Presentation to Army Leaders at the RAND Arroyo Center
Thank you for the opportunity to be here tonight, discussing what may be the single most neglected factor in Army plans for the future.
That factor is politics — the process by which we periodically replace all the senior managers in the executive branch of the federal government and much of the Congress.
It’s probably a good thing that the Army is an apolitical institution, because democracy doesn’t work well when people with guns decide they want to take an active role in politics.
But sometimes the service seems so detached from political trends that it fails to prepare for even the most likely electoral developments.
For example, one year from today we may have an administration that wants to be completely out of Iraq within 15 months.
Or we may have an administration that wants to keep 100,000 soldiers there indefinitely, and decides Future Combat Systems should be the bill-payer.
How much focused thought have Army leaders given to either possibility?
Probably not much — even though past history tells us political developments can have a profound impact on the military.
During the Civil War, Democrats continuously impeded Lincoln’s efforts to win the conflict.
During the early days of World War Two, Republicans tried to block Roosevelt’s efforts to rearm.
If partisan politics could intrude into the military realm on the two occasions when national survival was at stake, then we should expect even greater intrusions at a time when the stakes are less clear.
So we need to understand how party politics shapes defense policy — not because we like it, but because it is a fundamental reality of life in a democracy.
Did you know that a recent study of weapons outlays found 91% of all the variation in spending over the last four decades was traceable directly or indirectly to which party controlled the Senate and the White House?
Like me, you probably thought that threats were the main driver of weapons spending, but the data show otherwise.
I’ll come back to that later, but my point right now is that you can’t do a good job of preparing the Army for the future unless you have some grasp of who the two major parties represent, what they believe about national security, and how they will reshape spending priorities after the election.
So that’s what I intend to discuss over the next 25 minutes.
I’m going to spend a few minutes on each of five topics…
— How the two major parties evolved.
— How they think about national security.
— How much money they are inclined to spend on defense.
— How they prefer to allocate funds within the defense budget.
— And how you should prepare for an election victory by either side.
Who Are the Republicans and the Democrats?
Let’s start by asking the question of who the Democrats and Republicans are, starting with the origins of the Democratic Party.
The Democrats are actually the oldest political party in the world, having been founded by Thomas Jefferson as the Democratic-Republican Party in 1792.
They shortened their name to Democratic Party shortly after putting Andrew Jackson in the White House in 1828, but that proved to be the high water mark for party fortunes in the 19th Century because they made the fatal mistake of failing to fully support the Union in the Civil War.
As a result, the fledgling Republican Party led by Abraham Lincoln established a near monopoly on the White House through the end of the century.
The Democrats were dealt a second blow in 1896 just as the nation was beginning to forget the animosities spawned by the Civil War, when William Jennings Bryan seized control of the party from eastern business interests and launched an electoral crusade on behalf of farmers and labor.
That crusade failed miserably, enabling the Republicans under William McKinley to solidify their control of the national government until the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
The Depression gave Democrats a new lease on life, permitting their pro-labor coalition to dominate national politics until the Vietnam War led to the breakup of the New Deal coalition in the 1970s.
After that, the party drifted to the left, setting the stage for the Reagan realignment that restored Republicans to national preeminence.
To summarize, since the populist crusade of William Jennings Bryan the Democrats have been the party of the Left in America, favoring labor interests, regulation of business and robust government spending on welfare programs.
However, they have not always been so antiwar as they are today — in fact, Democratic presidents presided over most of the big military buildups of the 20th Century.
Back then, prior to the Vietnam conflict, it was the Republicans who were more likely to be isolationists, and the Democrats who were the internationalists.
Which brings me to the Republicans, the younger and more nationalist of the major parties.
The Republican Party only came into being on the eve of the Civil War, but it quickly became the majority party after Abraham Lincoln led the Union to victory.
In fact, it provided all of the Presidents but two — Cleveland and Wilson — between the beginning of the Civil War and the onset of the Great Depression 70 years later.
Throughout that time, and especially after the administration of Teddy Roosevelt, the Republicans were firmly tied to business interests, favoring low taxes, minimal regulation and a limited role for the federal government in domestic life.
That message didn’t sell well during the Depression, but for most of the rest of the Party’s history it has delivered sizable majorities against losing Democratic candidates.
So you could say that Republicans are the traditional majority party in America, even though they have traded places with Democrats on key issues on several occasions.
However, a brief historical narrative of how the parties evolved doesn’t fully explain why they behave they way they do.
So before turning to differences in the way that Democrats and Republicans approach national security, let’s look at how electoral dynamics have shaped the identities of the major parties.
There, I see three key influences at work…
First, our method of electing officials at the national level offers few rewards for coming in second at the polls, so each party is a fairly diverse coalition of interests cobbled together in the hopes of winning 51% of the vote.
That means there will always be tensions within each party over controversial issues like the war in Iraq.
But it also means that disagreements within the parties tend to disappear as the general election approaches, because the main goal is to win the election and that requires unity.
So by early fall both of the parties are going to sound like everyone in them shares the same views, and all their energies will be channeled into attacking the opposing party.
Second, the constituencies that the parties represent tend to be stable over time, even though their positions on issues may shift radically from generation to generation.
For example, the Republican Party was isolationist and protectionist during the early decades of the last century, whereas today it is more favorably disposed to global intervention and free trade — but its support of business interests has seldom wavered.
Similarly, the Democratic Party harbored many supporters of slavery in the 1860s whereas it strongly supported the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but its support of labor interests has persisted for over a hundred years.
So it isn’t really surprising that the antiwar Democrats of today are the same party that presided over big military buildups in the past, because America’s political parties exist to advance the interests of particular groups rather than espouse immutable ideologies.
Third, because the parties are all about winning domestic political power for their backers, their positions on defense and foreign policy tend to be extensions of their domestic agendas.
Thus, Republicans favor shifting money from welfare to warfare, because they think national defense is a vital responsibility of the government whereas the welfare state stifles market forces and individual freedom.
Democrats, on the other hand, usually want to shift funding from warfare to welfare, because they favor a more expansive role for the federal government in supplementing and regulating the private economy.
When you combine all three of these factors together, you get a political system in which the two parties tend to be mirror-image opposites of each other on foreign policy questions…
— If one party favors isolationism, the other favors interventionism.
— If one party welcomes immigrants, the other wants to keep them out.
— If one party thinks global warming is a crisis, the other thinks it barely matters at all.
The logic of their electoral circumstances pushes them to opposite extremes, forcing uncommitted voters to choose between diametrically different agendas in the general election.
Which is pretty much where we are today.
How do the Parties View National Security?
With all that in mind, let’s now consider the public pronouncements of the major Republican candidates for President and see if we can discern some core values concerning national security that all of them have espoused.
I’ve looked at their speeches and web sites, and here are the four core Republican beliefs that I detect…
First, Republicans believe in peace through strength — they do not believe that the power of ideas or values is an acceptable substitute for investing in military systems and manpower.
Peace through strength is a notion that traces its pedigree a long way back in American history, not just to Ronald Reagan but all the way to George Washington, who borrowed it from Edward Gibbon for use in his first address to Congress.
What it means in today’s world is that there will be no “peace dividend” when the Iraq war ends if Republicans are running the government, because they think — to paraphrase Gibbon — that the best way of avoiding war is to constantly prepare for it.
Second, Republicans believe in realism when assessing threats to national security and strategies for dealing with them.
Realism for today’s Republicans does not mean the detached and calculating diplomacy of a Henry Kissinger, but rather harboring a healthy skepticism about the motives and dependability of friends and foes alike.
So Republicans believe that America must maintain the capabilities and will to act unilaterally when circumstances require it, even if that makes us unpopular in other places.
Third, although Republicans believe that national interest should be the main driver of security policies, they think there is still a role for ideals in shaping our overseas goals.
Specifically, they think that the best way to promote peace and stability abroad is to advance the cause of democratic institutions and free markets.
That doesn’t mean invading countries just to impose representative government, but it does mean that if you have some more tangible reason for invading, it’s a good idea to try to fashion a democratic political system and market economy before departing.
Finally, Republicans prefer practical, concrete solutions to overseas challenges rather than abstractions like deterrence or global opinion.
Thus, they are much more inclined to invest in military hardware than global diplomacy, because hardware is a real and tangible thing, whereas diplomatic agreements seem ephemeral and undependable.
For instance, Republicans were never comfortable with diplomatic efforts to achieve nuclear arms control during the cold war, and sought to build missile defenses as a more concrete response to the danger.
Collectively, these four values might be said to represent the “traditional” American approach to security matters, since they are core beliefs of the party that has dominated national political life for two-thirds of the time since the Civil War occurred.
But there is another point of view that might be called the “cosmopolitan” or “liberal” approach to security matters, and that is reflected in the policies espoused by Democratic candidates.
Virtually all of the Democratic candidates during this campaign season have subscribed to four core precepts about national security…
First, Democrats believe that traditional security concerns are waning as a source of danger to the nation, and that we need to look beyond the military balance to understand the challenges we face.
Problems like climate change, global poverty and the spread of infectious diseases potentially pose a much greater danger than aggression by China, they say, and therefore we need to shift our resources to dealing with those concerns.
Democrats believe that while the military still has a vital role to play in national security, we need to address the root causes of emerging security challenges, which often lie outside the military realm.
Second, Democrats believe that morality is central to the proper conduct of foreign affairs, and that the most effective tool America possesses for advancing its interests is the power of its values.
Not only will other countries adapt their own behavior to the example that America sets, but a foreign policy that adheres to the highest moral standards will be easier to sell at home.
So Democrats pay more attention than Republicans to issues like the rights of detainees and the behavior of American companies overseas, because they think the nation’s global success is closely tied to its image as a moral beacon.
Third, Democrats believe that collective action by like-minded nations is preferable to unilateralism in addressing security challenges.
Properly executed, they say, collective action costs less, works better and wins broader domestic support than going it alone.
Thus Democrats favor working through the United Nations and other collective-security organizations to avoid conflict, and when conflicts do occur they favor coalition warfare to relying solely on U.S. forces.
Finally, Democrats believe that diplomacy should always be tried first, before resorting to military action in dealing with security challenges.
In many circumstances, they say, diplomatic pacts and dialogue are the only viable way of dealing with a threat because of the unreliability and collateral effects of military action.
For example, most Democrats favor arms control and deterrence as a way of addressing the danger posed by nuclear weapons, because they don’t believe missile defense can work and they fear provoking an arms race.
In summary, the Democrats assign considerably less importance than Republicans to military power in securing the nation’s interests overseas, and they favor so-called “soft power” alternatives such as diplomacy and economic aid to dealing with many security challenges.
Let’s look now at how the differences between the two parties are likely to translate into spending levels for the Department of Defense, depending on which party wins the White House in November.
Party Differences on Defense Spending
After ten years of steady increases, the Pentagon today is spending more money that it did at the height of the Korean or Vietnam wars.
If you count just the baseline budget request of $515 billion for fiscal 2009, the 3.4% of the economy it represents seems modest by comparison with any year during the cold war.
But if you include likely spending for Iraq and Afghanistan plus the nuclear-weapons programs of the Energy Department, defense outlays for 2009 rise to about $700 billion, or 5% of the economy.
We’ve been at that level and higher in the past, but always there was a peer adversary to justify so much spending, and today there is not.
So it is reasonable to ask whether we are approaching a top in defense spending.
The answer is that if the Democratic Party wins control of the White House and Congress in November, it will take a huge demand stimulus from the likes of Osama bin Laden to prevent a leveling off and then decline in defense spending in subsequent years.
If John McCain and the Republicans win in November, we will still see a leveling off of defense spending in the absence of a national emergency, but probably no after-inflation decline in outlays.
How do I know this?
Well first of all, look at the political agenda on which the Democrats are running…
— We’re going to leave Iraq.
— We’re going to have universal healthcare.
— We’re going to pay as we go rather than borrowing.
These goals are a prescription for reduced defense outlays.
Now look at our fiscal circumstances.
The projected federal budget deficit in fiscal 2009 is over a billion dollars per day, possibly half a trillion dollars for the full year.
Both parties agree current spending trends can’t continue, so unless there’s some sort of an emergency even the Republicans will show restraint in proposing new military initiatives.
Republicans don’t want to fund new domestic programs like the Democrats do, but they would like to cut taxes, so either way this looks like the toughest fiscal environment in a generation for pursuing new defense projects.
Finally, look at the threat, the factor we usually assume drives increases in defense spending…
— No peer competitor.
— No follow-on attack to 9-11 in seven years.
— No sign insurgents are poised to make a comeback in Iraq.
Clearly, these are circumstances in which both parties will find an abundance of reasons for moderating recent increases in defense spending.
The Republicans will be inclined to take any reduction in outlays for Iraq and plow it into increasing the size of the military and the quality of its equipment, so they are unlikely to substantially reduce the buying power of the Pentagon budget.
But the Democrats are likely to use the defense budget as a bill-payer for domestic initiatives ranging from healthcare to renewable energy to a middle-class tax cut — just as they did during the Carter and Clinton years.
Differences on the Composition of Defense Spending
Which brings me to my fourth topic, how the parties differ in the way they would allocate funding within the defense budget.
It’s important to understand not just how much money the parties are inclined to spend on defense, but how they prioritize various military activities.
While there is something to be said for the idea that a rising top-line lifts all services, you will recall that early in his tenure Secretary Rumsfeld wanted to increase defense spending while cutting the number of Army divisions by 20%.
So we need to look beyond the top-line, to the composition of defense spending under a future administration.
And there, I have a worrisome tale to tell you about the Democrats.
A couple of years ago, the analytical staff at Merrill Lynch decided to conduct a statistical study relating weapons spending to partisan control of the government.
The idea was to figure out whether shifts in party control might be a good indicator of where the value of defense stocks was headed.
Well it turns out they are a very good indicator, much more reliable than shifts in the threat or in public opinion.
What Merrill Lynch found after painstaking analysis of the data was that 76% of all the decline in weapons spending over the past 40 years was attributable to Democratic control of the White House and/or the Senate.
They also found that an additional 15% of downward momentum in weapons outlays was statistically related to prior-year levels of spending, which in turn were substantially driven by which party was in power.
Bottom line: about 90% of all the weapons cuts made by the Pentagon over the past few decades were caused directly or indirectly by whether Democrats were running the government.
There was one important caveat in these findings, which was that partisan control of the House of Representatives had little impact on weapons outlays.
But when it came to who controlled the White House or Senate, Democratic dominance was synonymous with declining weapons expenditures.
In fact, the Merrill Lynch analysis projected that the highest level of weapons outlays likely under a Democratic administration elected in 2008 would be well below the lowest level likely under a Republican administration — with the spread of possible outcomes between the lowest Democratic number and the highest Republican number totaling $100 billion.
That’s a staggering difference when you consider that we are only talking about the 38% of the defense budget represented by the investment accounts.
It means that programs like the Future Combat Systems, JTRS and TSAT would stand little chance of surviving under a Democratic administration.
Perhaps you are skeptical, as I was, that party politics could play such a decisive role in determining how much the military spends on weapons.
For instance, you might argue that since the electorate tends to entrust control of the government to Democrats only when wars are ending — as in 1976 and 1992 — the decline in weapons outlays during the Carter and Clinton years was really just a reflection of diminished danger overseas.
However, there is no inherent contradiction between that line of reasoning and what Merrill Lynch is predicting if Democrats are elected in 2008, because we know that both Democratic candidates are committed to ending the Iraq war.
Now, it isn’t likely that personnel or readiness accounts would fall at the same rate as investment accounts under a Democratic administration, because Clinton and Obama are both committed to growing the size of the ground forces and Democrats in Congress have traditionally emphasized readiness over weapons spending.
So one way you might describe the likely composition of defense spending under a Democratic administration is that there would be more consumption and less investment.
But even within the investment accounts, Democrats are likely to make a series of distinctions between various types of programs…
— So-called transformation initiatives that are poorly rooted in the political system would get the axe first.
— Programs executed in “red” states where there is little political payoff for Democrats, such as the F-22 fighter, would also tend to fare poorly.
— Programs that meet the near-term operational needs of ground forces would tend to fare better, as would programs focused on the politically powerful National Guard.
— And programs executed in electoral swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania that employ large numbers of unionized workers would also tend to do well.
As this typology of programs implies, domestic politics would play a big part in determining how the Democrats decided which programs to kill or keep.
Of course, the biggest impact that politics would have on Democratic defense priorities would be the simple need to free up money for domestic initiatives, and that makes me wonder whether a Democratic administration really would follow through on plans to increase the size of the force — especially if we depart Iraq.
Turning to the Republicans, we can see that their priorities within the defense budget would be a good deal different from those of the Democrats…
— First, they would inherit a defense agenda fashioned by a Republican administration.
— Second, the mainstream of the Republican Party wants to stay in Iraq until we win.
— Third, there is no impulse among Republicans to shift money from warfare to welfare.
— Finally, Republicans are not closely tied to members of organized labor working in depots and defense plants.
Beyond that, Senator McCain has called for substantially larger increases in the size of the force than either Democratic candidate, and he has made the nation’s moral obligation to warfighters and their families a centerpiece of his military agenda.
But Senator McCain also shares with many other members of his party — such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — a distinct antipathy towards the defense industry.
Although Republicans are usually favorably disposed to business interests, some party leaders see defense contractors as the antithesis of free enterprise — as a self-serving club of industrialists who are totally dependent on the government for their welfare.
As President, McCain would take a hard look at the military modernization program he has inherited from the Bush Administration, and some programs such as the F-22 and C-17 might well disappear.
What would happen to the big networking initiatives such as FCS under McCain is anyone’s guess, although I think we can all agree that now would be a good time to lose the lead-systems-integrator concept.
The bottom line on an administration led by John McCain or any other major Republican candidate is that it would maintain or increase funding for personnel and readiness while shifting money within the investment accounts to emphasize missions such as missile defense and littoral warfare.
Unlike Democrats, Republicans would continue to spend money on military transformation — but their notion of what that phrase meant would increasingly be driven by the demands of the global war on terror rather than some gee-whiz vision of netcentric warfare.
Preparing for the Next Administration
All of which brings me, finally and briefly, to my last topic — how the Army should prepare for the next administration.
The good news is that, after what you have been through over the last five years, neither party doubts your need for more troops or equipment reset.
The bad news is that one party is determined to get out of Iraq no matter what the consequences, while the other might be willing to tie down a large portion of your fighting force there for decades to come.
I think you can reasonably assume that your personnel and readiness accounts will be well funded, at least in the near term.
Which means that the main near-term challenge from a new administration is likely to come in the investment accounts — especially the big-ticket programs like FCS and JTRS that deliver little near-term capability and have weak political support on Capitol Hill.
Future Combat Systems is the most vulnerable such program, because it is service-specific rather than joint, hard to understand, and not closely tied to a regional political constituency.
So let’s use FCS as an example of how to posture Army programs for survival in a new administration.
I think there are five basic themes that have to be forcefully conveyed by the whole Army leadership if the program is to survive…
— First, it must be clear that without the improvements in agility, awareness and protection associated with FCS, many soldiers are going to die unnecessarily in the future.
— Second, it must be clear that if FCS is terminated, a similar amount of money (or more) will need to be spent on other initiatives that will not work as well.
— Third, it must be clear that FCS technology is already making a difference on the battlefield, and that soldiers will not need to wait until 2014 before they see any benefits.
— Fourth, it must be clear that in the context of all Army spending planned over the next three decades, FCS is a relatively small portion of resources, especially relative to the benefits it will deliver.
— Finally, it must be clear that this huge program sustains jobs and communities in places where leaders of both parties have a real interest in the outcome of elections.
If you can’t convey these themes in an earnest and convincing way, then you need to face the likelihood that the centerpiece of Army modernization is doomed — along with other equally arcane initiatives such as JTRS and WIN-T.
It’s not hard to keep such programs going when the nation is scared and defense dollars are growing, but we are coming to the end of that phase in the spending cycle.
In the years ahead, each of your programs will survive or die based on a combination of operational and political merit, and as of today the political system hasn’t really embraced FCS.
This is your last year to build a strong political base for the program before the whole landscape changes.
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