Defense Insiders Lament Sudden Loss of Political Clout

By Sandra I. Erwin

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?”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Government Policy, Logistics, Procurement

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