Highway Robbery

Why do Mitt Romney and Barack Obama want to hand over so much of your money to men with guns?

In August 2003, some colleagues and I were held up by armed bandits on the highway in Fallujah, Iraq. (Don't ask why I was dumb enough to be wandering around Fallujah.) My bandit -- there were quite a few of them, but I like to think of the guy who stuck a gun in my face as my bandit -- was straight out of central casting, complete with a red kerchief around his mouth and nose to disguise his facial features.

I doubt he knew much English, but he knew enough to say the magic words. "Money, money, money!" he demanded with a guttural, heavy accent, waggling his gun unnervingly around my head.

I handed him my wallet. He took out the cash and handed the empty wallet back to me.

"Shukrun," I said, using my sole word of Arabic. "Thank you."

"You are welcome," he said, and sprinted off to wherever bandits go when they're not robbing people. (This was in the good old days of 2003, when gunmen in Fallujah just robbed you.)

In some ways, this story is a reasonable metaphor for the current debate about the defense budget. Men with weapons intone, "Money, money, money"; we hand it over and say "thank you," even though much of the time we don't really know who they are or what they plan to do with our money.

At least, that's how it can look from the outside. The presidential candidates seem to be competing over who is more dedicated to ensuring a steady supply of funds to the Pentagon. And we're not talking about chump change: the United States spends more on defense than any other nation. In fact, it accounts for 41 percent of global defense spending: annually, we spend almost five times more on defense than China with its 1.3 billion people, and nine times more than Russia. We spend more on defense each year than the next 15 biggest spenders combined.

Obviously, some of this money goes to important programs -- salaries for soldiers, equipment, training -- but the Pentagon, with its vast budget and complex accounting system, is also an infamous money pit. Every couple of years, the inspector general or the Government Accountability Office discovers that large sums of DOD money have been spent on mysterious, never-accounted-for purposes.

I wrote last week about DOD's difficulty tracking humanitarian assistance projects, but the problem isn't unique to such efforts. DOD's a big place, and stuff gets lost: money, programs, people, organizations, the occasional small war. I spent far too much time, during my stint at the Pentagon, telling irritable twenty-somethings on the Hill that the Pentagon was Very Sorry for certain apparent budget discrepancies. Mistakes have been made.

Even many easily understood costs seem to be spiraling out of control: health care already accounts for nearly 10 percent of the defense budget, and DOD spending on health care has grown twice as fast as health care spending in the civilian sector. In a goofy-but-illuminating exercise, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments concluded that if the defense budget increases only in line with inflation each year while health care costs continue to increase at their current rate, virtually the entire defense budget would go to health care costs by 2039. To say that the defense budget could use a long, hard look would be the understatement of the decade.

Notwithstanding that backdrop, Team Obama and Team Romney are eager to assure us that they'll give the Pentagon plenty of money. How much money? Obama: A lot. Romney: A lot, plus even more. "Supporting our troops" always plays well with voters, and the current threat of budget sequestration offers extra opportunities for campaign trail posturing.

"Mitt will begin by reversing Obama-era defense cuts," Romney's campaign website assures potential voters. President Obama, complains Romney, has "repeatedly sought to slash funds for our fighting men and women." (He ignores the fact that the few "cuts" so far have involved reductions to the budget for Overseas Contingency Operations, reflecting the end of the Iraq War, rather than from cuts to the base defense budget.) Right now, the DOD base budget accounts for about 3.6 percent of GDP. Romney promises that he'll set the base defense budget at a floor of 4 percent of GDP.

How much money is that? Larry Korb of the Center for American Progress Action Fund estimates that the Romney proposal would "result in $2.3 trillion in added spending over the next decade compared to the plan presented to Congress by the Obama administration." Boiled down, the Romney defense budget plan is simple: Give the guys with guns money money money.

As a strategy for dealing with Iraqi bandits, this approach makes sense. As a strategy for dealing with the Pentagon, it does not. For one thing, as noted above, "hand over the money" isn't a helpful approach to tough issues such as waste, fraud, or runaway health care costs. Romney promises to address such problems with "proper management," which is surely unobjectionable. But his pledge to get rid of "byzantine rules" and "wasteful practices" is remarkably short on detail.

It's also not clear that Pentagon leaders want all the money the Romney campaign and its Republican congressional allies are so eager to throw at them. Unlike Iraqi bandits (and more than a few Beltway Bandits), Pentagon leaders keep trying to turn down some of the money dangled in front of them. For every hour senior Pentagon officials spend apologizing to Congress for waste and inefficiency, they often spend another hour trying to fend off congressionally mandated waste and inefficiency.

When I was a newly minted Pentagon employee, one of the things that astounded me most was how hard it was to get Congress to stop funding stupid stuff. This should not have surprised me, since funding stupid stuff is one of Congress' constitutional functions, but it surprised me nonetheless. I recall, for instance, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' so-called "heartburn letters" to congressional appropriators. Most of his complaints related not to proposed funding cuts, but to Congress' insistence on giving DOD money for programs the military did not want or need, such as extra VH-71 helicopters or C-17 Globemaster IIIs.

How about President Obama's defense budget proposals? Obama rightly points out that sequestration -- which he says would "endanger" the military -- was not his idea. At the moment, both Republicans and Democrats are contentedly blaming each other for the sequestration threat, but both parties know that draconian defense cuts can -- and almost certainly will -- be avoided in a last-minute compromise.

President Obama, who has presided over several years of continued growth in the DOD base budget, is now proposing to shave about 1 percent from the base defense budget in fiscal year 2013. Adjusting for inflation, the Obama defense budget proposal would more or less maintain current levels of military spending over the next decade.

Back in March, senior military leaders testified that this miniscule future trimming of the defense base budget was an appropriate way to increase efficiency while protecting core needs. Republican congressman Paul Ryan -- now Romney's vice-presidential running mate -- responded sulkily, saying that he didn't "think the generals are giving us their true advice." (General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded more politely than might have been expected: " I think there's a difference between...having someone say they don't believe what you say versus ... calling us a collective of liars.")

Unlike Romney's arbitrary floor of 4 percent of GDP, Obama's budget proposal has the virtue of sanity. With the U.S. defense budget still larger, in real terms, than it has been at any point since World War II, the burden should be on those who want to increase DOD's budget to explain why more is so urgently necessary, particularly at a time when the economy is so weak and the federal deficit so high. Romney offers no explanation, just the kind of sententious posturing that generally substitutes for strategy: "The cost of preparedness may sometimes be high, but the cost of unpreparedness is almost always higher." (Preparedness for what, exactly?)

President Obama's proposed defense budget is less irresponsible than Mitt Romney's, but his approach to defense spending, which essentially hews to the status quo, is also unsatisfying.

With the election just months away, neither party is inclined to take on the hard questions: how should we understand the emerging security landscape? What are the real threats we face, and what are the opportunities? What does U.S. security mean, in a globalized and interconnected world? What kinds of risks are unavoidable, and what kind of trade-offs are inevitable? Is the military, as currently constituted, the right institution to respond to the most plausible threats and seize emerging opportunities? How might the military need to change for it to do what we'll need it to do? And then, finally: does our budget reflect our strategy, or drive our strategy?

If we don't start having a more serious discussion of those questions, we risk having a military with more and more money, but less and less ability to use it well.

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National Security

The Pivot to Africa

Circumcision, mosquito killing, and other strange doings of Africom.

"A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa," Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is said to have remarked. For most Americans occupying the now-now-now world of Facebook, this probably feels apt. And until just over a decade ago, Zuckerberg's statement might equally have applied to Pentagon strategists. A 1995 strategy document from the Defense Department was hardly less blunt: "[U]ltimately we see very little traditional strategic interest in Africa."

That began to change in 1998, when U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by al Qaeda, and the 9/11 attacks accelerated the change. If terrorism thrives in failed states and ungoverned spaces, it was time to rethink the U.S. approach to Africa, which boasts more than its fair share of basket-case states. By 2006, Africa had been bumped up to "high priority" in the U.S. National Security Strategy: "our security depends upon partnering with Africans to strengthen fragile and failing states and bring ungoverned areas under … control."

As the Pentagon struggles to adapt to a world in which security threats come from increasingly diffuse sources -- and the role of the military is consequently less and less clear-cut -- Africa has become a key laboratory for experimentation and change.

In 2007, the United States created a new geographic combatant command to cover Africa. Africa Command, or Africom, was in part an effort to rationalize a previously incoherent administrative division of labor, in which responsibility for Africa had been divided among three other commands. But it was also a bold experiment: a new kind of command, designed to reflect the Pentagon's emerging understanding of the more complex security environment.

In 2005, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had signed Directive 3000.05, which declared that "stability operations" would be a core military mission with "priority comparable to combat operations." From its inception, Africom was structured with stability operations, including conflict prevention, in mind. Unlike other combatant commands, Africom was expressly designed to take a "whole-of-government" approach, with senior civilian officials from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other agencies fully integrated into the command's decision-making structure.

This would, in theory, enable conflict prevention in Africa to be addressed holistically, rather than through a traditionally narrow military lens. With its integration of civilian and military power, Africom would not draw sharp or arbitrary distinctions between defense, development, and diplomacy; all three would go hand in hand. And this, President George W. Bush declared, would help "bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth."

The resulting range of Africom's activities might cause heartburn for those committed to viewing U.S. military power strictly through a war-fighting lens. Consider this snapshot of recent activities undertaken by or with the assistance of Africom:

  • Construction of school classrooms in Chad
  • Research on the "Association of Sexual Violence and Human Rights Violations With Physical and Mental Health in Territories of the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo"
  • Cattle vaccination in Uganda, designed to provide healthy cattle to internally displaced civilians returning to their homes
  • Activities to combat drug trafficking through the West Africa Cooperative Security Initiative
  • Construction of closed wells with solar-powered pumps in Senegal
  • Establishment of an East African Malaria Task Force to combat "one of the biggest killers on the continent: the mosquito"
  • Development of a news and information website aimed at local audiences in the Maghreb region, featuring "analysis, interviews and commentary by paid Magharebia correspondents"
  • Construction of a maternal- and pediatric-care ward at a Ugandan hospital
  • Collaboration with Botswana's military to "promote Botswana's national program of education, HIV screening and male circumcision surgeries"
  • Cooperation with the Sierra Leone Maritime Wing and Fisheries Ministry that "result[ed] in the apprehension of an illegally operating fishing vessel"

Most of these activities sound laudable. Few would strike the average American as "military" in nature.

Of course, Africom also conducts or facilitates a wide range of more traditional military activities, including various counterterrorism programs run through Operation Enduring Freedom- -Trans Sahara and a range of efforts to help capture Lord’s Resistance Army leaders in Central and East Africa. In 2011, Africom coordinated its first large-scale military operation when President Obama approved Operation Odyssey Dawn, which aimed to enforce the UN-sanctioned no-fly zone in Libya and eliminate the Libyan government’s ability to threaten civilians.

Whether Africom represents a viable new model for the future of the U.S. military naturally depends on your point of view. To some, the Africom approach is downright dangerous. Military traditionalists are apt to view it with suspicion -- as a dangerous slide away from the military's core competencies and the very apotheosis of "mission creep." Many civilian observers are equally skeptical, viewing Africom as further evidence of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy -- and of the devaluing and evisceration of civilian capacity. "The Pentagon is muscling in everywhere," complained former State Department official Thomas Schweich in a Washington Post op-ed: "[W]hy exactly do we need a military command [in Africa] running civilian reconstruction, if not to usurp the efforts led by well-respected U.S. embassies and aid officials?"

Such views are understandable but shortsighted. The Pentagon is right to see poverty, underdevelopment, disease, repression, human rights abuses, and conflict as likely drivers of future security threats to the United States. And if the Defense Department's job is to protect the United States, that mission must surely include preventing threats.

In some imaginary utopia, the military might work hand in hand with capable, well-resourced civilian agencies, neatly dividing up roles and leaving the "civilian" tasks to the civilians. But that's not the world we live in. Yes, the civilian sector has been eviscerated by two decades of underresourcing and has consequently struggled to attract and retain personnel with key skills. But given today's political climate, this situation is unlikely to change -- at least not in the foreseeable future. Congress shows zero interest in substantially boosting the foreign affairs budget. That's a crying shame, but it is what it is.

Inevitably, this means that the Defense Department will have to step into the breach. How could it responsibly refrain? As a State Department inspector general's report commented in 2009, Africom's role was "resented and challenged" by the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs, but the military was essentially "stepping into a void created by a lack of resources for traditional development" and other "civilian" tasks.

More importantly, the lines between "civilian" and "military" tasks have never been as clear as we like to pretend, and today they're blurrier than ever. Instead of wasting time in a fruitless effort to draw imaginary lines between civilian and military roles, the United States should focus instead on doing what needs to be done -- and doing it responsibly, transparently, and well.

That's where the country has been falling badly short. Africom has been justly criticized for failing to live up to its lofty goals. A clumsy early rollout also left Africom struggling to allay African suspicions that the United States intended to "recolonize" Africa, and for a variety of reasons (shortage of qualified and interested personnel, inadequate career incentives, a slow-moving personnel system), many civilian slots within Africom were never filled. Those that were filled weren't always put to good use, and Africom continues to struggle to coordinate its efforts with civilian agencies.

The Defense Department is a relative amateur when it comes to development and related activities, and often it shows. Lack of cultural awareness has plagued programming: The distribution of used clothes in Djibouti during Ramadan offended Muslim sensibilities, for instance, and Africom has also been criticized for failing to take local clan relationships into account when distributing assistance.

Poor management is also a serious problem. Africom's first commander, General William “Kip” Ward, is currently under investigation for alleged misuse of funds. A 2011 Government Accountability Office report on DOD humanitarian activities found systemic management and accountability problems across the Defense Department, concluding grimly that, while there have been some improvements over the years, "DOD does not have complete information on the full range of humanitarian assistance projects it conducts.… DOD does not know … when a project is going to be implemented, when it is in progress, or when and if it has been completed.… DOD does not know how much it has spent.… DOD is not consistently evaluating its projects, and therefore it cannot determine whether its humanitarian assistance efforts are meeting their intended goals, having positive effects, or represent an efficient use of resources."

These problems are not unique to Africom. As other combatant commands have similarly expanded their activities into traditionally civilian domains, they have struggled with similar problems and criticism.

In a sense, we currently inhabit the worst of all possible worlds: The military is increasingly taking on traditionally civilian jobs but doing them clumsily and often halfheartedly, without investing fully in developing the skills necessary for success. Meanwhile, civilian agencies mostly just grumble from the sidelines, waiting for that happy day when Congress gets serious about rebuilding civilian capacity. (I think Samuel Beckett wrote a play about that.) And few people, inside or outside the Pentagon, are taking seriously the need to think in new ways about what "whole-of-government" or a holistic approach to security might truly mean.

The blurring of civilian and military roles is inevitable, but the failure to grapple effectively with this blurring of roles is not. To address threats (and seize opportunities) in this globalized, blurry, chaotic world, we will need to develop new competencies, flexible new structures, and creative new accountability mechanisms. Most critically, we'll need to let go of our comfortable old assumptions about roles and missions.