Unfinished Business

Ten huge challenges Bob Gates leaves behind.

As U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates takes the latest Asian spin in his endless series of departure laps, he is receiving widespread praise for his reformist language and his stewardship of the Department of Defense (DOD). Although there is certainly much to applaud -- some canceled weapons programs, the search for efficiencies, and a large volume of persuasive rhetoric -- Gates's real legacy is one of deferred discipline.

In reality, Gates is leaving behind a large agenda of seriously unfinished business. He has been a reluctant disciplinarian at DOD. As he himself put it in a June 1 interview with Politico: "I think one of the reasons it's probably time for me to leave is that sometimes too much experience can get in the way, and you can get too cautious.… It may … be making me more cautious than I ought to be."

Gates's instinct for reformist rhetoric but deferred discipline at the Pentagon will leave incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta with 10 serious challenges:


Gates allowed "mission creep" to infect the services, particularly the ground forces. Rather than use last year's Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) to set clear mission priorities, he signed off on an expansion of defense missions, all of which were given equal priority.

Counterinsurgency (COIN), nation-building, counterterrorism operations, and stabilization and reconstruction are right up there with conventional deterrence, nuclear deterrence, forward presence, and humanitarian operations. They are all equal, and the stated intention is to reduce risks in all of them to as close to zero as possible.

Despite the secretary's disdain for alternative defense proposals (he called them "math, not strategy"), this unlimited agenda of missions does not constitute a strategy. It is a grocery list that justifies ever-expanding, global U.S. military engagement and, of course, significantly more resources than the country can ever afford.

As he leaves, Gates has called for a review of the strategy, but the shopping list has not changed. The new review uses the same QDR framework and is being carried out by the same team that produced the first flawed version. Expect nothing revolutionary from this review. It will take a complete relook by the new secretary to impose real priorities, such as asking where the next big conventional war is to be fought (hard to find) and why the less-than-successful exercises in Iraq and Afghanistan should justify some kind of global counterinsurgency mission for U.S. forces.

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Gates has backed into a declining defense budget rather than showing the way. Instead of recognizing that debts, the deficit, and the end of the wars are certain to put defense budgets on a downward glide path (one the country is already on), Gates fought budgetary trench warfare year by year, trying to protect real growth in his resources and arguing it was absolutely necessary.

The public thinks he is a budget cutter (there's that rhetoric, again), but he has been a stalwart promoter of growth in what is already the largest U.S. defense budget since 1945, in constant dollars. This budget strategy has nurtured illusions in the services that budgets might continue to grow, instead of stimulating planning for the inevitable downturn.

Panetta will have to craft the new, unpopular, but necessary message for the service planners. And that message will need to describe in stark terms what the coming era of cuts will be like -- something well beyond the $400 billion over 12 years that the White House recently set as its target.

The president's proposal is an illusion. It would be the high-water mark for defense, a "nothingburger" easily accomplished by simply increasing the defense budget every year for the next 12 years by the rate of inflation. The reality is more accurately reflected in the Simpson-Bowles, Rivlin-Domenici, and Frank-Paul projections, which foresee defense budgets declining by $500 billion to $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

That's more like the build-downs we have seen in the past, such as when the defense budget went down by 35 percent in constant dollars between 1985 and 1998, much of it under the presidency of George H.W. Bush and the secretaryship of Dick Cheney.



Gates has left behind a legacy of numerical fudge that will have to be swept away. For example, he cleverly claimed that he had achieved savings of more than $330 billion from canceling weapons programs. He did terminate or cancel some programs. But the "savings" were mostly well off in the future; even the Pentagon cannot provide details to back up the number, when asked.

More seriously, the "savings" were seriously overstated. They included the termination of the C-17 and the F-22 aircraft programs, neither of which had any dollars in DOD's long-term budget plan. And though the savings counted the funds that would no longer be spent, they did not subtract the funds that were being committed to new programs to replace the canceled ones, like the Army's new fighting vehicle program. The real savings are probably less than half those Gates claimed. Panetta is going to have to clean up funny numbers like this to restore credibility to his budget proposals.

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Gates repeatedly underlined his commitment to helping the civilian agencies -- the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development -- obtain more resources and avoid the "militarization" of U.S. foreign policy. Good rhetoric. But when asked whether DOD would reduce its budget so the civilian budgets might grow, he regularly made a joke out of the answer -- why would he agree to cut his budget? So where did he think the funds would come from -- domestic program cuts?

What's more, he has continued to support the dramatic expansion of DOD authorities and funding that compete with those of civilian agencies in such areas as security and economic assistance. This has weakened civilian agencies' ability to make the case for their programs and has given the services incentives to keep expanding those missions. Panetta is going to want to take a hard look at this growing militarization problem.

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Gates gets points for tackling the mammoth DOD infrastructure, the overhead that occupies more than a third of the active-duty forces and consumes more than 40 percent of the defense budget. But his thin efficiencies effort has, by his own admission, labored mightily to produce a mouse of savings and reforms.

Efficiencies rarely emerge from the bottom up; they require strong, persistent leadership from the top and a serious reduction in both military and civilian personnel in the back office. Panetta is going to have to get tougher, a lot tougher, to discipline DOD's overhead. Budgets for overhead functions are going to have to be cut to incentivize reform, as they were in the 1990s, when Panetta was director of the Office of Management and Budget.

For overhead savings to be enduring, moreover, DOD has to seriously "do less," meaning mission reform, and not backfill military slots with more civilians or, worse, contractors.

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Gates failed to get weapons costs under control, as the new estimate of $1 trillion to operate the new F-35 fighter shows. Ashton Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, continually promises cost discipline, but the annual Government Accountability Office studies on hardware price tags makes it clear that they continue to grow unchecked.

The sad history here is that almost no secretary, with the possible exception of David Packard (as deputy), has ever gotten his arms around this problem. As long as the services can promise lower costs than they encounter and the contractors can buy into a program with the same promise, this problem will be with us. Panetta is going to have to climb this mountain, too, or big-ticket items like the Navy's Littoral Combat System or the next-generation bomber will eat the rest of a declining procurement budget.

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Gates did little to solve the growing problem of military compensation, which has regularly risen above the level of wage growth in the larger economy and is a political "third rail" for secretaries. Military pay raises that are made across the board cost a lot and do not help with managing the forces. It is increasingly urgent to address specific needs with bonuses and targeted pays, something DOD study groups have recommended for years. Good luck with this one.

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The other third rail is military health care and retirement benefits. Gates complained, but made only a minimal effort to adjust Tricare premiums for able-bodied retirees and their families, which have not been raised in more than 15 years. The big problem of defense health-care costs remains to be tackled, much like the larger health-care problem for the United States as a whole.

The current retirement system is due for major reform. Anyone with less than 20 years' service gets no retirement; all those with over 20 can draw it right away, regardless of their private-sector employment opportunities. Today's military retirement system means the services have to keep everyone staying in until they are eligible for the benefit, making it hard to manage the force by keeping the good performers and weeding out the less good. Bad for force management, bad for the budget. Good luck here, too.

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Gates did nothing to shrink the DOD's geographic footprint, e.g., close some bases in the United States. There has not been a new round of base closures in six years, but one is badly needed. The services know DOD's footprint is still larger than they need. Panetta is not going to like this one; he lived through a local base closure as a member of Congress. Maybe it will look different from the secretary's office.

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Finally, there is the question of reducing the size of the ground forces, which grew by 92,000 over the past decade. Gates promised to lower forces by 47,000, though only starting in 2015. But ending combat deployments, shrinking that pesky COIN mission, putting the DOD infrastructure on a diet, and dealing with declining budgets make this a more timely option for Panetta. The attrition of the forces should begin now, as U.S. forces go to zero in Iraq and begin the withdrawal from Afghanistan; the country no longer has the rotation needs these large deployments required.

As secretary, Gates said, even did, many good things. But his rhetoric had more discipline than his actions, leaving a tough agenda for his successor. In this tight fiscal era, it is time for Panetta to put words into action.

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The List

Libyan Limbo

Six reasons why it's been so tough to get Qaddafi to quit.

As the war in Libya drags on, the United States faces a familiar predicament: Why, despite possessing overwhelming military superiority over any foe, does it have such a hard time using the threat of force to push much weaker dictators around?

This isn't a new problem. During the 1990s, the United States and its allies found it much harder than expected to convince Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to stop repressing opposition groups and open suspected weapons facilities to inspectors, to protect civilians in Bosnia, to force Somali warlords to stop pillaging humanitarian relief efforts, and to compel Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to end his violent ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo.

A decade ago, we wrote a book pondering this very puzzle. The short answer was that political constraints often bind the United States and its coalition partners much more tightly than their adversaries, and in ways that offset advantages in raw military power. Those painfully learned lessons apply more than ever in Libya today and help explain why Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi isn't flinching against the world's most sophisticated military forces -- despite his near-complete international isolation.

NATO forces and their Libyan rebel allies have scored some notable successes over Qaddafi. Eight high-ranking Libyan officers, including five generals, defected to Italy this week. Rebel forces drove Qaddafi's troops back from Misrata last month, ending the suffocating siege of the strategically located city. But despite these advances, neither side appears poised to break out of the months-long military stalemate in western Libya.

NATO is not attempting to bring about a complete military defeat of Qaddafi, which would require a much larger military effort, but is instead trying to impose sufficient costs that his regime either surrenders or collapses. Airstrikes targeting the leadership compound in Tripoli, while ostensibly designed to degrade Libyan command-and-control capabilities, are also likely intended to hit Qaddafi and key regime figures. At the same time, international financial and military assistance to the ragtag rebel forces is intended to bolster the internal revolt against his regime. But targeting elusive (or at times just well-bunkered) regime leaders from the air is hard, and, so far, Qaddafi is showing resilience and resolve -- much more than many advocates of intervention expected.

Six factors drawn from recent decades' experience explain NATO's difficulties -- and why the Libya war could drag on for a long while longer.

1. Asymmetrical stakes: In their classic volume on coercive diplomacy, international relations scholars Alexander George and William Simons concluded that a strategy of military threats has a higher chance of success "if the side employing it is more highly motivated than its opponent by what is at stake in the crisis." For the United States and NATO, this is a humanitarian mission, while for Qaddafi and his cronies it is a matter of life or death. Which side is more highly motivated?

As long as NATO's goal is regime change, which appears to be the case, any bargain with Qaddafi's regime is off the table. Furthermore, the International Criminal Court prosecutor's request for arrest warrants for Qaddafi puts him further into a corner from which he may see no good options but to fight his way out. All of this means that Qaddafi will throw everything he has into this struggle, while the United States and its allies will not -- and Qaddafi knows that.

2. Coup-proofing: Given the devastation that NATO is wreaking on Libya's armed forces, as well as the defections of top members of Qaddafi's regime, Europeans and Americans may be holding out hope that members of the Libyan leader's inner circle could oust him from power. Don't hold your breath.

One thing dictators do well -- or they don't remain dictators for long -- is guard against internal threats. For four decades, Qaddafi bought off tribal and military leaders, put his relatives in leadership positions, played rival factions against one another, and established overlapping military units to make sure no single division could carry out a coup by itself. Spies penetrated every military unit and elite government circles, reporting any rumor of dissent. Most importantly, Qaddafi killed, tortured, and jailed -- loyalty had its rewards, while dissent was savagely punished.

Ironically, the civil war gives the most disloyal (or opportunistic) leaders a way out short of a coup -- they can join the rebels. This adds to the ranks of the opposition, but it won't be the decisive blow that Washington seeks. The rebels' promise of amnesty to regime forces that surrender is a good step in reducing their incentive to stay loyal to Qaddafi, but the biggest key to impelling further desertions is military victories, which so far are in short supply.

3. Coalition management: Building and holding together a coalition -- along with winning support from the U.N. Security Council and other international groupings like the Arab League -- is hard diplomatic work, and it usually limits the amount of force the coalition can use. As the cost of signing on, coalition members get a voice in how operations are conducted, what targets can be hit, and how their forces are used.

The NATO countries involved in the Libya mission are no exception. They are all over the map on how to handle Qaddafi. France and Britain would escalate international involvement, while Norway wants to find a political solution. Other countries, such as China, simply call for protecting civilians without endorsing regime change.

Qaddafi has tried to split the NATO coalition or generate diplomatic pushback to tougher measures. The Libyan leader, for example, declared "the gate to peace is open" and has welcomed mediators like South African President Jacob Zuma -- empty rhetoric and gestures, of course, but ones that could potentially split off some coalition members or tie NATO up in internal deliberations.

4. Casualty sensitivity: U.S. military operations, especially in nominally humanitarian contexts, are conducted to minimize American casualties. In 1993, during the humanitarian mission in Somalia, 18 U.S. servicemen died in the infamous "Black Hawk Down" incident. Although hundreds, perhaps over 1,000, Somalis were killed in the same firefight, it was widely seen as a debacle and sped the U.S. withdrawal.

The American public is not fully behind the Libya operation. A recent poll showed that 54 percent of Americans supported the intervention and 43 percent opposed it. With support likely to decrease as operations drag on, even a few casualties risk undermining public and congressional support. The administration is thus unwilling to put troops on the ground or take other steps that would significantly escalate military pressure, yet entail the risk of further casualties.

Moreover, NATO planners are also very sensitive to collateral damage as civilian suffering undermines political and diplomatic support for operations -- particularly in the case of a war that was justified on a humanitarian basis. Meanwhile, dictators like Qaddafi often look to exploit international aversion to collateral damage by placing civilians in harm's way for their own political and diplomatic advantage -- not to mention, to save their own skins. In Misrata, Qaddafi's forces mixed their tanks and other heavy weapons with civilians to hinder NATO targeting. As one NATO officer put it, "When human beings are used as shields we don't engage." The result, once again, is the neutralization of NATO's military edge.

5. Waiting games: When the United States and its allies shifted the goal of the Libya operation to include Qaddafi's removal from power, the dynamics of the conflict also shifted: A tie -- even if the U.N. Security Council mandate to "protect civilians" is satisfied -- means the allies lose. The United States and its allies need to break the stalemate; Qaddafi only must maintain it. NATO leaders are calculating that attrition and pressure will wear Qaddafi down, but he probably sees time on his side, too: If he can only hang on long enough, the American and European publics will tire of the conflict.

Like any battle of wills, perception is everything. For Qaddafi's regime to yield, it's not enough for the coalition to sustain the pressure. Qaddafi has to believe that the coalition will do so. It's not enough that his strategies fail to split the coalition or deplete U.S. political will. Qaddafi has to believe they will fail. When Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program and agreed to let Libyan officials stand trial for terrorism in the West, he did so because he believed he had little choice if he wanted his regime to escape isolation. Now the stakes are higher for Qaddafi, so the pressure has to be even greater.

6. Domestic politics: Just as President Bill Clinton did at the outset of the 1999 Kosovo crisis, President Barack Obama declared that ground troops were off the table in Libya. It's one thing to calculate that ground troops are unnecessary, too costly, or required elsewhere -- but why declare to the adversary that certain options for escalation are a non-starter?

Because domestic politics sometimes compel it. With his administration trying to extricate the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama had little interest in becoming embroiled in a third costly ground war. But his vow also tells Qaddafi that there are limits to international escalation, and it signals U.S. cautiousness and cost-aversion.

Because this is a war of choice for the United States, the domestic political constraints are tighter. President George W. Bush faced few constraints when he led the United States to war in Afghanistan in 2001 -- almost all Americans supported the conflict and U.S. vital interests were obvious. There were tighter constraints in Iraq in 2003 but, because the strategic stakes for the United States were perceived as high, the president had more leeway. And because there are, at best, limited strategic reasons to intervene in Libya, Obama's options are fewer.

Because perceptions are so important, one key to success lies at home. Qaddafi must believe that leaders in Washington and allied capitals will pay the price to oust him. The coalition must credibly establish a threat of escalation, and that means defending some difficult choices and costly options. U.S. adversaries in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere are quite aware of U.S. political deadlines. The heavier bombing in recent days, as well as decisions by Britain and France to deploy attack helicopters in Libya, suggests NATO may be moving in this direction. Such gradual shifts, however, are not likely to jolt regime elites into abandoning Qaddafi.

The Obama administration should keep these six factors in mind as it weighs its next steps. At this point, the United States and its allies must decide whether they will indeed pay the price to unseat Qaddafi and, if so, raise the stakes. Qaddafi's regime has billions of dollars in frozen assets; some of this should be put at the rebels' disposal, or coalition forces should at least give them loans with these assets as collateral. A new U.N. Security Council resolution should be passed to enable the open provision of military assistance to the rebels. These steps will make the rebels more effective, send a message to Qaddafi loyalists that the writing is on the wall, and eventually help stabilize Libya during the period after his regime finally falls.