The Heritage Foundation’s first security backgrounder of the new year says the Quadrennial Defense Review process is broken: “Instead of establishing a road map for defense programs for the next 20 years, previous QDRs have been too budget-driven, purposefully shortsighted, and politically motivated.” Authors James Talent and Mackenzie Eaglen say there are signs the current QDR will be similarly flawed. They call upon Congress to assure it is a long-term, comprehensive review of strategy and forces, and “protect the QDR from arbitrary budget pressures.” Military analyst Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute has seconded their critique. However, there are practical reasons why QDR can never be what these conservative commentators wish it to be. Here are four of those reasons.
1. The Future Is Unknowable. U.S. policymakers have an atrocious track record for predicting future security challenges. Among the major developments that policymakers failed to foresee: the bombing of Pearl Harbor, North Korea’s invasion of the South, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Tet Offensive, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 9-11 attacks. They also didn’t anticipate how quickly our enemies would learn to exploit nuclear-weapons technology, ballistic missiles, the internet and improvised explosive devices. Since every new danger seems to be a colossal surprise to our intelligence community, it isn’t feasible to project military needs for the next 20 years. Remember, we’re dealing with a security apparatus that said Iraq was developing nukes and Iran wasn’t, when the precise opposite was true.
2. We’re Out Of Money. The federal government is running a budget deficit of $4 billion per day, which means the national debt is increasing by over a trillion dollars each year. One reason for this rapid deterioration in our fiscal health is that the United States — 5% of the global population and 25% of global output — is sustaining nearly half of all global military spending. That’s $700 billion out of $1.5 trillion worldwide, and I’m not even counting items like the Department of Energy’s nuclear-weapons program or the Department of Homeland Security. Yet somehow, Heritage seems to think policymakers are shortchanging the Pentagon, even though we are spending a million dollars per soldier to fight rag-tag insurgents in Afghanistan and have to borrow money from China to sustain our defense posture.
3. The Nation Is At War. The United States is engaged in a multi-front, multi-decade struggle that will determine whether democracy can cope with the challenge of information-age terrorism. New technology has empowered stateless adversaries in ways that would have been unimaginable two generations ago. Secretary Gates says that at least half of the joint force has to be postured for dealing with today’s threats, even if that means scaling back outlays for coping with other kinds of dangers that (1) don’t exist today and (2) may never exist in the future. What’s wrong with that? We’re still buying 2,500 stealthy fighters, when the rest of the world has none.
4. QDR Was Political From Day One. Politics, as David Easton remarked, is the authoritative allocation of values. In other words, it is the process by which societies establish priorities and allocate resources. So of course the quadrennial review is politicized, because it is part and parcel of the political enterprise. It was mandated by a political body (the Congress) and it is overseen by another political body (the Executive Branch). It is a longstanding complaint of engineers and academics that we need to get politics out of defense decisionmaking, but that is tantamount to removing democracy. These critics need to read the Constitution — our nation was not conceived to operate by fiat using five-year plans.
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