and rise of the Tea Party - but - the TP is the only group in the country that is firmly opposed to a continued rise in the debt and prepared to so something about it.

Most tea party folks are very pro-defense but they know (as the Generals and Admirals do) that our greatest threat is the national debt.

Jack Armstrong at 10/30/2013 10:08 AM

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