Recently, House Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, decided to stop Obama’s process of gutting America’s defense, reject his pseudo-strategy, and pass a budget that adequately funds defense – adequately according to their and their advisors’ judgment, not that of Obama and his penny-pinchers in the Pentagon.
When asked by defense cuts’ supporters why he wants to provide more funding to the DOD than the DOD itself and the Joint Chiefs request, he replied, “I don’t think the generals are giving us their true advice.”
When he said that, the Democrats, other defense cuts’ supporters, and the media went ballistic, claiming that Ryan had called the generals “liars” and had insulted them, and calling on him to apologize. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey himself took umbrage at those words, while still claiming that the DOD developed a strategy first and a budget second when everyone knows it’s not true:
“[Ryan was] calling us, collectively, liars. (…) I stand by my testimony. This was very much a strategy-driven process to which we mapped the budget.”
But Paul Ryan and other pro-defense Republicans is right, and their critics are dead wrong, for the following reasons.
Firstly, we know that Obama has a habit of pressuring senior generals to change their testimonies to suit their agenda. Just ask 4-star General William Shelton, the commander of USAF’s Space Command, who says Obama pressured him to do just that.
It is quite conceivable that the Joint Chiefs were also pressured to testify, wrongly, that the $487 bn in defense cuts ordered by Obama is survivable.
General Dempsey himself, before he was confirmed, testified that deep defense cuts would weaken defense, that “national security” spending did not cause the deficit problem and that cutting it will not solve it.
More recently, he said, quite correctly, that sequestration of defense spending (the second round of BCA-ordered cuts, totalling another $600 bn) would mean “we would no longer be a global power”. Today, under obvious pressure from the White House and other defense cuts supporters, he claims he was misunderstood and that he only meant that “we wouldn’t be the global power that we know ourselves to be today.”
No, General, that’s not what you originally said. That’s what the White House now tells you to say. I’m sure that if the White House told you “say that the sequester would be harmless”, you would be saying exactly that.
While I wouldn’t call the generals liars or fools, this is not the first time that someone has coached witnesses to deliver a favorable testimony.
Secondly, no matter how hard the generals and civilian DOD bureaucrats may insist to the contrary, the FACT is that Obama’s defense budget cuts mandate drove the pseudo-strategy the DOD issued in January, not the other way around. Obama demanded deep defense cuts, and the DOD had to produce a “strategy” to fit these cuts. That’s what happened, despite the generals’ and civilian bureaucrats’ pretensions to the contrary.
Obama demanded $400 bn in defense cuts on April 13th, 2011, during a budget issues speech at the GWU – long before there even was any talk of a debt ceiling deal. At the time, even his own SECDEF, Robert Gates, was surprised of the defense cuts mandate, and the DOD had to start working out how to implement them. Then, on August 1st, Obama negotiated a debt ceiling deal that mandated $487 bn in cuts from “security spending”, which Obama slapped exclusively on the DOD.
Only later was there any talk of a “strategy” to fit these cuts. Before April 2011, the DOD was not working on any “strategy” and was hoping that the cuts of January 2011 would be the last. Indeed, Gates himself cautioned against any further, let alone deep, additional defense cuts repeatedly, both in DOD briefings and Congressional testimonies. Yet, in April 2011, Obama slapped a $400 bn defense cuts mandate on him and the DOD.
Even if someone claims “the DOD knew for a long time that more budget cuts would be coming”, that doesn’t help them. In fact, it only proves my point. Budget cut mandates came first; the strategy came only later. Thus, the National Journal lied when it claimed
“Ryan’s frank rebuke of the generals came as he repeated an oft-heard Republican complaint: that the fiscal 2013 defense request (…) was not “strategy-driven,” but rather was based on an artificial spending cap imposed by the White House.”
That is not a mere “oft-heard Republican complaint”, that is a FACT. The FY2013 defense budget proposal was NOT strategy driven. It was based on an artificial spending cap that Obama instituted as early as April 2011 – long before there was any “strategy”!
And the DOD’s genuine strategy from just 2 years ago (when budget circumstances were even worse), the 2010 QDR, is quite different from this pseudostrategy. It called for a much larger and more capable military than this pseudostrategy calls for. Did the world become much safer in the last 2 years? No. Obama decided to cut defense even more deeply.
Thirdly, can’t we see it for ourselves that Obama’s new defense cuts would severely weaken the military? They include, inter alia, scrapping one third of the cruiser fleet (the 7 youngest cruisers), retiring 2 amphibious ships and many other vessels, eliminating 7 fighter squadrons, cutting funding for bombers by 40%, eliminating many crucial weapon development programs (including lasers, other directed energy weapons, and railguns), delaying many other crucial weapon programs (including the next-gen cruise missile) and procurements (including SSNs and SSBNs), cutting the shipbuilding plan by 16 vessels, cutting the already-underfunded nuclear-weapon-modernization program by 15%, and cutting 27 strategic and 65 tactical airlifters when the USAF already has too few of them. Anyone with half a brain should understand that this will weaken the military.
Fourthly, the generals are humans, not gods. They are not infallible – no more than I am or you are. As mere humans, they are just as prone to grave error – including a severe error of judgment – as everyone else. It’s time to stop fetishizing generals.
Lastly and most importantly, determining what’s necessary to defend America, and providing the necessary resources, is NOT the generals or the DOD’s job. It’s Congress’ job. The Congress is supposed to make America’s defense policy, and the generals, along with DOD civilians, are supposed to merely execute it. In other words, the Congress makes policy, and the generals are to obey.
The US Constitution vests the prerogatives to “provide for the common defense (…) of the United States”, “to raise and support Armies”, “to provide and maintain a Navy”, to make laws for governing the Armed Forces, to summon and discipline the Militia, to declare war, to punish piracies and felonies on the high seas, and to make appropriations SOLELY in the Congress. The Constitution gives Congress, and ONLY the Congress, the prerogative to make America’s defense policy – to determine both defense budgets AND programs and the force structure (along with bases, deployments, wars, and the UCMJ).
Of course, to make informed decisions, it needs the advice from many sources – and that includes not only serving generals, but also former military officers, independent analysts and study panels (such as the Hadley-Perry Panel), Congressional advisors/analysts, the CRS, and others.
But Congress is supposed to rely, above all, on its own knowledge and sound judgment (if it’s capable of rendering any – and it’s supposed to be). It should NOT fetishize generals and DOD bureaucrats, nor is it supposed to defer to them, let alone to President Obama. It must rely primarily on its own judgment and knowledge, for it, not the generals, is to make defense policy decisions (and take responsibility for them).
This entire argument has four root causes. One is the understandable, but wrong deference to generals on defense policy caused by the fetish of generals. The second one is the overall worship of supposed “experts” (generals on defense policy, the SCOTUS on the Constitution, the IPCC on “global warming” – remember how skeptics like Jim Inhofe were treated when they questioned the saintly IPCC?) that Americans have been forced to perform since their primary school days. People are taught to blindly listen to “experts” and never question them; if you do, you’re condemned universally. Thirdly, decades ago, the Congress ceded its Constitutional prerogatives on defense policy to the Executive Branch long ago.
And fourthly, as schoolchildren and adults, members of Congress, like all Americans, were constantly taught and told NOT to think for themselves, to rely on others for judgment, and to defer on others on various issues. Such indoctrination not to think independently has caused most of them to be unable, or afraid, to render independent judgment.
And this needs to be corrected. Members of Congress are supposed to think for themselves, not defer to others.
Paul Ryan and HASC Republicans have shown they are capable of doing that. For that, they should be praised, not pilloried.