Considering how much effort went into its preparation, the Quadrennial Defense Review report sent to Capitol Hill on Feb. 6 is a surprisingly modest document. No signature weapon systems are canceled and no major redundancies among the services are eliminated. Instead, the report consists of a grab bag of minor program adjustments supposedly unified by an overarching strategic framework.
It isn’t easy to find the influence of that framework in the priorities of the fiscal 2007 defense spending request that accompanied the QDR report to Congress. The report calls for greater mobility, but the budget terminates both of the Air Force’s airlift programs. The report says America is engaged in a “long war” against terrorism, but the budget cuts back the Army’s planned number of combat brigades. The report says the Pentagon needs to rely more on market forces in its business practices, but the budget proposes creation of a monopoly for producing the most popular military engine in the world.
Despite these seeming disconnects between rhetoric and budgetary realities, the spending request is likely to be the high point of impact for the strategic paradigm underpinning the QDR. The rest of the year will witness a gradual erosion of its influence as political players and private-sector analysts pick apart the rather mediocre document that the Pentagon has presented to them. When the smoke clears to reveal a reconciled Defense Authorization Act for 2007, it will be apparent that the Quadrennial Defense Review didn’t matter; it was another missed opportunity, possibly the last on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s watch.
As this chronicle of growing irrelevance unfolds, policymakers and pundits will decry the nefarious role of politics in undermining meaningful change. It’s an easy charge to make and not totally wrong. But there are deeper reasons why the 2005 QDR won’t matter over the long run.
1. IT’S TOO LATE
Unlike in many parliamentary systems, American politics unfold according to an inflexible cycle of presidential elections every four years. That imbues the political system with a certain predictability, but it also creates problems because the planning horizon of politicians is out of sync with budgetary and technology cycles. New presidents take office too late to reshape the budget during their first year, and they are all too aware that another presidential election season will be in full swing during their fourth year. Thus, there is only a narrow window of opportunity for instigating big changes.
If a new president wants to bring about such changes, he needs to assume office with clear goals in mind and act quickly to implement them in the following year’s budget. That’s especially true when those goals may require more than one term to accomplish, as in the case of military transformation. Unfortunately, even though President Bush took office with a blueprint for transformation and won that necessary second term, Rumsfeld didn’t really hit the ground running. Strategic reviews and the filling of key positions took too long during the first year, and then the whole process was overwhelmed by the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001. More distractions followed: the Afghanistan war in 2002, the Iraq war in 2003, Abu Ghraib in 2004. So when the time came in 2005 for another term — and another QDR — Rumsfeld’s team had achieved precious little in the way of true transformation.
As it turned out, much of 2005 was consumed by the review itself. The sixth year of Bush’s eight years in office has commenced, and time is running out for military transformation. Two years ago, it was common for policymakers to say that hard choices would need to be made in the 2006 defense budget. When that didn’t happen, it was predicted that truly momentous shifts would unfold in 2007. Now, people around Rumsfeld are predicting real change in the 2008 budget. However, 2008 is the president’s last year in office, so nobody on Rumsfeld’s team is likely to be around to enforce the priorities contained in that budget. In other words, the transformationists have missed the budgetary boat. It’s too late to radically rearrange the nation’s defense posture.
2. A FLAWED VISION
Another reason why the 2005 QDR is doomed to irrelevance is doubts about the assumptions underpinning Rumsfeld’s strategic vision. Although Rumsfeld has initiated numerous useful innovations in the areas of jointness and intelligence gathering, the framework with which he approaches transformation has proven to be full of flaws:
The administration’s original blueprint for change assumed that the nation was in a strategic “pause” — a period of diminished tensions — during which it was prudent to take some risks while preparing for future threats.
The original blueprint assumed that the U.S. intelligence community had a unique capacity to collect and analyze information about emerging adversaries.
The blueprint assumed that new information technologies would deliver unprecedented gains in military performance across a spectrum of challenges and that few enemies could match the U.S. lead in cutting-edge technologies.
Despite frequent allusions to “asymmetric” threats, the blueprint implicitly assumed that future enemies would behave much like those of the past.
The experience of the past five years has proven these and other precepts of the Rumsfeld paradigm to be inadequate at best. It is apparent the nation is not in a strategic pause; the U.S. intelligence community isn’t all that good; new networks and sensors do not play a decisive role in coping with emerging enemies (and may empower those enemies more than they do U.S. forces); and today’s adversaries are so different from those of the past that they continually surprise U.S. military leaders.
So, the pretentious talk about getting inside the enemy’s decision cycle and conducting networked operations hasn’t produced a satisfactory outcome in the real world. The whole world can see the difficulty U.S. forces have countering a relative handful of poorly equipped insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously, when experience delivers such an ambiguous verdict on the value of an administration’s ideas, it’s not going to be easy to keep those ideas sold in Congress or the military.
3. THE SPECTER OF IRAQ
The war in Iraq looms far larger than any abstract discussion of military transformation in the public’s assessment of how well the military is performing. Anyone who has studied the history of America’s wars knows that this isn’t the first one in which major mistakes were made. But the nation had to be dragged into many of its past wars, rather than going willingly, and the leaders who conducted them tended to be a good deal more humble than the current crop of policymakers. So the fact that the present campaign to bring democracy to Mesopotamia is not progressing as policymakers predicted has diminished their stature and provided a yardstick against which to measure their success.
That is particularly true in Rumsfeld’s case, because so many features of the campaign were linked to his agenda for change. That the fight has not gone so well has to raise doubts about whether he and his advisers understand what the military needs. In retrospect, it seems that despite all the talk about asymmetric threats, Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and others had a rather unimaginative view of how unconventional the danger might become.
In fact, the imagination of the Bush administration’s defense team has proved deficient over and over again during the past five years — in its failure to anticipate the chaos that followed Saddam’s removal; in its failure to foresee a spreading insurgency; in its failure to find a solution to the danger posed by improvised explosive devices; and in its failure to understand the sources of suicide bombing. The cumulative effect of these failures is that America lost as many military personnel in Iraq in 2005 as in 2004, implying modest progress, at best, in winning the war. When such a debacle is unfolding daily in the nation’s news media, it inevitably erodes the confidence of lawmakers and the electorate in Pentagon policymakers. That not only makes policymakers less likely to push for change on other fronts, but also makes the changes they do embrace less likely to win popular support.
4. AN ALIENATED CONGRESS
Rumsfeld has so thoroughly alienated Congress that it no longer cares what he wants. Defense secretaries can usually count on the support of the president’s partisans on Capitol Hill, but that certainly isn’t true in Rumsfeld’s case. He began Bush’s second term with the uncommon spectacle of four Republican senators — Chuck Hagel, Trent Lott, John McCain and Olympia Snowe — expressing zero confidence in his leadership. Those four are among the most powerful and respected members of the majority, underscoring the stunningly bad job Rumsfeld has done of mobilizing legislative support for his agenda.
Rumfeld started his second run as defense secretary by telling Pentagon insiders he intended to take back control of the Pentagon from Congress — a remark that reached Capitol Hill in about a nanosecond. It’s been pretty much downhill since then, with the defense secretary seldom missing an opportunity to irritate lawmakers, with predictable results. For example, Congress has repeatedly cut money from his two biggest transformation initiatives for space, the Transformational Communications Architecture and the Space Radar. Both have the potential to deliver revolutionary gains in connectivity and awareness to war fighters. But congressional cuts are so sizable that policymakers have been forced to restructure both efforts, dealing a severe blow to Rumsfeld’s vision of a globally networked force.
People charged with the thankless task of defending Rumsfeld’s agenda on Capitol Hill recount numerous instances of legislators cutting programs as a way of retaliating against the perceived arrogance of the Pentagon’s civilian leaders. More often than not, the legislators they mention are members of Rumsfeld’s own party, rather than Democrats. So in addition to doubts about the Pentagon’s priorities and performance, there is a powerful dislike for the defense secretary in Congress that undercuts the reception his agenda receives.This means that when Congress begins scrutinizing the QDR report and 2007 defense spending request, those portions that don’t benefit troops in the field, or constituent interests, are in for a chilly reception.
5. THE MILITARY WELFARE STATE
As with the rest of the federal budget, defense spending is awash in rising entitlement obligations.
Budget analysts use the term “entitlements” for benefits granted in law to individuals in particular groups — the aged, the indigent and, so on. Economists traditionally distinguish entitlement spending from defense spending by arguing that the former is “mandatory,” whereas the latter is “discretionary.” But any lawmaker or bureaucrat who has ever tried to deny war fighters, reservists, veterans or their dependents a federal benefit knows this distinction is an academic one only.
Trying to withhold or withdraw a military benefit once it has been granted in law is the political equivalent of grasping the third rail on Washington’s Metro subway system — the moment you try, you’re dead. Since there is little sign of congressional interest in slowing the growth of military entitlements, it seems that the form of transformation truly is unstoppable: the slow transforming of the defense establishment from a warfare state into a welfare state.
As this trend progresses, many of the costly investment initiatives begun under the banner of military change and backed by the QDR will fall by the wayside for lack of funds. Rumsfeld saw when he first returned to the Pentagon that the cost of military benefits was out of control; that was one reason he favored substitution of machines for manpower in many missions. But the war on terrorism has turned out to be a labor-intensive undertaking and Rumsfeld has been unable to slow the growth of spending on benefits.
6. THE MISSING MANAGER
The sixth reason why the QDR won’t matter much may be hard for some to believe. It concerns the way Rumsfeld runs his department, which is very much at variance with his reputation as a tight manager. In the past five years, the public has grown accustomed to hearing stories about how Rumsfeld is imposing his priorities on a hidebound bureaucracy and micromanaging even the most mundane workings of the military establishment. The predecessor he is most frequently compared to is Robert S. McNamara, the former Ford Motor Co. executive who reformed Pentagon budget processes and surrounded himself with brainy whiz kids intent on applying systems analysis to every management challenge.
But there is a crucial difference between McNamara’s tenure and Rumsfeld’s: McNamara really ran the Pentagon and relished making hard choices. Rumsfeld isn’t like that. Longtime associates recall how hard it was to get a decision out of Rumsfeld as long ago as his service in the Nixon administration, and that refrain is repeated by many who have served under him during his second tour as defense secretary. They describe him asking a lot of questions but seldom coming to closure by making a choice. Issues tend to drift endlessly and Rumsfeld is remarkably detached from much of what happens in the Pentagon.
An episode that occurred during the QDR deliberations reinforces the impression of a missing manager. About midway through the process, shortly after deputy defense secretary designate Gordon England had taken over from the departing Paul Wolfowitz, the joint chiefs decided they’d had enough of endless debates. They had organizations to run and missions to execute, and collectively had grown sick of what seemed to them like an open-ended bull session. So they told England they wanted to see Rumsfeld to discuss their grievances. The significance of the story is that they had rarely seen Rumsfeld in any QDR meetings up to that point, and that they weren’t sure they’d be allowed to meet with him.
In other words, although the public image of Rumsfeld is a man of action constantly engaged in bureaucratic warfare, he is often missing in action. He allowed the QDR to drift aimlessly for the better part of a year, even though it was supposed to revitalize the blueprint for his most important initiative as defense secretary — military transformation. If Rumsfeld operated that way during the analytical phase of the exercise, it’s a reasonable conclusion that he’ll behave the same way during the marketing and implementation of the recommendations — distant and detached.
So the definitive reason why the QDR won’t matter is that, when it comes time to execute the particulars of the review, most of the time Rumsfeld won’t be paying attention.