Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. military

Korea’s Lesson for Afghanistan

One of the more controversial issues in recent years when it comes to South Korea’s close relationship with the U.S. has been the transfer of wartime “operational command” of Korea’s armed forces to, well, Koreans. Ever since the establishment of a United Nations command, led by the United States, in the dark days of the Korean War, a U.S. four-star general has been appointed to lead both Korean and U.S. forces in wartime. Peacetime control of the Korean military returned to Seoul in 1994 and deadlines had been set–and regularly missed–to turn over wartime “opcon”: first in 2012, then in 2015.

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One of the more controversial issues in recent years when it comes to South Korea’s close relationship with the U.S. has been the transfer of wartime “operational command” of Korea’s armed forces to, well, Koreans. Ever since the establishment of a United Nations command, led by the United States, in the dark days of the Korean War, a U.S. four-star general has been appointed to lead both Korean and U.S. forces in wartime. Peacetime control of the Korean military returned to Seoul in 1994 and deadlines had been set–and regularly missed–to turn over wartime “opcon”: first in 2012, then in 2015.

Now, at the request of the South Koreans, the deadline has been lifted altogether for a “conditions based” approach that makes a lot more sense: in short, the U.S. will transfer opcon when the Koreans feel ready to assume it. South Korean officials have suggested that date won’t arrive until the mid-2020s. The Obama administration is to be commended for willing to allow the U.S. to play the lead military role on the peninsula until then.

Yet that raises an obvious question: if the U.S. stand-down in Korea is to be “conditions based,” why not in Afghanistan?

President Obama announced that he would reduce the U.S. force in Afghanistan to less than 10,000 by the end of this year and withdraw the troops altogether by the end of 2016. This is not conditions-based at all–it is based on a White House timeline that has nothing to do with on-the-ground reality.

The struggle against the Taliban continues to rage unabated. Just between March and August of this year, the Afghan National Security Forces lost more than 3,300 men–more than the U.S. has lost in 13 years of war. The Afghans are still able to hold off the Taliban, but only with continuing U.S. help. Withdraw the help, even as Pakistan continues its support for the Taliban, and the likely result will be a disintegration similar to what occurred in Iraq following the U.S. pullout in 2011.

President Obama can help Afghanistan to avoid this dire fate by extending to that country the same logic he has just applied to South Korea: namely, that U.S. troop drawdowns should be based on conditions on the ground, not on artificial deadlines dictated from Washington for political reasons.

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Defense Policy on Autopilot

President Obama has just sent 3,000 troops to Liberia to fight Ebola and 1,500–and counting–to Iraq to fight ISIS and hundreds, possibly thousands, more to Eastern Europe to deter Russia. Earlier he sent more than 150 troops to Africa to fight Joseph Kony and he keeps sending troops to carry out various Special Operations missions from Libya to Somalia. Oh, and he has committed to keep at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after this year.

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President Obama has just sent 3,000 troops to Liberia to fight Ebola and 1,500–and counting–to Iraq to fight ISIS and hundreds, possibly thousands, more to Eastern Europe to deter Russia. Earlier he sent more than 150 troops to Africa to fight Joseph Kony and he keeps sending troops to carry out various Special Operations missions from Libya to Somalia. Oh, and he has committed to keep at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after this year.

Everett Dirksen famously said: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” This line might be adapted to troop deployments: A thousand here, a thousand there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real commitments. While the absolute numbers committed in recent months are not great–and not as significant as they should be to accomplish their missions especially in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan–they are indicative of the continuing demand for U.S. military personnel around the world.

Yet what almost no one seems to be noticing is that even as the administration continues to deploy the military at a breakneck pace, funding for the armed forces is in precipitous decline. A series of budget cuts culminating in sequestration threaten to slice a trillion dollars in projected defense spending over the next decade, necessitating severe cutbacks in military strength–cutbacks which have already begun.

As Michele Flournoy and Eric Edelman–senior former defense officials under President Obama and President George W. Bush, respectively–wrote just a few days ago: “The provisions of the Budget Control Act and sequestration have already precipitated a readiness crisis within our armed forces, with only a handful of Army brigades ready for crisis response, Air Force pilots unable to fly sufficient hours to keep up their skills and Navy ships unable to provide critical U.S. security presence in key regions. Although last year’s congressional budget deal has granted some temporary relief, the return to sequestration in fiscal 2015 and beyond would result in a hollow force reminiscent of the late 1970s.”

The Army is particularly threatened by these cuts which are likely to shrink the active duty force from 510,000 soldiers today down to 420,000 by the end of the decade. The Army chief, Gen. Ray Odierno, has warned that going below 450,000 active duty personnel will result in an Army unable to meet even its most minimal commitments. “We have to look when enough is enough, and it is time to have that debate,” he said last week.

Yet what is striking is that we are not having that debate. Even as the danger around the world grows, Washington seems to be on budget-cutting autopilot. Democrats are more concerned about protecting entitlement spending, Republicans about avoiding tax increases. Neither party seems particularly worried about the potentially cataclysmic erosion of our military strength. If the current crises from Ukraine to Iraq are not sufficient to wake us up to the need to maintain a strong military, it is hard to know what it will take.

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Obama’s Not a Closer

The headline in today’s Washington Post says it all: “Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State.” Here’s the problem. The military wants to fight ISIS and Barack Obama wants to fight George W. Bush; and you can’t do both. Defeating the former demands action, defeating the latter demands inaction. Crushing ISIS means countenancing “boots on the ground,” but if Obama considers boots on the ground in Iraq his case against his warmongering predecessor falls apart. Or so he thinks. So we’re stuck in another contradictory Obama shadow show of bold proclamations, pussyfooting disclaimers, and substance-free press briefings.

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The headline in today’s Washington Post says it all: “Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State.” Here’s the problem. The military wants to fight ISIS and Barack Obama wants to fight George W. Bush; and you can’t do both. Defeating the former demands action, defeating the latter demands inaction. Crushing ISIS means countenancing “boots on the ground,” but if Obama considers boots on the ground in Iraq his case against his warmongering predecessor falls apart. Or so he thinks. So we’re stuck in another contradictory Obama shadow show of bold proclamations, pussyfooting disclaimers, and substance-free press briefings.

This is the way with our president. Always, there is the real-world task at hand (be it halting Iranian nuclear aspirations, stopping a revanchist Russia, or destroying an advancing army of jihadists) and then there is his eternal ideological challenge—how to institute the anti-Bush paradigm of non-aggression and national humility. Invariably, ideology wins out and the world is the worse for it.

Not only is our military wise to the pattern, but the rest of the planet knows the score as well.  No one quite understands who our partners are in the fight against ISIS or what these partners would actually do. The Hill reports: “[Secretary of Defense Chuck] Hagel listed a number of countries with which U.S. officials have held discussions, and said that some have pledged military support, but most of the contributors and what the contributions could be have not yet been made clear.”

Obama forms coalitions the same way he fights wars, ends wars, draws red lines, and seals deals. He pretends. He pretended that Libya was a brilliant example of the international community working in concert. Then anarchy bloomed, Americans were killed, and U.S. diplomats left altogether. He pretended that we staged a responsible exit from Iraq—before we were replaced by the greatest threat to the civilized world. He pretended that Bashar al-Assad would be punished for violating international norms and committing mass atrocities. The pretend punishment: guaranteed extension of Assad’s rule via a Russian-led WMD removal deal. He pretends there’s progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran, while Ali Khamenei boasts that the West has come to heel before the Islamic Republic. If anyone bothered to ask Obama about closing Guantanamo Bay today he’d undoubtedly talk about the progress he’s making toward that goal too.

Obama’s not a closer. He’s a prolonger. In press conferences and on talk shows everything is forever moving steadily ahead, but in the unscripted realms beyond his dwindling support network things are palpably collapsing. And yet, Obama’s two-front war, against real threats and against George W. Bush, continues apace. In Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf writes, “Obama seems steadfast in his resistance both to learning from his past errors and to managing his team so that future errors are prevented. It is hard to think of a recent president who has grown so little in office.”

The damage that’s been done is not only broad, but also deep. This week Senator Marco Rubio gave an important speech on the future of American power and, in criticizing Obama, got to something vital: “Worst of all,” he said, “the president’s foreign policy has let down the American people. It has done more than leave them vulnerable – it has dented their faith in the promise and power of the American ideal. The pride they once took in our global leadership has withered into uncertainty.”

He’s right. Our national uncertainty is Barack Obama’s fundamental ambivalence writ large. America needs a closer.

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What Would a Military DREAM Act Mean?

One of the top ideas floating around the orbit of immigration reform is to allow a faster path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, “undocumented residents,” or whatever the latest politically correct term is, if they join and serve in the U.S. military. In effect, this means opening the U.S. military to illegal aliens.

Now, there is a long history of non-Americans joining the U.S. military. Filipinos joined the U.S. Navy in significant numbers from the first years of the 20th century through World War II and, indeed, even after the Philippines’ 1947 independence. Non-citizens who were legal residents have served honorably in the U.S. military up to and during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Many still do, and they deserve the quicker path to citizenship that their service enables. 

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One of the top ideas floating around the orbit of immigration reform is to allow a faster path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, “undocumented residents,” or whatever the latest politically correct term is, if they join and serve in the U.S. military. In effect, this means opening the U.S. military to illegal aliens.

Now, there is a long history of non-Americans joining the U.S. military. Filipinos joined the U.S. Navy in significant numbers from the first years of the 20th century through World War II and, indeed, even after the Philippines’ 1947 independence. Non-citizens who were legal residents have served honorably in the U.S. military up to and during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Many still do, and they deserve the quicker path to citizenship that their service enables. 

That does not mean that President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and the various Democratic and Republican representatives and senators who are pushing immigration reform should endorse the idea of illegal or undocumented aliens serving in the U.S. military. The reason is simple: It creates a precedent by which the U.S. military welcomes lawbreakers. Illegal aliens may find their plight unfair and unjust, but they do know their actions violate U.S. law. Just as the military has upheld physical standards in its recruitment, it has also weeded out those who knowingly do not abide by the law. Certainly, there are waivers for certain crimes: Some civil offences, non-traffic-related crimes, and misdemeanors might be forgiven. This is done on an individual, case-by-case basis. To open the doors of the U.S. military to illegal aliens, however, not only is a slap in the face of those who have respected U.S. law, but also raises questions as to the motive of service. Regardless, the question both Democrats and Republicans should ask is more basic than whether there should be a military equivalent of the DREAM Act. Instead, the question at hand is whether the U.S. military should any longer use respect for the law as a selection criteria.

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The Reality of Returning Veterans

The terrible shooting rampage at Fort Hood by Specialist Ivan Lopez, a soldier who had served four months in Iraq, will unfortunately reinforce the post-Vietnam image of a soldier home from war as a ticking time bomb–as a victim of the society and the military who is primed to kill either himself or others. That image, however, is at odds with reality.

While the number of veterans committing suicide is going up, so is the number of suicides in the general population. That, at least, is the finding of a Veterans Administration study of veterans’ suicides. “There is a perception that we have a veterans’ suicide epidemic on our hands. I don’t think that is true,” Robert Bossarte, an epidemiologist with the VA who did the study, told the Washington Post. “The rate is going up in the country, and veterans are a part of it.”

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The terrible shooting rampage at Fort Hood by Specialist Ivan Lopez, a soldier who had served four months in Iraq, will unfortunately reinforce the post-Vietnam image of a soldier home from war as a ticking time bomb–as a victim of the society and the military who is primed to kill either himself or others. That image, however, is at odds with reality.

While the number of veterans committing suicide is going up, so is the number of suicides in the general population. That, at least, is the finding of a Veterans Administration study of veterans’ suicides. “There is a perception that we have a veterans’ suicide epidemic on our hands. I don’t think that is true,” Robert Bossarte, an epidemiologist with the VA who did the study, told the Washington Post. “The rate is going up in the country, and veterans are a part of it.”

Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found little link between combat experience and the tendency to commit suicide: “Depression and other types of mental illness, alcohol problems and being male – strong risk factors for suicide among civilians – were all linked to self-inflicted deaths among current and former members of the military. But the researchers found deployment and combat did not raise the risk.”

A more wide-ranging Washington Post survey of veterans did find cause for concern. Among its findings: “More than half of the 2.6 million Americans dispatched to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with physical or mental health problems stemming from their service, feel disconnected from civilian life and believe the government is failing to meet the needs of this generation’s veterans…. One in two say they know a fellow service member who has attempted or committed suicide, and more than 1 million suffer from relationship problems and experience outbursts of anger — two key indicators of post-traumatic stress.”

However, the Post also found that “the vast majority of recent veterans are not embittered or regretful. Considering everything they now know about war and military service, almost 90 percent would still have joined.”

What that suggests is that, while many combat veterans are understandably struggling with the stress of their experiences, they do not see themselves as victims–and neither should society. Nor should we see them as potential criminals, much less likely rampage killers. In fact, as might be expected, rates of crime are much lower among military personnel than among civilians.

Specialist Lopez was being treated for a variety of mental health problems. It stands to reason it was those problems–and not his experience in Iraq per se, whose details are still not clear–that triggered his fatal outburst. Vast numbers of soldiers have spent far more time “down-range” than he did, seen far more combat, been wounded, and returned home to live productive and happy lives. We should remember the “silent majority” of veterans instead of focusing on a tiny number of outliers like Lopez.

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Is Pursuing Kony Worth the Resources?

There is no doubt that the African rebel leader Joseph Kony is a very bad man who–as viewers of the viral hit movie Kony 2012 know–deserves to be brought to justice. But is his capture important enough to justify a growing commitment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to Uganda?

President Obama has just announced that he is roughly doubling the size of the U.S. Special Operations Force on this mission to 300 personnel and sending an Osprey aircraft along with refueling aircraft.

If defense funds and the resources of the U.S. Special Operations Command were unlimited, I would say go for it. But that is not the case. As we know, defense spending is being slashed even as demands on the entire force–and especially on SOCOM–are growing. In fact there is “significant stress” on the Special Operations community, which is called on not only to fight in Afghanistan and in the global war on terror but also to conduct anti-piracy missions (remember who freed Captain Philips?) and myriad other assignments.

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There is no doubt that the African rebel leader Joseph Kony is a very bad man who–as viewers of the viral hit movie Kony 2012 know–deserves to be brought to justice. But is his capture important enough to justify a growing commitment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to Uganda?

President Obama has just announced that he is roughly doubling the size of the U.S. Special Operations Force on this mission to 300 personnel and sending an Osprey aircraft along with refueling aircraft.

If defense funds and the resources of the U.S. Special Operations Command were unlimited, I would say go for it. But that is not the case. As we know, defense spending is being slashed even as demands on the entire force–and especially on SOCOM–are growing. In fact there is “significant stress” on the Special Operations community, which is called on not only to fight in Afghanistan and in the global war on terror but also to conduct anti-piracy missions (remember who freed Captain Philips?) and myriad other assignments.

Some missions–such as standing up security forces in Libya capable of ending the rule of militias and restoring some law and order, or training non-jihadist rebels in Syria capable of beating back both Hezbollah and al-Qaeda–are getting short shrift as a result. To say nothing of preparing for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moldova, or other states: that is a potential emergency for which the U.S. military, in the full throes of budget cuts, are simply not prepared for.

It is hard to see, therefore, how the White House can justify the commitment of scarce resources to a mission that does not implicate any vital American interest and that can best be described as humanitarian. There is, of course, nothing wrong with sending the U.S. military on humanitarian missions, but only if it does not take away from vital work elsewhere. I fear that in the case of Kony we are committing resources that are needed elsewhere.

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The Zen of Defense Budget Cuts: Rashomon or Kabuki?

Max and Peter have already discussed the scale and meaning of President Obama’s recently revealed defense budget cuts. Yet there are so many different interpretations of what is really happening that it feels like a Washington D.C. version of Rashomon. I would add only three points, each of which has a different interpretation of the issue.

First, there is strong betting in Washington that all this is kabuki theater. The administration already submitted an FY1015 budget that is $115 billion above sequestration levels, while going forward, Congress will keep delaying cuts until sequestration simply falls apart. If so, then the past 36 months of angst have been a gigantic waste of time. Not because some weapons systems have not been delayed or terminated and end strength reduced, but because all this political theater has done nothing to reduce the national deficit (as anyone remotely aware of fiscal reality already knew).

Worse, the military has been forced to take a “six of one, half dozen of the other” approach that leaves it with no clarity as to its real future sizing or posture, and is unclear how to best reshape itself to deal with new threats. In a sense, however, a kabuki-like outcome would actually be good news for the long run, as the military will be spared the worst of the cuts, as Congress puts money back in for favored programs, and as the whole idea of placing an uneven burden on the Pentagon to cut government discretionary spending simply fades from sight. It’s almost unbelievably unserious governing, but it’s all kabuki.

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Max and Peter have already discussed the scale and meaning of President Obama’s recently revealed defense budget cuts. Yet there are so many different interpretations of what is really happening that it feels like a Washington D.C. version of Rashomon. I would add only three points, each of which has a different interpretation of the issue.

First, there is strong betting in Washington that all this is kabuki theater. The administration already submitted an FY1015 budget that is $115 billion above sequestration levels, while going forward, Congress will keep delaying cuts until sequestration simply falls apart. If so, then the past 36 months of angst have been a gigantic waste of time. Not because some weapons systems have not been delayed or terminated and end strength reduced, but because all this political theater has done nothing to reduce the national deficit (as anyone remotely aware of fiscal reality already knew).

Worse, the military has been forced to take a “six of one, half dozen of the other” approach that leaves it with no clarity as to its real future sizing or posture, and is unclear how to best reshape itself to deal with new threats. In a sense, however, a kabuki-like outcome would actually be good news for the long run, as the military will be spared the worst of the cuts, as Congress puts money back in for favored programs, and as the whole idea of placing an uneven burden on the Pentagon to cut government discretionary spending simply fades from sight. It’s almost unbelievably unserious governing, but it’s all kabuki.

A second interpretation, however, is much more troubling. President Obama is about to hand his predecessor one of the most hobbled militaries in recent American history, one that Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said would be so unready that it would be “immoral” to use. If the president and Congress are indeed serious about their unserious budget cutting, then when sequestration finally takes effect in 2016, tens of billions of dollars will have to be precipitously cut. Max has already outlined what that would mean in terms of canceled and mothballed ships and planes, not to mention personnel cuts.

But just imagine what type of military the next president would inherit on January 20, 2017. Instead of a bad policy competently implemented, the incoming commander in chief will get a disastrous policy incompetently shoved down the military’s throat. When that force is unable to carry out needed missions does anyone think that Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Rand Paul, or others will be blamed? They all will escape mainstream criticism even as they have handed America a military that will be expected to carry out its full range of missions with dramatically lower levels of readiness and capacity.

Both of these interpretations above are, to me, among the clearest condemnations of the overall unseriousness, incompetence, and unaccountable behavior by all our nationally elected leaders. Washington D.C. increasingly is a cabal run against the interests of the American people even as it endlessly fleeces them.

There is a third interpretation, however, one that tracks more closely with Peter’s observation. He argues that President Obama is consciously engineering America’s decline. From a slightly angled perspective, nothing he is doing runs counter to a strategic agenda that seeks to reduce the country’s ability to play the type of global role it has for the past 70 years. Put another way, if you’re not really interested in holding the line against instability, coercion, and aggression abroad–if you don’t plan on confronting those states that are causing disruption in the world–then you don’t need the type of military we’ve fielded for decades.

Every cut, whether thought through or not, makes sense if it derives from a manifestation of political will that seeks a radically different global role for the United States. A shrunken military means America must correspondingly reduce its presence, effectiveness, and influence abroad. From that perspective, President Obama knows exactly the type of military he wants to bequeath to his successor, not to mention what type of country.

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Congress Is Loving the Army to Death

Bipartisanship is a much-lauded ideal in Washington, but sometimes the worst legislation can pass by the biggest margins. Witness Congress’s decision a few days ago to repeal a small cut–just 1 percent a year–in the cost-of-living adjustment for working-age military retirees below the age of 62. The House voted to rescind the cut by 326-90, the Senate by 95-3, after vigorous lobbying from military retirees and their official associations.

The money involved was fairly trivial by Washington standards–a 1 percent cut in cost-of-living allowances would have produced a savings of $7 billion. But the fact that Congress is not willing to make even such a small, symbolic trim is bad news on two levels.

First, it suggests a lack of will to deal with the much more serious fiscal problems caused by runaway entitlement spending. Second, it suggests a lack of will to do what is necessary to maintain military readiness.

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Bipartisanship is a much-lauded ideal in Washington, but sometimes the worst legislation can pass by the biggest margins. Witness Congress’s decision a few days ago to repeal a small cut–just 1 percent a year–in the cost-of-living adjustment for working-age military retirees below the age of 62. The House voted to rescind the cut by 326-90, the Senate by 95-3, after vigorous lobbying from military retirees and their official associations.

The money involved was fairly trivial by Washington standards–a 1 percent cut in cost-of-living allowances would have produced a savings of $7 billion. But the fact that Congress is not willing to make even such a small, symbolic trim is bad news on two levels.

First, it suggests a lack of will to deal with the much more serious fiscal problems caused by runaway entitlement spending. Second, it suggests a lack of will to do what is necessary to maintain military readiness.

As things stand now, the military budget is declining and an ever-growing share of it is going to personnel costs–salaries and benefits for current and retired personnel, with health-care costs rising especially rapidly. A succession of military leaders, uniformed and civilian, have warned Congress that the Pentagon is in danger, essentially, of becoming a giant HMO that occasionally fires a missile. The Defense Department needs to maintain or even increase its current budget, but, failing that, it needs the leeway to redistribute money away from personnel and toward operations, procurement, training–in short, to all of the things needed to project military power.

The problem is Congress. Lawmakers are so supportive of our service personnel–for perfectly understandable reasons–that they are loving the armed forces to death. Benefits and salaries and pensions have risen so dramatically over the past decade that military personnel are now, by any measure, more generously compensated than their civilian counterparts.

Given the risks and hardships that uniformed personnel can endure (even if most of them never see combat), this may be right and fair–but only in an ideal world in which we can afford to pay retirees generously while not compromising the ability of those currently on active duty to carry out their assigned missions. Unfortunately we don’t live in such a world. We live in a world where difficult budget trade-offs have to be made, and regrettably Congress is dictating that those trade-offs be made based on politics, not on the merits.

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Smarter Cuts Needed

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has just announced that he is cutting major headquarters, including his own Office of the Secretary of Defense, by some 20 percent. This is a welcome development, for there is little doubt that headquarters are vastly bloated. But the cost savings that will be realized are minuscule in the context of a defense budget of more than $500 billion a year; the immediate reductions that Hagel announced to his own front office will save only $1 billion over five years–i.e., $200 million a year. The pressure is on to cut more because Congress is unlikely to turn off sequestration, at least not in full, which could result, when combined with previous cuts, in a defense budget $1 trillion smaller than projected over the next decade.

There is no way to responsibly cut that amount from the Defense Department without hampering our power-projection capability–and hence the entire underpinning of our domestic security and of the international security system. But if we are going to have to make nearly impossible choices, then the least-bad alternative is to cut back personnel costs which have soared in the past decade–and, one hopes, plow some of the savings into training, readiness, and procurement to rejuvenate our sagging military capabilities. (Ha! Dream on! The savings are likely to wind up financing civilian entitlement programs.)

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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has just announced that he is cutting major headquarters, including his own Office of the Secretary of Defense, by some 20 percent. This is a welcome development, for there is little doubt that headquarters are vastly bloated. But the cost savings that will be realized are minuscule in the context of a defense budget of more than $500 billion a year; the immediate reductions that Hagel announced to his own front office will save only $1 billion over five years–i.e., $200 million a year. The pressure is on to cut more because Congress is unlikely to turn off sequestration, at least not in full, which could result, when combined with previous cuts, in a defense budget $1 trillion smaller than projected over the next decade.

There is no way to responsibly cut that amount from the Defense Department without hampering our power-projection capability–and hence the entire underpinning of our domestic security and of the international security system. But if we are going to have to make nearly impossible choices, then the least-bad alternative is to cut back personnel costs which have soared in the past decade–and, one hopes, plow some of the savings into training, readiness, and procurement to rejuvenate our sagging military capabilities. (Ha! Dream on! The savings are likely to wind up financing civilian entitlement programs.)

As the last several defense secretaries have warned, the Defense Department faces soaring costs for pay and benefits legislated by a Congress understandably eager to reward current service personnel and veterans for their contributions. The Washington Post succinctly summarizes the problem:

Putting veterans’ care aside, the military’s health care costs have grown annually by 6.3 percent for the past decade, rising to $52.2 billion in the department’s most recent budget proposal. Health care spending now accounts for about half the military spending on personnel costs, and 9.5 percent of the defense budget. The military now spends just as much on salaries as it does providing health care benefits.

And that total is expected to grow. Todd Harrison, a policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, recently crunched the numbers on what would happen if personnel costs kept growing at the same rate they have for the past decade, and the overall defense budget only kept pace with inflation. Under that scenario, the entire defense budget would be consumed by paying benefits, both for health care and other services, in 2039.

Put another way, if we stay on the current trajectory, the Defense Department will become a giant HMO that occasionally blows up a terrorist or two.

This is obviously an unsustainable trajectory, but to do anything about it, the Defense Department will have to enlist Congress’s help, which so far has not been forthcoming. Congress prefers to cut defense, and other discretionary programs, across the board, thereby hurting readiness. Lawmakers are too scared to support targeted cuts to benefits and pay that will bring a backlash from the powerful veterans’ lobby.

It is well past time for legislators of both parties to step up to this difficult task. If they want reductions in military spending, this is where they should pursue them–while keeping in mind that it is still irresponsible to cut the “top line” (i.e., total defense outlays) in a world where the demands on the U.S. military only continue to grow.

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The Arctic Strategy

At the Halifax Security Forum over the weekend, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid out a new Arctic strategy for the U.S. military. The need for such a strategy is obvious given that the Arctic’s copious natural resources and fast routes for maritime travel are ready for exploitation because of the melting of the polar ice caps. If the U.S. doesn’t act to protect its interests, other nations such as Russia will seize the initiative.

Hagel is right to call on the U.S. armed forces to be ready to preserve freedom of navigation, defend Alaska, and to ensure the safety of efforts to operate in the Arctic environment. The question left unanswered is: How will we pay for this expanding mission?

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At the Halifax Security Forum over the weekend, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid out a new Arctic strategy for the U.S. military. The need for such a strategy is obvious given that the Arctic’s copious natural resources and fast routes for maritime travel are ready for exploitation because of the melting of the polar ice caps. If the U.S. doesn’t act to protect its interests, other nations such as Russia will seize the initiative.

Hagel is right to call on the U.S. armed forces to be ready to preserve freedom of navigation, defend Alaska, and to ensure the safety of efforts to operate in the Arctic environment. The question left unanswered is: How will we pay for this expanding mission?

Sequestration isn’t going away anytime soon. Combined with previous budget cuts, this will result in a trillion dollars being sliced from the defense budget over the next decade. U.S. military capabilities will decline by at least a third. But U.S. military missions aren’t declining at all. They are growing. In addition to Arctic operations, the U.S. armed forces are stepping up cyber and space commitments, among others.

As I have repeatedly written, there is a growing mismatch between commitments and resources. It is not reasonable to expect the U.S. armed forces to do 30 percent more with 30 percent less money. Yet that seems to be what Washington wants. Unless Congress coughs up more money, and fast, the result will be a readiness crisis to recall the “hollow” days of the 1970s.

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Military Budget Numbers Don’t Add Up

Two items from Politico’s Morning Defense Roundup caught my eye today.

Item 1: “As Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation became painfully clear yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and other Navy ships to sail for the Philippines as quickly as possible….The George Washington is carrying Carrier Air Wing 5 with nine squadrons that include strike fighters, electronic attack aircraft and – crucially for disaster relief – MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. Two Navy cruisers and one destroyer are also expected to be on station with the carrier in as soon as two days.”

Item 2: “Just when Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale thought things could not get more uncertain and chaotic, they have. Now, he faces three very different budget scenarios for 2014, ranging from President Barack Obama’s $527 billion request for the Pentagon’s base budget to the $475 billion if sequestration is allowed to happen in January. ‘We still don’t know what fiscal ’14 is, which is an extraordinary situation,’ Hale said.”

There is a fundamental disconnect between these two news stories. The first story demonstrates that the demand for the U.S. military’s services is as great as ever and is hardly limited to war-fighting in the strictest sense. When an ally like the Philippines is hit with a natural disaster, the U.S. government naturally and rightly wants to help. How? There’s no civilian corps of disaster-response experts who can be scrambled to a faraway country at a minute’s notice. Only the U.S. military can do that.

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Two items from Politico’s Morning Defense Roundup caught my eye today.

Item 1: “As Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation became painfully clear yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and other Navy ships to sail for the Philippines as quickly as possible….The George Washington is carrying Carrier Air Wing 5 with nine squadrons that include strike fighters, electronic attack aircraft and – crucially for disaster relief – MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. Two Navy cruisers and one destroyer are also expected to be on station with the carrier in as soon as two days.”

Item 2: “Just when Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale thought things could not get more uncertain and chaotic, they have. Now, he faces three very different budget scenarios for 2014, ranging from President Barack Obama’s $527 billion request for the Pentagon’s base budget to the $475 billion if sequestration is allowed to happen in January. ‘We still don’t know what fiscal ’14 is, which is an extraordinary situation,’ Hale said.”

There is a fundamental disconnect between these two news stories. The first story demonstrates that the demand for the U.S. military’s services is as great as ever and is hardly limited to war-fighting in the strictest sense. When an ally like the Philippines is hit with a natural disaster, the U.S. government naturally and rightly wants to help. How? There’s no civilian corps of disaster-response experts who can be scrambled to a faraway country at a minute’s notice. Only the U.S. military can do that.

But the military is under severe strain right now because of budget cuts which are only going to get worse. The Pentagon comptroller is dreaming if he thinks Congress will repeal sequestration. Assuming these Draconian cuts continue to be implemented—and that’s almost certain right now—the result will be to eviscerate the very capabilities the U.S. military needs to respond not only to typhoons and earthquakes but also to more direct threats to our national security. For example, Hagel is contemplating reducing the number of aircraft carriers from 11 to eight or nine. Even before that happens, the readiness levels of all of our military forces—land, sea, and air—have been hurt by the ongoing budget cuts.

Yet there is no major push in Washington to reduce the number of missions the U.S. military is being asked to carry out. Our political leaders seem to want the armed forces to carry out 100 percent of their existing missions with only 70 percent of the funding. (Sequestration combined with earlier budget cuts will result in a roughly 30 percent reduction in the military budget over the next decade.) And even much of the existing budget is being swallowed up by personnel and health-care costs with increasingly little left over for operations, training, or weapons procurement. That doesn’t add up.

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Respecting the Military at the Movies

These are dark days for the U.S. military, which is being hit hard by sequestration-induced budget cuts. Readiness levels are falling and, if sequestration isn’t turned off, this could be only the beginning of the pain. So those of us who care about a strong defense and the well being of our armed forces have to take our solace where we can find it. In my case I’m finding it in a darkened theater watching movies such as “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Captain Phillips” and the forthcoming “Lone Survivor” which depict the U.S. military’s elite units at their best.

I haven’t actually seen “Lone Survivor,” which is not out yet,” but like the others it’s a story of the Navy SEALs, in this case of a mission in Afghanistan that went horribly wrong, resulting in the death of three out of four men who were on the objective along with a helicopter-full of reinforcements. It is obviously different from the other two movies in that the SEALs didn’t achieve their objective but they did fight heroically and skillfully against great odds, and I am sure the movie will do their deeds of valor justice.

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These are dark days for the U.S. military, which is being hit hard by sequestration-induced budget cuts. Readiness levels are falling and, if sequestration isn’t turned off, this could be only the beginning of the pain. So those of us who care about a strong defense and the well being of our armed forces have to take our solace where we can find it. In my case I’m finding it in a darkened theater watching movies such as “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Captain Phillips” and the forthcoming “Lone Survivor” which depict the U.S. military’s elite units at their best.

I haven’t actually seen “Lone Survivor,” which is not out yet,” but like the others it’s a story of the Navy SEALs, in this case of a mission in Afghanistan that went horribly wrong, resulting in the death of three out of four men who were on the objective along with a helicopter-full of reinforcements. It is obviously different from the other two movies in that the SEALs didn’t achieve their objective but they did fight heroically and skillfully against great odds, and I am sure the movie will do their deeds of valor justice.

As for “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Captain Phillips,” they are virtual SEAL propaganda films, all the more potent because that is not what they were intended to be. They were, and are, accurate depictions of real life missions–in one case, killing Osama bin Laden, in the other rescuing a merchant marine skipper held hostage by Somali pirates. In both cases the SEALs are not named and not delineated individually but their competence and skill shines through.

“Captain Phillips” ends–warning: plot spoiler ahead–with SEAL snipers making an all-but-impossible shot from a ship deck on the heaving seas to take out three pirates in an enclosed life boat where Tom Hanks, err Captain Phillips, sat just feet from them. Three shots, three kills. Amazing.

What is even more impressive is how the movie shows the SEALs acting completely unemotionally as if there were an ordinary day at the office for them, which in some sense it was. The snipers quietly repack their rifles and other gear and walk away like gunslingers in some Western.

I can only hope that “Captain Phillips” and other movies will receive wide airing abroad because nothing will inculcate respect for America more than for foreigners to see these movies with their displays of almost superhuman skill on the part of our armed forces. Everyone knows the U.S. has the best and most expensive military equipment but these movies show our true secret is the great skill and dedication of our men and women in uniform. If only Congress would keep faith with them by providing the funding they need to continue defending us.

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More on Sexual Assault in the Military

I previously expressed skepticism that the U.S. armed forces were really experiencing the surge of sexual assault suggested in overheated news stories and echoed by lawmakers eager to change the traditional military justice system so as to make it more responsive to all these supposed victims.

Further confirmation for skepticism comes from this Wall Street Journal op-ed from Marine captain and judge advocate Lindsay Rodman. She points out that the headline-grabbing figure of 26,000 sexual assaults in the military in 2012 breaks down on closer analysis. That dubious statistic comes from a survey distributed to more than 100,000 individuals but completed by fewer than 23,000. It is not clear exactly who in the military completed the survey or whether it is a scientifically valid sampling (to the extent that such a thing even exists). She suggests there is good cause to believe the females, who constitute only 14.6 percent of the military, are oversampled.

Moreover, Rodman notes:

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I previously expressed skepticism that the U.S. armed forces were really experiencing the surge of sexual assault suggested in overheated news stories and echoed by lawmakers eager to change the traditional military justice system so as to make it more responsive to all these supposed victims.

Further confirmation for skepticism comes from this Wall Street Journal op-ed from Marine captain and judge advocate Lindsay Rodman. She points out that the headline-grabbing figure of 26,000 sexual assaults in the military in 2012 breaks down on closer analysis. That dubious statistic comes from a survey distributed to more than 100,000 individuals but completed by fewer than 23,000. It is not clear exactly who in the military completed the survey or whether it is a scientifically valid sampling (to the extent that such a thing even exists). She suggests there is good cause to believe the females, who constitute only 14.6 percent of the military, are oversampled.

Moreover, Rodman notes:

The term “sexual assault” was not used in the WGRA survey. Instead, the survey refers to “unwanted sexual contact,” which includes touching the buttocks and attempted touching. All of that behavior is wrongful, but it doesn’t comport with the conventional definition of sexual assault or with the legal definition of sexual assault in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as enacted by Congress.

Notwithstanding Captain Rodman’s welcome scrutiny, the media continue to hype numbers about sexual abuse in the military of dubious reliability. The latest is this headline from the Associated Press: “More than 85,000 veterans treated last year over alleged military sex abuse, report says.”

This finding conjures up images of victims such as Ruth Moore who, according to AP, “was raped twice while she was stationed in Europe with the Navy” some sixteen years ago.

Yet the Veterans’ Administration definition of “military sexual trauma” is far broader than rape–it is defined as “any sexual activity where you are involved against your will.” According to AP: “Some report that they were victims of rape, while others say they were groped or subjected to verbal abuse or other forms of sexual harassment.” Being subjected to “verbal abuse” is a quintessential part of the military experience, at least in the training phase, and is a long way from what is commonly thought of as “sexual assault.” It is wrong, as is sexual harassment, but it is a long way from the commonly accepted definition of “sexual abuse” which has more in common with the notorious Cleveland sex-slavery case than it does with a few offensive words in the workplace.

As I said before, none of this is to deny that the problem of sexual assault exists in the military, as it does in civilian society, and that it needs to be addressed with treatment for victims and punishment for malefactors. But we should be wary of accepting, as so many in the media do, the sensationalist claims of feminist activists and trial lawyers who have a stake in hyping this issue.

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Hyping the Horrors of Military Service

Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, thankfully, do not have to face the kind of opprobrium that an earlier generation of Vietnam veterans encountered. But there is still a tendency to pathologize vets, to assume that they are victims of a sinister system, innocents who have been sent into battle against their will and forced to pay a high cost.

Take the surge of concern about military suicides. The problem is a real one—the suicide rate is rising in the ranks of the military—but let’s not get carried away. Given the demographics of the military (young white males are one of the population groups most likely to commit suicide) and the easy availability of lethal weapons, one might expect that the suicide rate in the military would at least be higher than in the general population. That’s not the case. As this New York Times article notes: “In 2002, the military’s suicide rate was 10.3 per 100,000 troops, well below the comparable civilian rate. But today the rates are nearly the same, above 18 per 100,000 people.”

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Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, thankfully, do not have to face the kind of opprobrium that an earlier generation of Vietnam veterans encountered. But there is still a tendency to pathologize vets, to assume that they are victims of a sinister system, innocents who have been sent into battle against their will and forced to pay a high cost.

Take the surge of concern about military suicides. The problem is a real one—the suicide rate is rising in the ranks of the military—but let’s not get carried away. Given the demographics of the military (young white males are one of the population groups most likely to commit suicide) and the easy availability of lethal weapons, one might expect that the suicide rate in the military would at least be higher than in the general population. That’s not the case. As this New York Times article notes: “In 2002, the military’s suicide rate was 10.3 per 100,000 troops, well below the comparable civilian rate. But today the rates are nearly the same, above 18 per 100,000 people.”

Nor is it the case, as widely assumed, that most service members who commit suicide are traumatized combat vets. As the Times article further notes: “Pentagon data show that in recent years about half of service members who committed suicide never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. And more than 80 percent had never been in combat.”

Then there is the problem of sexual assault in the military. No doubt the issue is a serious one, but is it really the case that women in the military are more likely to be assaulted than those in civilian life? It’s hard to say for sure because statistics in this area are suspect, but isn’t it possible—even likely—that the military is simply better about tracking the problem than is civilian society?

I do not mean to minimize the problems of suicide and sexual assault, nor do I mean to deny the problems caused by post-traumatic stress syndrome. There is no doubt that many who have been in combat will bear the psychological scars for years to come and they deserve our sympathy and compassion along with the best treatment available. But I worry that by hyping these issues—while neglecting by comparison the daily acts of heroism and self-sacrifice performed by our service personnel—the media foster the image of soldiers as crazy or criminal. That is about as far from reality as it is possible to get.

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The Army’s Language Problem

A decade of war has reinforced to the U.S. Army the importance of cultural awareness. Senior flag officers and junior enlisted men and women have all heard presentations about Islam, and basic elements of Iraqi and Afghan culture. True, discussing the confluence of theology and terrorism remains largely taboo in the politically correct U.S. military, but few troops deploy without knowing basic information about Islam and cultural sensitivities. The notable exception was Gen. Janis Karpinski, whose unit embarrassed the United States at Abu Ghraib; she dismissed cultural awareness as below her and irrelevant to her mission.

Foreign language acquisition remains a problem. Paul Wolfowitz deserves credit when deputy secretary of defense for focusing military attention not only on cultural awareness, but also on the poor state of language acquisition among American servicemen. When I work in Germany, or among Bosnian, Romanian, or Polish troops, there are few that do not speak fluently a second language; few American servicemen do, however, except for many Hispanic soldiers or those from elsewhere who are first-generation immigrants. In recent years, the situation has improved, but only slightly. Senior officers will be the first to admit that the Army and the Marines still have a long way to go.

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A decade of war has reinforced to the U.S. Army the importance of cultural awareness. Senior flag officers and junior enlisted men and women have all heard presentations about Islam, and basic elements of Iraqi and Afghan culture. True, discussing the confluence of theology and terrorism remains largely taboo in the politically correct U.S. military, but few troops deploy without knowing basic information about Islam and cultural sensitivities. The notable exception was Gen. Janis Karpinski, whose unit embarrassed the United States at Abu Ghraib; she dismissed cultural awareness as below her and irrelevant to her mission.

Foreign language acquisition remains a problem. Paul Wolfowitz deserves credit when deputy secretary of defense for focusing military attention not only on cultural awareness, but also on the poor state of language acquisition among American servicemen. When I work in Germany, or among Bosnian, Romanian, or Polish troops, there are few that do not speak fluently a second language; few American servicemen do, however, except for many Hispanic soldiers or those from elsewhere who are first-generation immigrants. In recent years, the situation has improved, but only slightly. Senior officers will be the first to admit that the Army and the Marines still have a long way to go.

Some of the criticism directed toward the U.S. military for alleged cultural mishaps has been unwarranted. For example, many (not all) of the allegations that American male troops patted down and searched Iraqi women were false: When troops wear full battle rattle, it’s hard to tell males from females and so Iraqis—and some American journalists—just got carried away with assumptions. Criticism about American raids on mosques was also often unwarranted. Rather than simply treat mosques as inviolate sacred space off-limits to American forces, critics of American raids would be far better off questioning why some mosques became safe havens for terrorists or storage depots for weapons. When push comes to shove, force protection of American troops must always come first.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military has assembled all-female engagement teams to meet and work with Afghan women who oppose the Taliban but whose culture and religious practice would not allow them to interact with any unit which incorporated males.

The cultural mishaps which have occurred—burning the Quran at Bagram, for example—are inexcusable and they were punished promptly. Still, they are exceptions, and rare ones at that. Likewise, abusing the bodies of Taliban fighters was an empty crisis: Americans seemed more outraged than Afghans. There is no evidence that any sought revenge because of the behavior of the few troops who desecrated Taliban bodies.

Still, there is one major problem which no level of the Army or Pentagon appears ready to address: foul language. It would sound like a silly complaint if it was not so corrosive to our mission and responsible at times for kinetic backlash. Especially among younger troops and out-in-the-field, every tenth word seems to be “sh-t” or especially creative constructions revolving around “f-ck.” Afghans may not understand English and even those that do will have a poor grasp of idiom, but all understand foul language. While not all “Green on Blue” violence is the result of cultural affront, some is. Likewise, I recently heard of a case in eastern Afghanistan where, watching women carrying heavy loads in the fields, one American soldier exclaimed, “Will you look at how much those f-cking women can carry!” Three days later, tribal leaders lodged a protest complaining that Americans had suggested that Afghan women working in the fields were sexually loose. In certain societies, honor matters. Americans are not the only guilty party. The Canadians had an incident in Somalia two decades ago in which a similar young private exclaimed to a Somali standing guard duty with him outside a meeting, “Boy is your sheikh pig-headed.” The young Somali understood two words: “Sheikh” and “Pig” and four Canadians died over the next couple days because of the misunderstanding.

Before his retirement from the military, Gen. David Petraeus often spoke about how every soldier was also a diplomat. He was right. Few American diplomats emerge anymore from behind the blast walls which fence in American embassies in trouble spots, and so the face of the United States is the soldier. While we might be the strongest country on earth, we are still guests in the countries in which our troops deploy, and so it is imperative to act as guests instead of occupiers. There are few employers in the United States who would let employees interacting with the public swear non-stop.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Political correctness is nonsense, but this isn’t about political correctness. Not only do we pay consequences in our battle to win hearts and minds, but so long as the military also serves as important job training for those entering at the lowest ranks, it does a disservice by tolerating this lack of professionalism. It may be an uphill battle and, admittedly, there are greater battles which must be won. Language may be a detail, but we ignore such details are our peril.

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Will Congress Take Military into the 1970s?

Sequestration—the $500 billion automatic budget cuts to Defense, which will be triggered if Congress cannot reduce the budget by $1.2 trillion as per the Budget Control Act of 2011—is a looming disaster. The sequestration cuts would be in addition to already scheduled budget cutbacks.

Owen Graham, a brilliant young scholar at the Heritage Foundation, has penned an important article in the Charlotte Observer outlining just what is at stake:

According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, sequestration would also eliminate a leg of the nuclear Triad, deliver a heavy blow to U.S. missile defenses, and eliminate next-generation fighter and bomber programs. The findings of the House Armed Services Committee were just as bleak: the smallest Air Force in its history; the smallest Navy since before World War I; and the smallest ground force since before World War II…

The reality is it is far from balanced. Military is less than one-fifth of the federal budget and absorbs fully 50 percent of the sequester. Meanwhile, 70 percent of entitlement spending, the key driver of the debt crisis, is exempt from the impact of the cuts.

Sequestration—the $500 billion automatic budget cuts to Defense, which will be triggered if Congress cannot reduce the budget by $1.2 trillion as per the Budget Control Act of 2011—is a looming disaster. The sequestration cuts would be in addition to already scheduled budget cutbacks.

Owen Graham, a brilliant young scholar at the Heritage Foundation, has penned an important article in the Charlotte Observer outlining just what is at stake:

According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, sequestration would also eliminate a leg of the nuclear Triad, deliver a heavy blow to U.S. missile defenses, and eliminate next-generation fighter and bomber programs. The findings of the House Armed Services Committee were just as bleak: the smallest Air Force in its history; the smallest Navy since before World War I; and the smallest ground force since before World War II…

The reality is it is far from balanced. Military is less than one-fifth of the federal budget and absorbs fully 50 percent of the sequester. Meanwhile, 70 percent of entitlement spending, the key driver of the debt crisis, is exempt from the impact of the cuts.

Admiral James “Ace” Lyons observed wryly at a roundtable a few weeks ago that already the U.S. Navy has fewer ships under his command than he had at his disposal when he was in charge of the Pacific Command under Jimmy Carter. Obama’s talk of a pivot toward Asia is just empty talk; his priorities suggest a willingness to cede Asia.

If entitlements are cutback, we know what will happen: the economy will expand and charities and faith communities will pick up the slack; the government will still care for the most needy. If the U.S. ability to project its power is reduced to beneath even Carter administration standards, then the world in which we function will be far different. This may be the Obama administration’s goal. After all, as the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Cliff May notes, the scariest statement to which the mainstream media has given short shift was his promise to then-Russian President Medvedev to pursue even more devastating cutbacks once he no longer has to stand for election.

There will be no savings: When enemies perceive the United States as weak, they act. And—be they Russia, North Korea, China, or Iran—the United States has no shortage of adversaries.

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A Vacuum Recognized Is Not a Vacuum Filled

The central pillar of the rebuttal to complaints about American defense spending compared to that of the rest of the world is the fact that other countries–or continents, in Europe’s case–can only afford to skimp on defense spending because the U.S. will pick up the slack. American defense cuts, if not done carefully and responsibly, risk leaving a vacuum in areas where the U.S. military has carried the burden of influence.

So it’s not surprising that the prospect of American defense cuts, together with the “pivot” of resources to the Asia-Pacific region, are making some European allies nervous. Britain’s new defense minister, however, has some advice for his European counterparts: stop whining and pitch in:

Instead of worrying about the cutbacks to U.S. military power in the region, which many NATO countries apparently had been counting on to offset their own deep defense reductions, [Phillip] Hammond said the allies must recognize that “as a result, European nations, including the UK, will need to do much more of the heavy lifting in the security of their own region,” including both Europe itself and the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa, which he called “the near abroad.”

“This is not the end of Atlanticism, but the beginning of a new, more balanced relationship in the alliance,” Hammond said.

While the U.S.-UK ties will always be Britain’s priority, Hammond said, “to support your rebalancing [to Asia], we will seek to work more closely with our neighbors in Europe, particularly France and Germany, to enhance capabilities in our own region.”

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The central pillar of the rebuttal to complaints about American defense spending compared to that of the rest of the world is the fact that other countries–or continents, in Europe’s case–can only afford to skimp on defense spending because the U.S. will pick up the slack. American defense cuts, if not done carefully and responsibly, risk leaving a vacuum in areas where the U.S. military has carried the burden of influence.

So it’s not surprising that the prospect of American defense cuts, together with the “pivot” of resources to the Asia-Pacific region, are making some European allies nervous. Britain’s new defense minister, however, has some advice for his European counterparts: stop whining and pitch in:

Instead of worrying about the cutbacks to U.S. military power in the region, which many NATO countries apparently had been counting on to offset their own deep defense reductions, [Phillip] Hammond said the allies must recognize that “as a result, European nations, including the UK, will need to do much more of the heavy lifting in the security of their own region,” including both Europe itself and the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa, which he called “the near abroad.”

“This is not the end of Atlanticism, but the beginning of a new, more balanced relationship in the alliance,” Hammond said.

While the U.S.-UK ties will always be Britain’s priority, Hammond said, “to support your rebalancing [to Asia], we will seek to work more closely with our neighbors in Europe, particularly France and Germany, to enhance capabilities in our own region.”

It’s a nice thought, and it certainly would be the responsible thing to do. But there’s no reason to pretend this will happen. France just excused their pro-Western president from his duties to replace him with the leader of the French socialists, and absent conditions threatening a localized catastrophe–think Libya–it’s difficult to imagine the French increasing their role in defense of the West.

As for Germany, the country was greeted with Nazi catcalls for simply trying to maintain leverage over the conditions of bailing out failing European economies and saving the euro–just imagine what Europe’s reaction would be if Germany so much as hinted at becoming the continent’s new military power. It’s a nonstarter.

And what about Britain? As Max wrote here a couple weeks ago, British defense cuts will pare down the standing army to its lowest level in a century, and its diplomatic influence will wane accordingly. Hammond focused his remarks on, in his words, “the European NATO powers.” This is telling–and unfortunate. As Josh Rogin reported after the U.S.-hosted NATO summit in May:

This weekend’s NATO summit in Chicago is the first in decades to make little to no progress on the enlargement of the organization, leaving several countries to wait another two years to move toward membership in the world’s premier military alliance.

In the official 65-point summit declaration issued Sunday, there were several references to the four countries vying for progress on their road to NATO membership: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Georgia. But none came away from the summit with any tangible progress to tout back at home. NATO expansion was just not a priority of the Obama administration this year, U.S. officials and experts say, given the packed security-focused agenda and looming uncertainly caused by the deepening European financial crisis.

So the crisis in Europe had the opposite effect from what Hammond is suggesting; rather than retrench and build the West’s military alliance, everyone was too busy chewing his fingernails to get any work done.

This is not to say there are no reasons for caution on enlarging NATO. It’s that no progress was even attempted. And countries developing or experimenting with democratic laws and norms don’t usually tread water–they should be helped forward so they don’t fall back. NATO membership action plans can often be useful in this regard, as Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Rogin:

Conley pointed to the Serbian elections this weekend, where Serbians chose an ultra-nationalist known as “Toma the Gravedigger” to be their president, as evidence that these countries could slip back toward authoritarianism if not given full support and inclusion by Western organizations.

The West is not always to blame. Often a country slipping back toward authoritarianism and corruption poses a chicken-or-egg question: Was Ukraine rejected by the West, or did they choose to reject the West (or orchestrate their rejection by the West)? But the underlying point is valid, and we cannot continue brushing off countries and expecting them not to take a hint. (Georgia, for example, has contributed more to the Afghanistan mission than some NATO countries.)

Now would be a great time to expand the Western alliance. Until that happens, Europe and NATO will continue to recede from the world stage, and Hammond’s good advice will be unceremoniously ignored.

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Empowering Afghan Militias is No Solution

In my earlier post, I noted the disconnect between governance and military strategies in Afghanistan. Generals are less willing to paper over problems than many diplomats; military leaders’ metric charts involve not money allocated but rather lives lost and letters written to next of kin. In Iraq and Afghanistan, many generals have barely concealed their antipathy toward diplomats and other civilians whom they consider to be out-of-touch with the realities on the ground. (The generals’ respect for Ryan Crocker is a notable exception).

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has sought to bypass the civilian policy and governance roadblock by doing what it takes to ensure security at a local level. For many generals, this has meant co-opting and empowering local militias. Empowering local militias not beholden to central command or necessarily loyal to the central government has obvious drawbacks. In 2004, Gen. David Petraeus cast aside objection from Baghdad and empowered former Baathists and Islamists in Mosul. They turned around and stabbed the Americans in the back, leaving the unit who came to Mosul in the wake of Petraeus’ departure to pick up the pieces. The same strategy failed again in Fallujah, where the Fallujah Brigade presided over a six-fold increase in car bombings. Still, the U.S. military tried again. They helped form the “Awakening Councils” in the Al Anbar governorate, Sunni Arab militias who turned on al-Qaeda and provided the support and blood upon which the success of the Surge depended. At no time, however, was the interplay between the Awakening Councils and the central government in Baghdad well-defined. And while it is possible for American advocates of the surge to blame Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarianism for the lack of the Awakening Council’s subsequent integration into the Iraqi security apparatus, the fact remains that the Awakening Councils were just as sectarian, perhaps even more so, than political leaders in Baghdad. In effect, the embrace of the Awakening Councils fulfilled a short-term goal at the expense of Iraq’s long-term stability.

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In my earlier post, I noted the disconnect between governance and military strategies in Afghanistan. Generals are less willing to paper over problems than many diplomats; military leaders’ metric charts involve not money allocated but rather lives lost and letters written to next of kin. In Iraq and Afghanistan, many generals have barely concealed their antipathy toward diplomats and other civilians whom they consider to be out-of-touch with the realities on the ground. (The generals’ respect for Ryan Crocker is a notable exception).

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has sought to bypass the civilian policy and governance roadblock by doing what it takes to ensure security at a local level. For many generals, this has meant co-opting and empowering local militias. Empowering local militias not beholden to central command or necessarily loyal to the central government has obvious drawbacks. In 2004, Gen. David Petraeus cast aside objection from Baghdad and empowered former Baathists and Islamists in Mosul. They turned around and stabbed the Americans in the back, leaving the unit who came to Mosul in the wake of Petraeus’ departure to pick up the pieces. The same strategy failed again in Fallujah, where the Fallujah Brigade presided over a six-fold increase in car bombings. Still, the U.S. military tried again. They helped form the “Awakening Councils” in the Al Anbar governorate, Sunni Arab militias who turned on al-Qaeda and provided the support and blood upon which the success of the Surge depended. At no time, however, was the interplay between the Awakening Councils and the central government in Baghdad well-defined. And while it is possible for American advocates of the surge to blame Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarianism for the lack of the Awakening Council’s subsequent integration into the Iraqi security apparatus, the fact remains that the Awakening Councils were just as sectarian, perhaps even more so, than political leaders in Baghdad. In effect, the embrace of the Awakening Councils fulfilled a short-term goal at the expense of Iraq’s long-term stability.

In Afghanistan, as well, the same generals have pursued the same short-term strategy. Against the backdrop of a lackluster central government, they have built up local militias to fight the Taliban. This has understandably infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who condemns any government or military organ which is outside the control of his family. Alas, if there is a lesson to be learned from Iraq, it is that anyone who defects to work with the Americans can just as easily defect to fight Americans. No one should ever count on ideological loyalty in the region. Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. It is a matter of principle, just not the same one which guides American troops. Americans condemn flip-flopping in politicians and consider switching sides in war treason. For Afghans, however, top priority is the family. If switching sides better protects one’s family, then there is nothing shameful in it. Perhaps the best case in point is Karzai himself. During the Clinton administration, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher wanted to pass messages to the Taliban, the Taliban representative to which he would turn was none other than… Hamid Karzai.

Against this backdrop, the announcement that one of the Afghan Local Police militias formed, equipped, and trained by the Americans has defected to the Taliban should not surprise. No Afghan believes that the United States remains committed to remain in Afghanistan. The Afghan Security Pact recently signed was short on specifics, and financial commitments are meaningless without congressional agreement.

Here, history can be a guide. President Obama and the generals are, ironically, following the same strategy pursued by the Soviet Union. In the run-up to the Soviet withdrawal, the Red Army trained and equipped a number of local militias. With the Soviet Union on its way out of the country, each defected or dissolved in time. Building militias to substitute for progress at the national political level is not only akin to applying a band aid to a deep wound, but is also guaranteed to worsen the infection down the line.

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The American Commitment in Afghanistan

There seems to be a popular notion in Washington that it will be possible to dramatically reduce, or even remove, the conventional U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, while maintaining a substantial diplomatic-intelligence-Special Operations contingent to buttress the Afghan security forces and target high-level terrorists. How has that idea worked out in Iraq after the U.S. military withdrawal? Not so well.

We already know the U.S. embassy is having to dramatically scale back its ambitious plans for 16,000 or so personnel (mainly contractors but including a couple of thousand career employees) to take some of the slack from the U.S. military mission which ended at the beginning of this year. Now the CIA is following suit, withdrawing some 60 percent of the personnel from its giant station in Iraq even though numerous threats—from al-Qaeda in Iraq to Iranian agents—remain very much alive. Here is how the Wall Street Journal, which broke this news, explains the U.S. shift:

Late last year, the CIA and Pentagon were considering several options for CIA and special-operations commandos to team up in Iraq, according to current and former officials. One option was to have special-operations forces operate under covert CIA authority, similar to the arrangement used in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

“There was a general consensus,” said a former intelligence official, “that there was a need for this in Iraq.”

But as it became clear that the U.S. would withdraw all troops and that the Iraqi government was less inclined to accept an expansive CIA-special operations role, those plans were tabled. “It’s not going to happen,” said a U.S. official….

“Half of our situational awareness is gone,” said one U.S. official.

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There seems to be a popular notion in Washington that it will be possible to dramatically reduce, or even remove, the conventional U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, while maintaining a substantial diplomatic-intelligence-Special Operations contingent to buttress the Afghan security forces and target high-level terrorists. How has that idea worked out in Iraq after the U.S. military withdrawal? Not so well.

We already know the U.S. embassy is having to dramatically scale back its ambitious plans for 16,000 or so personnel (mainly contractors but including a couple of thousand career employees) to take some of the slack from the U.S. military mission which ended at the beginning of this year. Now the CIA is following suit, withdrawing some 60 percent of the personnel from its giant station in Iraq even though numerous threats—from al-Qaeda in Iraq to Iranian agents—remain very much alive. Here is how the Wall Street Journal, which broke this news, explains the U.S. shift:

Late last year, the CIA and Pentagon were considering several options for CIA and special-operations commandos to team up in Iraq, according to current and former officials. One option was to have special-operations forces operate under covert CIA authority, similar to the arrangement used in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

“There was a general consensus,” said a former intelligence official, “that there was a need for this in Iraq.”

But as it became clear that the U.S. would withdraw all troops and that the Iraqi government was less inclined to accept an expansive CIA-special operations role, those plans were tabled. “It’s not going to happen,” said a U.S. official….

“Half of our situational awareness is gone,” said one U.S. official.

In other words, if the larger U.S. conventional military mission is pared down to zero or close to zero, there is scant possibility of leaving behind a robust Special Operations-intelligence-and diplomatic presence—and our ability to do harm to our enemies greatly declines. That is the lesson of Iraq, and it is a lesson that policymakers should keep in mind as they mull over the future of the American commitment in Afghanistan.

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Partisan Gridlock Could “Devastate” Troops

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is absolutely right when he says of the looming defense “sequester”–$500 billion in defense cuts to be implemented during the next ten years, with $55 billion to be cut on Jan. 1, 2013—that it would “ have devastating effects on our readiness and our workforce, and disrupt thousands of contracts and programs.”

And those devastating cuts would not stop at the water’s edge. Even troops in combat would be hurt. The Pentagon has just admitted that Overseas Contingency Operations funds which are used to fund operations in Afghanistan would be cut, too. That would probably mean a cut of approximately 15 percent, or $13 billion, in supplemental funding of $88.5 billion for the next fiscal year. It is hard to imagine how U.S. troops or their Afghan allies could continue to operate at planned levels with 15 percent less in funding. It may be possible to cut support personnel here and there, but a lot of that has already been done on that score to accommodate the president’s caps on the number of troops permitted in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the preponderance of support personnel among U.S. troops in Afghanistan (or in any other theater), this will have a direct impact on combat capacity. There are scheduled to be 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after September. If 15 percent less funding translates into 15 percent less troops (most likely the case) it would mean a cut of another 10,000 troops, the equivalent of two Brigade Combat Teams. Given the scarcity of combat personnel already being felt in Afghanistan, as commanders scramble to comply with the White House’s drawdown timetable, this could have serious consequences for the ability of NATO forces to maintain the progress made during the past two years.

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Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is absolutely right when he says of the looming defense “sequester”–$500 billion in defense cuts to be implemented during the next ten years, with $55 billion to be cut on Jan. 1, 2013—that it would “ have devastating effects on our readiness and our workforce, and disrupt thousands of contracts and programs.”

And those devastating cuts would not stop at the water’s edge. Even troops in combat would be hurt. The Pentagon has just admitted that Overseas Contingency Operations funds which are used to fund operations in Afghanistan would be cut, too. That would probably mean a cut of approximately 15 percent, or $13 billion, in supplemental funding of $88.5 billion for the next fiscal year. It is hard to imagine how U.S. troops or their Afghan allies could continue to operate at planned levels with 15 percent less in funding. It may be possible to cut support personnel here and there, but a lot of that has already been done on that score to accommodate the president’s caps on the number of troops permitted in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the preponderance of support personnel among U.S. troops in Afghanistan (or in any other theater), this will have a direct impact on combat capacity. There are scheduled to be 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after September. If 15 percent less funding translates into 15 percent less troops (most likely the case) it would mean a cut of another 10,000 troops, the equivalent of two Brigade Combat Teams. Given the scarcity of combat personnel already being felt in Afghanistan, as commanders scramble to comply with the White House’s drawdown timetable, this could have serious consequences for the ability of NATO forces to maintain the progress made during the past two years.

Moreover, the contingency funds are also used to support Afghan security forces. A 15 percent cut in their ranks—soon to be 350,000—could result in the layoff of 52,000 soldiers and police. That is a huge number and could tilt the balance of power in favor of the Taliban in critical areas even as Afghan security forces are being asked to step into the lead. One consequence would be that the remaining U.S. troops still in Afghanistan would be in greater danger and could suffer higher casualties.

It is hard to imagine a more ill-advised idea than cutting funds for troops in combat—yet that is what will happen unless Congress can somehow agree on an alternative before Dec. 31. That seems increasingly unlikely to happen, however, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seems intent on extracting big tax increases from Republicans in return for turning off the sequester. Partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, therefore, has the potential to “devastate” our fighting men and women even as they are on the frontlines.

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