Thursday, January 19, 2012

Eating Something With a Sieve

Robert Farley has a new article up at World Politics Review about his thoughts on the coming Department of Defense budget circus:
"Perhaps the most important takeaway from the white paper is the official recognition that the size of the defense budget itself represents a threat to U.S. national security."
says Farley,
"In theory, this should not be such a remarkable insight; one common narrative explaining the end of the Cold War is that the United States drove the Soviet Union to economic ruin by forcing it to maintain an unsustainable military budget. As Bernard Finel suggests, the United States has now committed itself to a degree of dominance over potential rivals that may be unsustainable in the long run, and that in and of itself poses risks."
Well enough. But I don't know if he has thought this through far enough.


First, I think he's giving the flacks too much credit - simply saying this will happen is far from a guarantee that it WILL happen. Military overstretch is nearly universal in the decline phase of imperia; almost the first symptom of post-vitality in a large or imperial polity is an excessive amount of revenue devoted into military forces and a decreasing return from that "investment".

That is; as empires first grow they often find that war "pays for itself". Imperial troops extend the borders, bringing home slaves and tribute, incorporating rich lands and peoples into the empire. This wealth then translates into more, better-equipped forces, which are more effective against the barbarians, bringing more people and more wealth into the empire. Wash, rinse, repeat.

But over time the combination of imperial social and political arteriosclerosis, bloated elites devoted to their own interests at the expense of the common good, and the vicious effects - on both imperials and colonials - of ruling the subject populations reduces the gains and expands the costs. Subsequent rulers desperately try and find ways to reduce these costs, only to find that in armies, in in every organization, what begins as a relatively lean, cost-effective organization over time becomes overstuffed with useless dunnage that contributes little, if anything, to the actual business of warfighting.

But, second, it is difficult or even impossible to reverse this without immense outlays of political prestige and will. I cannot think of a historical example of an empire that voluntarily restructured its armed forces, in a short time, as the result of a deliberate serious analysis of its geopolitical interests. The Marian Reforms? Except they were more-or-less purely organizational. The conversion of the U.S. to a global superpower in 1945? Helped that just at the moment we had the world's largest army, navy, air force, and a nuke or three lying around.

I'm not sating it can't be done - just that it's damn deadly difficult and the successful examples are so few I can't think of any, And throw in the toxic political environment of the 201s United States? It seems beyond unlikely; it is likely to be absolutely impossible.

Overall I tend to agree wholeheartedly with his conclusion:
"Defense budget politics has increasingly become a field of narrow contestation between experts, elites and interested actors, rather than a field in which different visions of the political good engage with one another. This has resulted in a prioritization of bureaucratic interest and parochial concern, both of which are enemies of real grand strategy."
...but tend to see this not as a bug but as a feature. In my opinion throughout MOST of U.S. history our military budgets have been decided this way.

For most of U.S. history that's been fine. We didn't need much in the way of geopolitical strategy to lick the natives of North America; some smallpox and a railroad or two would work just swell. Ad-hoc assemblies of forces would do to swat the Mexicans, Spanish, and Filipinos. You can sum up our geopolitical plans during the period 1918-1940 as "have a big Navy and don't fight anyone worth shit".

WW2? I'll give you that - well done, FDR, George Marshall. and Congresscritters all.

The Cold War was sort of a no-brainer, too. The Soviets were big so we had to be big, and we were already big. They had a blue-water navy and so did we. They had ICBMs and intercontinental bombers and so did we, or we developed them. It wasn't as big a no-brainer as giving smallpox-blankets to the Sioux, but, still...

So we're down to this particular time in history; post-Cold-War, 1991-2012.

And here's where our historical traditions; lack-of-planning, empire-in-a-fit-of-absence-of-mind, foreign-policy-as-an-outgrowth-of-domestic-policy are biting us on the ass. We are suddenly faced with a non-binary choice and an undefined future, a cloud of potential problems rather than a simple "threat". Teasing sense out of the chaotic multipolar world of the 21st Century and translating that sense into some sort of intelligent military policy is the sort of things that asks for a Talleyrand, or a George Marshall.

And instead we're awash with Rick Santorums.

So it occurs to me is that if reducing the U.S. defense budget growth in a sensible, strategically-planned, geopolitically coherent way relies on the sorts of gentlefolk of the sort much found in the U.S. Congress or in charge of the various executive agencies today making some sort of rational choices based on national interests and the cold calculation of economic and political realities we would be better off hoping for a pink magical pony to appear in a cloud of pixie dust, soar overhead and crap out lemon-verbena-scented golden nuggets of budgetary savings.


  1. I take a different view of this. The principle goal of the US political community from the beginning has been economic expansion linked with technological innovation. Since 1898, our national strategy has been to promote that goal through state policy. We've been successful at it.

    This explains why our "empire" is different in significant ways from earlier empires.

    The beginning of the Cold War created a new dynamic. We would have been happy to have gone back making household widgets after WWII, but the Soviet Union precluded that. Atomic weapons made us vulnerable and we could not let Europe and Asia sort themselves out without endangering our national existence. In that way the Cold War and our response to it was more or less determined.

    However, the actual turning point to decline and a decisive shift to what I would even describe as our own version of "totalitarianism" was made in 1992. Prior to that we had the chance of going back to a rational defense policy once the Soviet threat had disappeared. Our national leadership, with little or no debate, decided against that.

    We'll never go back now, but will follow the current course until it takes us over the cliff, the apparatus as we have allowed it to develop doesn't allow for anything else, much like the Soviet version of the same model . . .

  2. I agree with Seydlitz about 1992, but differ about the future. Once the Cold War ended we never really examined the "what next" question or what role the US should have in world affairs. The consensus seems to be to keep America as the "king of the hill" in terms of capability and influence, but of course that cannot last. Although I agree we're probably going over a cliff, I don't think it will be the defense budget that pushes us over.


    I don't see an expansive defense established as determined. You probably haven't heard about it, but my moles within the personnel system have told me the services have spent the last couple of years preparing for major force reductions. Additionally, some areas are already getting hit with reduced budgets - I'm seeing this myself in the reserve. Unless your mission is ISR, or you're actually deployed, there isn't much money beyond the minimum required for training and O&M.

    Over the last few months it's been made pretty clear that we're going to revisit the 1990's drawdown. Those personnel sources tell me we'll return to the zero-defect mentality where anyone who doesn't get the right blocks checked will be shown the door. It's inevitable at this point.

    I can't comment on the article too much because it's behind a pay wall. I would just make a couple of points:

    - A lot of the increased defense budget over the last ten years is because of two wars. It stands to reason the defense budget will go down once those wars are done. In fact, such "savings" are already projected by the White House, CBO, etc. when looking at the 10-year budget window.

    - Budgets can't take place in a vacuum, and it sounds like this is the big point Farley is making. While I think the DoD can certainly to the same with less to a certain degree, big budget cuts will require a reexamination of our defense commitments. Credible defensive alliance with allies across the world is very expensive.

    - Cost comparisons with other nations need to be taken with a grain of salt. We don't know what China, for example, actually spends on defense and it's not straightforward to compare us anyway. For example, our spending on health care for for military personnel and their families is about $56 billion a year - or about the size of the UK's entire defense budget - and the UK is #4 on the list of world-wide defense spenders! A lot of that is not only our spending, but the fact that we're a big country. On a per-capita basis we spend about double what most countries do. Cutting our budget in half is definitely doable and we can get an idea of what we'd have capability-wise by looking at other nations that spend about $1000 per capita on defense.

  3. Seydlitz: I'm not sure which came first, the chicken geopolitical vacuum or the Bushie neoimperalist egg, but I tend to agree that what appears to be the case either way is that a funtional majority of both sides has taken the position that "leaving is losing" and that includes overall defense expenditures. So while I think we disagree on the why, I agree that this train ain't capable of making a U-turn. We're going to survive, or fall off the cliff, with the moving-van-style geopolitical nimbleness we have today.

    Andy: "...we're going to revisit the 1990's drawdown. Those personnel sources tell me we'll return to the zero-defect mentality where anyone who doesn't get the right blocks checked will be shown the door. It's inevitable at this point."

    And that's kind of the point. Farley's main lede was that a combination of public indifference and internal wonkishness-and-bureaucratic-infighting have made it nearly impossible for this process to happen as part of a general reexamination of military means vs. potential geopolitical needs.

    Instead, it's going to be what it has been historically; in 1865, in 1918, to some extent in 1945 (less the Cold War) - the cuts are going to be determined by who has the most clout on the Hill, who's in who's pocket, who has the coolest Powerpoint, who has constituents who will lose jobs, who can be more scared of China, Brazil, Zimbabawe...basically, anything but any sort of actual geopolitical analysis.

    And, pace seydlitz, we've been successful that way because we've never 1) been in the position of being the pinnacle global power while 2) being in a very ill-defined and nebulous threat environment. We didn't have to be very good at it when our most likely foes were the Apache, the Hawaiians, the Spanish in decline, or the Hondurans. Our "economic expansion/technologic innovation" (i.e. bigger and more industrialized than our enemies) made us the biggest dog in the dog pound we chose.

    But I'm going to guess that this may well be a very fraught couple of decades, and we're in a poor position politically, socially, and economically to deal with it. Like I said; we really need a George Marshall and what we've got is a bunch of Leroy Gingriches and Joe Bidens. I don't see this as an immediate disaster, but I can see lots of ways this doesn't end well in the long run...

  4. Let me think about my response. Excellent thread Chief, but you don't need to hear it from me.

    Sink full of dirty dishes to wash. So, off to that. I would only say we should rename the Department of Defense the Department of Dominance, because that is what it is all about. Why not say it openly? Drop some of those dubious assumptions . . . Ever sooooo hard to do that . . .

  5. Seydlitz,

    I'd prefer to return to the Department of War personally.

  6. Andy-

    Personnel planners have always been "planning for the next "RIF". In 1970, I had two student Colonels going through flight training that predicted quite accurately how many Captains would be involuntarily released, denied retention past their initial obligation, etc when the Viet Nam draw down (which they predicted to start in about 2+years) was pretty much complete. How does 12,500 Captains strike you in light of today's end strengths? They said that Personnel even had the legislation drafted and ready to request so that Captains with Regular Army appointments could be involuntarily released. That was back when the vast majority of career active duty officers were reservists on extended active duty, and did not have the tenure protections of Regulars.

    I expressed my amazement that such plans were already in the file cabinets, and they said that if Congress wants to have a rapid draw down, the Army needed to be prepared to do it in a rapid and orderly fashion. "War plans" were not the only future oriented "Plans" at Army HQ.

    The subsequent rounds of RIF's etc hit just about that number, with the vast majority being involuntary releases and denial of retention. And the Army did get legal authority to RIF Regular Army Captains for the very first time - to avoid retaining sub par regulars while releasing excellent reserve officers. There were regular captains on a collision course with promotion passover, but the draw down would cause long periods between promotion boards, and the Army couldn't accept a drawn out passover based approach to getting rid of these guys. So we had a very defined RA officer RIF.

    A couple of the guys should remember those days.

  7. Doing some idle pondering about the current Defense Debate, I wonder: From 1941 until 1992, our "Defense" needs were imposed upon us. We weren't out "looking for threats", the threats were in our face. Yeah, we got mired in side shows re the Soviet threat, but it was indeed real. Has "Defense" become an objective rather than a means? Are our stupid imperial actions a cause of our decline or just s serious symptom of something more profoundly and basically wrong that is causing the decline?

    Just wondering.

  8. Al,

    I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that not much has changed in four decades.

    Ran across this today and I highly recommend it to you all for viewing. It's Andrew Bacevich giving a speech called "The Revisionist Imperative." Well worth 40 minutes of your time.

    3 parts on Youtube:

    Part 1
    Part 2
    Part 3

  9. Andy-

    Thanks for The Bacevich links. You should have said "required viewing".

    Funny coincidence, but I had just finished reading my older sister's homey recollections of WWII in a self-publish Memoir she wrote. I have posted several times that Americans have come to view war as an almost entertaining vicarious experience. Bacevich says it has become a "Spectator Sport" to convey the same concept. My sister's memories of WWII include rationing, who worked in war industries, who served in uniform, air raid drills, volunteer work wrapping bandages and hospital kits, etc. While the continental US was "safe from attack", the populace had a much deeper involvement in some sacrifice of the war effort.

    That said, unfortunately, there was far too much glamorization, primarily by those who never were on the field of battle. A bit of spectator sport.

    Equally interesting is his statement that one misconception from the 20th Century is, "War Works". I would suggest that Americans who subscribe to this try on the view of this from the eyes of Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Emperor Hirohito, etc. In short, does "war work" for those who initially initiate it? Did Operation Iraqi Freedom "work" for us?

    Third point he raised that cause me to think was the concept of us becoming the "Sole Superpower" following the fall of the USSR. Interesting that we have elevated the threat of terrorist actions to virtual superpower level since 9/11. Not a nation, not an industrially strong opponent, but a tactic of a small extreme. Where it was one the Axis or Soviets that we stood toe to toe with, it's now a bunch of rag tag zealots.

    Last is this whole notion of "The Greatest Generation", which tend to forget that during WWII, the amazing feat was America's full industrial mobilization which not seriously impoverishing the populace. As I mentioned above, many people worked in "war industries", yet the basic industries that sustained life at home continued. I knew many, many women who had no economic need to work that worked in some pretty grueling factories to keep up war production. George Marshall's "90 Division Gamble" was predicated, in part, on his realization that adding more divisions that 90 could very well undermine the industrial labor force providing the logistical spine of the Allied efforts. If you want to really read some amazing stuff, read up on the stories of the construction of all those air bases and Army posts during the War. Ft Chaffee, AR, for example, a complex of 1,100 buildings, was completed in 11 months. Those structures and the supporting infrastructure were still there and fully functional 40+ years later. Is the PWOT generation ready and willing to tackle one such project, no less several dozen?

    Bacevich is right. Somehow, we have gotten it all wrong.

  10. Al,
    yep the RA rif's were very real.
    they came later than the USAR rif's, but they happened just the same.
    back then they stressed that they were quantitative rather than qualitative, as if that made you fell better.
    a swell thanks for coming!

  11. Al,

    Bacevich, as always, makes a compelling argument. I like his formulation of the issues here quite a bit. He didn't mention it, but I was reminded of the famous quote by then SECSTATE Albright to Colin Powell in 1993:What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?

    I think Bacevich is correct that we, collectively, see military force simply another tool like any other for achieving our foreign policy goals.

  12. My first taste of war not being a "Spectator Sport" was in Viet Nam in early 1968. Not because of my combat experiences, but the words of the woman from whom we rented our unit's villas in Vung Tau. She was doing a lot of business in MPC (Military Payment Certificates) which were worthless outside of US facilities. She used the MPC to get GIs to buy here goods she could sell on the black market, traded them for other non-Viet currencies, etc. Besides the risk of her black marketeering, every 10 to 14 months, the series of MPCs in circulation would be abruptly invalidated and replaced, in a quick 24 hour operation, with new MPCs, rendering the old version worthless. After having been in country for a few months, had stayed at the villa a few times and had gotten to know her, I said, "Ahn, how can you risk having MPC on hand from your three rentals and your bar, if they could be suddenly rendered worthless?"

    Her answer: "Look at what my country is suffering. It's a mess. I doubt you Americans have the patience to sty mush longer. When you leave, the government of the South will fall to the North. I am a marked woman. For a year after university, I was a translator and aide at the US Embassy. If you stay long enough to discourage the North, think of what shape the country will be in after several more years of war. I am accumulating cash to bribe my mother's and my way out of Viet Nam. If I get that cash soon enough, then I can find fools to buy my three rental villas, our house and the bar. The cash will get us out and the money from our property will help us start a new life where ever we can go. I won't sell the property until we have enough cash for the bribes and the papers. MPCs are the fastest road to that cash, even with the risk. I reduce my MPC holdings about 10 months after a "conversion day" and wait until the conversion to start accepting MPC again. So far, so good." BTW, we paid our rent in Piastres, not MPC. The MOC were strictly bar receipts.

    In short, war was far from a spectator sport for the Vietnamese.

    Similarly, living on Paros, we know some who lived through the Nazi Occupation. They have a different view of war than most Yanks as well.

  13. Couldn't agree more with all three of you (Al, Andy, and Bachevich) - that a lot of what we've seen in the past ten years is probably a result of the infinitely tiny percentage of the U.S. (both the public and the governing classes) with skin in the "war game".

    As a sort of historical parallel, look at what happens here when we go for a couple of decades without a war; look at the general enthusiasm for the Civil War, and popular support for the Spanish-American War and WW1 - and compare it to the grim sort of "OK, let's win it and get this damn thing over with" approach to WW2 from the generation that had survived the "Great War"...

    So even without actually having to come face-to-face with war itself, even the vicarious experience of having to deal with the second-hand effects (and the realization that the outcome seldom lives up to the propaganda before and during) seems to sober both the public and the ruling classes.

    Seydlitz makes some good points with his following post on the current administration's white paper; we seem to be making up reasons for making defense policy. The objectives are based (as far as I can see) not so much on the world as it is but on the world as we wish it would be and the world we see through our Islamofascist beer goggles...