Originally published in Defense News.
Leon Panetta, the new Pentagon chief, got through his confirmation hearings the newfangled way: by revealing as little as possible about what he’d do in office. He tipped his hand a bit more last week by calling “completely unacceptable” the across-theboard military cuts planned in the event the next debt deal fails.
This was not good news for those hoping he’s been brought in to make serious reductions in his department’s bloated budget.
His military chiefs have testified that the $400 billion in cuts the administration has been seeking (now pared back to $350 billion) will be doable though difficult, but warned, as reported in Reuters, “that substantially more in spending cuts would require a strategic rethinking of how the U.S. uses its military and the goals it is meant to achieve.” But this strategic rethinking is exactly what the Pentagon is currently supposed to be doing. In April, President Barack Obama ordered a “fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world,” as the basis for more serious military cuts.
Panetta need not fear “hasty, illconceived” spending cuts if he’s leading the unhasty, well-conceived approach he’s been directed to take to find them.
Panetta has not so far weighed in on his predecessor’s legacy of bucking the conventional bureaucratic imperative to worry-about-no-budget-but-your-own.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates broke new ground by repeatedly criticizing the resource imbalance that favored his department. In 2008, he said, for example, “America’s civilian institutions of diplomacy and development have been chronically undermanned and underfunded for far too long, relative to what we spend on the military.” A case in point emerged from the WikiLeaks case last year. One puzzling thing was how a young American soldier on active duty in Baghdad could have downloaded and released not only massive quantities of classified military secrets, but a quartermillion U.S. diplomatic cables from all over the world.
The answer, it turns out, is that the State Department, starved for funds, had decided it couldn’t afford to build its own secure Internet network. Instead, it decided to save money by piggybacking on the network the Defense Department already had in place.
Thus, the State Department’s concern to stay within its severe resource constraints ended up compromising the basic requirement of confidentiality that its employees need to do their jobs.
Gates was a consistent champion of giving the cash-strapped State Department more money.
By the measure of actions rather than words, though, he never really listened to his own message.
Or at least, he was never willing to use his own well-stocked budget – larger than at any time since World War II, including the Reagan and Bush II buildup years – to shift the balance of security spending toward the nonmilitary tools of the State Department.
Threat to State Department? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, having testified eloquently in recent years about why her budget needs to expand, was forced to argue this year against drastic cuts. The House has laid out plans to cut her budget by 43 percent. The danger is that the structure of the debt deal, including her budget and Panetta’s, plus Homeland Security and Veterans’ Affairs in a single security category, will threaten her budget even more.
It is official U.S. doctrine that defense, diplomacy and development are co-equal contributors to our security. The point of a single security category should be to show how far that doctrine is from reality – when, as Gates liked to say, the budget for military bands exceeds the budget funding our entire diplomatic corps – so that the extreme imbalance can be rectified.
Will Panetta become the kind of advocate Gates was for lifting our diplomatic mission out of its cash-strapped condition? Will he go out of his way to explain how slashing the State Department’s budget damages our security? And the real question is, will he take the necessary next step to translate these worthy sentiments into budgetary reality? This will require getting more serious than Gates ever was about cutting his own budget. And it will require resisting the temptation to use the debt deal’s security category to protect his own budget at the expense of our nonmilitary security tools.
His public take so far on the budget deal is not encouraging.