Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. military

Why Are We Giving F-16s to an Iranian-Infiltrated Government?

The summit meeting between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Tuesday went about as well as expected. That is to say, it was, like most high-level summits, full of affirmations of friendship and good will but few if any concrete achievements. Obama was predictably effusive about Abadi, whom he called a “strong partner”: “Although there is the natural back-and-forth that exists in any democracy, Prime Minister Abadi has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them and to respond to their concerns and to make sure that power is not solely concentrated within Baghdad.”

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The summit meeting between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Tuesday went about as well as expected. That is to say, it was, like most high-level summits, full of affirmations of friendship and good will but few if any concrete achievements. Obama was predictably effusive about Abadi, whom he called a “strong partner”: “Although there is the natural back-and-forth that exists in any democracy, Prime Minister Abadi has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them and to respond to their concerns and to make sure that power is not solely concentrated within Baghdad.”

In reality, while Abadi seems well intentioned, he is also fairly ineffectual. He may not actively be victimizing Sunnis, as his predecessor and rival, Nouri al-Maliki, did, but he has not succeeded in creating a government-supported Sunni militia to fight ISIS. Nor has he been able to stop Shiite militias from rampaging through Sunni towns. The reality is that Abadi is far from the most powerful man in Iraq, a title that probably belongs rightfully to Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, who is the puppet-master pulling the strings of the Shiite militias. Nevertheless, it is in America’s interest to buttress Abadi’s power, and having the president of the United States effusively compliment him in public makes sense, even if those compliments are not, strictly speaking, truthful.

While I wasn’t troubled by this fulsome praise of the Iraqi prime, I was troubled by something I read in the very last paragraph of the New York Times article reporting on his visit: “On Tuesday, Mr. Abadi was scheduled to meet with Iraqi pilots who are being trained in the United States to fly F-16s. Iraqi officials said that 14 pilots were scheduled to be trained by September, when the Iraqi military hopes to start flying the planes in Iraq.”

Huh? I remembered that the delivery of the F-16s had been delayed last year after ISIS fighters imperiled the Balad air base where they were supposed to be based. I didn’t realize that the F-16 delivery was on again. But apparently it is. Googling around, I quickly found a Reuters dispatch which said that Iraq is scheduled to take its first delivery of the fighter aircraft this summer. In all, 36 F-16s are eventually to be delivered.

Hold on a minute. Is this really a wise move? As noted above, the government of Iraq is heavily infiltrated by Iranian agents. Does it really make safe under those circumstances to deliver to Iraq three dozen high-performance fighter aircraft? I, for one, am worried that the fighters could eventually wind up in Iranian hands, buttressing an Iranian Air Force that until now has had to rely on aging F-14 fighters from the 1970s and even F-4s and F-5s from the 1960s. Granted, F-16s aren’t top of the line aircraft anymore—they are outclassed by F-22s and F-35s—but as a matter of policy and law the U.S. does not sell arms to hostile states or to states that might transfer them to hostile states.

Paging the House and Senate Armed Services Committees! Congress needs to get involved in this issue urgently to assess whether it makes sense to continue with the F-16 transfer to Iraq—and, if it doesn’t, to block the sale before Gen. Suleimani’s boys are using F-16s to drop bombs on the heads of American or Israeli soldiers.

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Containing China

At the risk of home-team boosterism (I’m a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) I must commend for wider attention a new Council on Foreign Relations Special Report on U.S. policy toward China. Its authors are my Council colleague Robert Blackwill, a former deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration and a former ambassador to India, and Ashley Tellis, a well-respected Asia expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has done stints inside the government.

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At the risk of home-team boosterism (I’m a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) I must commend for wider attention a new Council on Foreign Relations Special Report on U.S. policy toward China. Its authors are my Council colleague Robert Blackwill, a former deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration and a former ambassador to India, and Ashley Tellis, a well-respected Asia expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has done stints inside the government.

One might expect, based on their impeccable Establishment credentials, that they would be in favor of the post-1970s consensus in Washington regarding China: namely, that a stronger China is in America’s interest. But that is not what Blackwill and Tellis argue. Rather, they describe China as the “most significant competitor to the United States for decades to come,” a competitor that must be contained rather than turbo-charged. “Because the American effort to ‘integrate’ China into the liberal international order has now generated new threats to U.S. primacy in Asia—and could result in a consequential challenge to American power globally—Washington needs a new grand strategy toward China that centers on balancing the rise of Chinese power rather than continuing to assist its ascendancy.”

What would this strategy consist of? Among other steps, they argue “Congress should remove sequestration caps and substantially increase the U.S. defense budget… Washington should intensify a consistent U.S. naval and air presence in the South and East China Seas,” and “accelerate the U.S. ballistic-missile defense posture” in the Pacific; the United States should encourage its allies “to develop a coordinated approach to constrict China’s access to all technologies, including dual use”; Washington should “impose costs on China that are in excess of the benefits it receives from its violations in cyberspace … increase U.S. offensive cyber capabilities … continue improving U.S. cyber defenses,” and “pass relevant legislation in Congress, such as the Cyber Information Security Protection Act.”

To be sure, they couple these tough calls for containment policies with a desire for enhanced “U.S.-China discourse,” which “should be more candid, high-level, and private than is current practice.” There is no one who will object to talking to Beijing. But Blackwill and Tellis’s call for actively containing Chinese power—including by an increase in U.S. military spending—is sure to be controversial. There remain many “panda-huggers” in Washington who remain convinced, notwithstanding China’s crude power-flexing in the South China Sea and East China Sea, that it will be content with a “peaceful rise” within an American-dominated geopolitical system. The evidence suggests otherwise, and Blackwill and Tellis have done the valuable service of issuing recommendations that are more in line with how China is actually behaving than how we would like it to behave.

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Can U.S. Slash Military Budget When Russia’s Preparing for War?

The battle over sequestration continues, as Congress mandates that the Pentagon continue to slash the U.S. army down to pre-World War II levels. Meanwhile, the Iranian military is resurgent, peace deal or not, with the Islamic Republic increasing its defense budget by some 33.5 percent. Then, again, being militarily active in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq takes money.

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The battle over sequestration continues, as Congress mandates that the Pentagon continue to slash the U.S. army down to pre-World War II levels. Meanwhile, the Iranian military is resurgent, peace deal or not, with the Islamic Republic increasing its defense budget by some 33.5 percent. Then, again, being militarily active in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq takes money.

Perhaps President Obama believes he has solved the Iran problem, or is well on his way to doing so. But even if his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to insist her “reset” policy with Russia worked, Russian President Vladimir Putin poses an increasing threat to international security, as anyone in Georgia or Ukraine can attest. Obama may believe the situation has stabilized—after all, press attention has moved on—but it looks like the situation might soon go from bad to worse.

According to this analysis in The Interpreter, Russian military spending has increased sharply. Of course, it is pretty certain that the real budget is even higher than the official, sanitized version. According to the article, based on the analysis of Russian economist Andrey Illarionov as published on opposition leader Garry Kasparov’s website:

Between the time that Putin came to power up to January 2014, the Moscow economist and commentator says, Moscow has spent on average 2.5 to 3.2 percent of GDP on the military, with the figure tending to rise over time. During the first 13 years of his rule, Illarionov says, spending in constant prices went up 2.6 times…. After Putin made his final decision to intervene in Ukraine in February 2014, he says, Moscow’s military expenditures “were increased by more than twice,” a figure that suggested the Russian government intended not only to seize and occupy Crimea but all of what it calls “Novorossiya.” In February, March and April of last year, Russian military spending amounted to 6.7 percent of GDP and 27.7 percent of all budget expenditures.

The situation is getting worse. Here’s the alarming section:

According to Illarionov, official Russian government figures show that “the situation radically changed” in the first two months of this year, the latest period for which figures are available. Average monthly military spending increased 2.3 times, compared to the May-December 2014 period, 3.3. times compared to the last pre-war period, and 8.8 times compared to 2000. For those two months alone, he says, military spending was more than 1.3 trillion rubles – that is, more than 20 billion US dollars – and it constituted 43.3. percent of the federal budget and 12.7 percent of Russia’s admittedly diminished GDP.

So, the Russian economy is getting worse, yet Putin is rapidly expanding his defense budget. The question is to what end? Alas, it seems not to be a question which the White House cares to consider, although certainly the leaders of the Baltic States and Poland are. Perhaps Congress should as well, because continuing sequestration is leaving the United States dangerously unprepared to face a mounting crisis which, if Illarionov’s analysis is true, seems to be looming ever larger. Vladimir Putin exploits weakness and indecision, characteristics which for too long Obama has projected. The United States cannot afford sequestration. Rather than resolve budget deficits, sequestration will make them worse because such weakness is encouraging dictators to aggression in a manner which no U.S. president will be able to long ignore.

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Defense Cuts Are a Bipartisan Disgrace

Defense spending is scheduled to be slashed by $40 billion for fiscal year 2016, which begins in October. That’s a cut that the armed forces can hardly afford as they grapple with challenges from the Ebola plague in Africa to the ISIS plague in the Middle East.

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Defense spending is scheduled to be slashed by $40 billion for fiscal year 2016, which begins in October. That’s a cut that the armed forces can hardly afford as they grapple with challenges from the Ebola plague in Africa to the ISIS plague in the Middle East.

The military chiefs testified again yesterday about the cost of the cuts that have already been inflicted on their service. The litany is by now depressingly familiar: troops that can’t train, ships that can’t sail, aircraft that can’t fly.

The larger cost, as Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, noted, is a loss of trust among the troops: “As they see we’re not going to invest in them, [our soldiers] begin to lose faith. Sometimes we take for granted the level of ability of our people, and the level of investment we’ve made in their training, which is central to everything we do. With sequestration, we are going to have to reduce that for sure.”

Yet the outlooks for actually repealing or relaxing sequestration–the budget process that imposes mandatory cuts in “discretionary” federal spending–is at best uncertain. It’s true that Republicans took control of both houses of Congress in the last election, but there is no unanimity in their ranks over what to do about defense spending. The internal battle within the GOP pits budget hawks vs. defense hawks. Democrats, led by President Obama, are exacerbating the situation by insisting on spending increases for domestic programs and “revenue enhancements” (i.e., tax hikes) as the price of more defense spending–both anathema to the GOP’s fiscal conservatives.

The result: As Politico notes, the Pentagon is once again approaching a fiscal cliff.

Mind you, this is happening as the global security situation is getting worse: Islamist extremists are making major gains from Nigeria to Syria, countries from Libya to Yemen are in chaos, Russia is once again stepping up its aggression in Ukraine, Iran is continuing work on its nuclear program, and China continues its destabilizing defense buildup which, if left unchecked, will dramatically alter the balance of power in the Western Pacific. Yet our political class, on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue (with some notable exceptions such as John McCain and Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees), prefers to avert its gaze and refuses to make the hard decisions necessary to fully fund defense.

This is nothing less than a bipartisan disgrace–and the men and women in uniform, whom politicians always profess to revere, will pay the price for the lack of leadership in Washington.

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Why Is Military Morale Dropping?

One of the conceits of the antiwar crowd–those who argued over the past thirteen years for leaving Afghanistan and Iraq regardless of the situation on the ground–was that doing so would be a favor to the American military, which has sacrificed so much in those wars. The sacrifice has been real and ongoing, with an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and in suicide and divorce being only a few of the more discernible costs. Yet a new Military Times survey of 2,300 active-duty troops finds that morale is actually lower now than it was in the days when far more U.S. troops were deployed in harm’s way.

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One of the conceits of the antiwar crowd–those who argued over the past thirteen years for leaving Afghanistan and Iraq regardless of the situation on the ground–was that doing so would be a favor to the American military, which has sacrificed so much in those wars. The sacrifice has been real and ongoing, with an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and in suicide and divorce being only a few of the more discernible costs. Yet a new Military Times survey of 2,300 active-duty troops finds that morale is actually lower now than it was in the days when far more U.S. troops were deployed in harm’s way.

Back in 2009, when an average of 50,000 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan and 135,000 in Iraq, 91 percent of troops surveyed said their quality of life was good or excellent. Today only 56 percent say that and 70 percent believe their quality of life will decline in coming years. Some other findings: “73 percent of troops would recommend a military career to others, down from 85 percent in 2009. And troops reported a significant decline in their desire to re-enlist, with 63 percent citing an intention to do so, compared with 72 percent a few years ago.”

Troops are less willing to reenlist now than in the days when they were much more likely to be wounded or even killed in the line of duty? How could this be? Why aren’t troops embracing the Obamian paradise of unilateral withdrawal from war?

Part of the answer is provided by political scientist Peter Feaver, who is quoted pointing out “that the mission mattered more to the military than to the civilian. For the civilian world, it might have been easier to psychologically move on and say, ‘Well, we are cutting our losses.’ But the military feels very differently. Those losses have names and faces attached to [them].”

Few civilians can realize how deeply dispiriting it is for troops who fought for cities such as Fallujah and Al Qaim to see them fall to black-clad jihadist fanatics. Once troops served with a purpose–to avenge 9/11 and to defeat our nation’s enemies. Now, however, with an administration that makes withdrawal the highest priority, the military’s sense of mission and purpose is waning–with deleterious effects on morale. “Of those surveyed, 52 percent said they had become more pessimistic about the war in Afghanistan in recent years. Nearly 60 percent felt the war in Iraq was somewhat unsuccessful or not at all successful.”

This problem is aggravated by the severe budget cuts that the White House and Congress have collaborated to enact. The Military Times has a telling anecdote: “A Navy aviation machinist’s mate first class based in El Centro, California, said operational budget cuts left him and fellow sailors cannibalizing working parts from other aircraft entering phased maintenance so they could repair higher-priority broken jets. Even uniforms are in short supply, he said, as the Navy embarks on what could be a decade of scrimping under sequestration. ‘We are on the bare necessities and sometimes not even that. For example, I need new boots but they’ll ask me, ‘How long can you stretch that?’ ‘ he said.”

Another telling line: “A Navy fire controlman chief with 10 deployments said budget fears are contributing to a feeling of distrust and abandonment. ‘If sailors are worried about not getting paid, how am I supposed to do my job?’ he said. ‘I’m not an effective warfighter if I don’t have the backing of my government at home’.”

The U.S. military, to be sure, remains the most professional and capable force in the world. But it is suffering real damage and it would be nice if we had a president who recognized that was the case and sought to do something about it. Even a better secretary of defense, which Ash Carter promises to be, will have limited leverage to reverse crippling budget cuts or to implement plans for Afghanistan and Iraq that make military sense. Alas, the U.S. military appears to be in big trouble and help is still a couple years away at best.

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Veterans Day and Excessive Self-Criticism

November 11–once know as Armistice Day in commemoration of the end of World War I, now known as Veterans Day–is always a solemn occasion on which we honor the men and women who have fought for our hard-won liberty. This year the occasion is more bittersweet than normal for many veterans of the Iraq War who have watched over the last year as many of the gains they sacrificed so much to achieve in places like Mosul and Fallujah and Al Qaim have evaporated. Towns that U.S. troops had wrested away from al-Qaeda in Iraq have now fallen to its successor, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

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November 11–once know as Armistice Day in commemoration of the end of World War I, now known as Veterans Day–is always a solemn occasion on which we honor the men and women who have fought for our hard-won liberty. This year the occasion is more bittersweet than normal for many veterans of the Iraq War who have watched over the last year as many of the gains they sacrificed so much to achieve in places like Mosul and Fallujah and Al Qaim have evaporated. Towns that U.S. troops had wrested away from al-Qaeda in Iraq have now fallen to its successor, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Many veterans are understandably bewildered and angry and wondering if their sacrifices were worth it. Some even suggest that the dismal outcome in Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan is an indictment of the armed forces that fought there. This is a point that retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, makes in this New York Times op-ed, which previews a book he has written. He argues that the “surge” in Iraq never really worked, that it was only a short-term palliative, and then issues a withering indictment of the U.S. Armed Forces:

We did not understand the enemy, a guerrilla network embedded in a quarrelsome, suspicious civilian population. We didn’t understand our own forces, which are built for rapid, decisive conventional operations, not lingering, ill-defined counterinsurgencies. We’re made for Desert Storm, not Vietnam. As a general, I got it wrong. Like my peers, I argued to stay the course, to persist and persist, to “clear/hold/build” even as the “hold” stage stretched for months, and then years, with decades beckoning. We backed ourselves season by season into a long-term counterinsurgency in Iraq, then compounded it by doing likewise in Afghanistan. The American people had never signed up for that.

Self-criticism is always welcome and certainly to be preferred to generals who claim they never got anything wrong. But this self-criticism, I would argue, is excessive. It’s true that the U.S. military was not well prepared for the counterinsurgencies it encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan and that it went into those wars optimized for another Desert Storm. The U.S. military made countless blunders in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 which exacerbated the situation. But it’s also true that the U.S. military is a learning organization that improvised brilliantly under fire. Thanks to the acumen primarily of NCOs and junior officers–gradually followed by more senior officers–the U.S. military by now has become one of the most capable counterinsurgency forces in history.

And contrary to General Bolger’s assertions, the “surge” (which I’m told he opposed while working at Central Command for Adm. Fox Fallon) did work–it reduced violence by more than 90 percent. By 2009 both AQI and the Shiite militias such as the Mahdist Army had been decimated and Iraq was on the road to stability. No less than Vice President Biden publicly bragged in 2010 that a “stable” Iraq would be “one of the great achievements of this administration.” Then of course this administration pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq, while doing nothing to stabilize Syria in the throes of its civil war. The result has been the rise of ISIS and the undoing of what U.S. troops fought to achieve.

That is demoralizing, to be sure, but Bolger is wrong to blame the military for this outcome. I agree with Bolger that the military can’t dodge blame for the disaster in Vietnam because Gen. William Westmoreland’s firepower-intensive approach did not defeat the Viet Cong and did exhaust American will. The U.S. military was on the verge of repeating the same mistake by 2006 but the surge really did rescue the operation even if it didn’t produce nirvana or magically solve all of Iraq’s underlying issues. No one–not even the most wild-eyed surge proponent–ever expected that it would.

There was always a widespread expectation among surge proponents that U.S. troops would have to stay for the long haul to guarantee Iraq’s stability just as they have stayed in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Kosovo, and other places. It is quite possible that if U.S. troops had been pulled out of Europe after 1945 a disaster would have ensued similar to the one that ensued after the removal of U.S. troops in 1919. But that would not have been the fault of Patton, Bradley, Eisenhower, and the other generals who won the war. Likewise it is not the fault of soldiers today that President Obama didn’t stay the course in Iraq and now threatens to also prematurely pull out of Afghanistan.

To be sure, the generals who failed to prepare the U.S. military for the demands of counterinsurgency before 2001 have much to answer for, as do the generals who implemented tragically misguided policies in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. But their blunders have been more than redeemed by the success that U.S. forces experienced in Iraq in 2007-2008 and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan in 2010-2011 (where troops were hobbled by Obama’s failure to send enough reinforcements and by his imposition of a counterproductive deadline for withdrawal).

Despite the dismal state of Iraq today and to a lesser extent of Afghanistan, America’s veterans can be proud of their achievements over the past 13 years. Not only did they fight bravely and for longer periods than any previous generation of soldiers, but they also adapted brilliantly to the demands of fighting the longest counterinsurgency campaigns in American history–a very different type of warfare than the one they trained for.

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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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