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War by PowerPoint

Is the White House using the Pentagon to fight the GOP?

Fourteen years ago, George Wilson, a long-time defense journalist, wrote a great book on defense politics called This War Really Matters. Wilson was not talking about the Balkans, or Rwanda, or Iraq. He was talking about the war the services really care about: the one over their budgets.

He must be enjoying himself today. Although that war went quiet for the last three months, it has been renewed in earnest in the last two weeks as President Obama appears to have given the military permission to bombard Congress with the worst set of horror stories we have heard about our national security since the Soviets got the bomb, in the hopes of scaring them into making a deal on sequestration.

On Wednesday, Secretary Panetta kicked his rhetoric up a notch, warning of dire consequences for military readiness if sequestration were to happen on March 1. More importantly, for the last 10 days or so, the military services have been allowed to fire their briefing charts at will (like this one, for example). A blizzard of terrifying data is now raining down on an unsuspecting Congress, like an artillery barrage of PowerPoint, to force the GOP to retreat to the negotiating table.

If you don't think that's what this battle is about, consider that the White House, I am told, is giving no close scrutiny, no wire-brush scrub, to the services' readiness briefing charts that are being so enthusiastically spread around the Hill and the media. Check out the silence in non-defense agencies, all of which are either allowing or being asked to allow, DOD to take on point in the budget wars. They haven't got the firepower the Pentagon has.

Nobody has time to give each of its shells the close and critical scrutiny they deserve. But as scary as they may be, their connection to reality -- and to math -- remains tenuous.

One says that readiness in Afghanistan is at stake if the Army doesn't get an additional $6 billion for operational funding. How did the Army discover a new $6 billion requirement when congressional appropriators have found an equivalent amount of under-spending in the same war during each of the last two years -- money to which the Army has helped itself in order to fund other pet projects?

Another puts military pay on the block next year because there is budget uncertainty this year. How can it be that military personnel next year will get a raise lower than the rate of inflation because we have to conserve resources, but we don't talk about the growth in warriors' allowances (housing and subsistence), which make up nearly half a soldier's income and will increase beyond the rate of inflation? That latter increase will make up for the smaller-than-usual pay raise, but we didn't hear about it -- presumably to prompt the ground forces into the budget battle.

Some of the shelling is coming ahead of schedule. How is it that the military services envision dire options of every imaginable kind, but provide no analysis of what they decided to protect, especially the Army's sizable bureaucracy. What budget numbers are being protected by these draconian cuts? Why have the services' briefing charts been distributed and leaked all over Washington when the sequester options reports weren't due to the secretary until Friday?

And some of the firing is indiscriminate, even "friendly fire." How did it happen, as the secretary himself said at Georgetown, that the Pentagon has been merrily spending on operations for the past four months "on the hope that the 2013 appropriations bill will be passed" at the higher level the administration had requested? On the hope? Didn't they notice that the defense budget has already gone down 10 percent in real dollars since fiscal year 2010? Defense just happens to have been a big item in the larger conflict over the federal budget for a couple of years. Has Panetta been living under a rock? "Silly us," the secretary said. Yes, indeed.

It has been blindingly clear for a year that sequester, if it happens -- it probably will and it will probably be fixed retroactively with deeper cuts to defense than the current budget projects -- will impact the operational accounts more than anything else. Not hardware contracts, not military personnel (whose pay and benefits are exempt). And it is clear that operations is where the "bloat" that Chuck Hagel has famously spoken about is located. It's time to manage that problem, sequester or not.

Remember, we spend more on defense than any other nation on Earth and more than most all other nations combined. Each service's budget is bigger than the entire military budgets of any other country. Even the smallish Marines and Special Operations Forces are bigger, each, than the militaries of most countries. We are overwhelmingly superior in every aspect of the military arts. And we overspend on defense because we do not control hardware costs, because we have the biggest (proportionally) "back office" of any major military, and because our military benefits continue to expand.

We have been fighting this Pentagon budget war, battle by repetitive battle, for more than two years now, with the same shots fired over and over. For more than a year, Secretary Panetta has been saying he had to cut $487 billion out of the defense budget, without ever noting that this was a reduction in the projected growth in the defense budget -- not a budget cut.

Every month, a Pentagon spokesperson says, "We get it wrong every time we do a defense drawdown and hollow out the force" when it is untrue. Only the drawdown of the 1970s caused severe readiness problems. The one Secretary Panetta (and I) participated in -- the 1990s drawdown -- left behind a dominant, global military force that performed just fine in 2003 in Iraq. And it cost half as much as the current force.

But repetition overwhelms the facts, and a barrage of data bewilders the adversary.

Now we are at sequester Gettysburg, and the Obama administration has rolled out the big guns. Only the Department of Overwhelming Force can run a domestic budget campaign. And it is aimed at the real enemy: the Republicans in the House and Senate. Most of Panetta's speech targeted Congress: Whose fault will it be if the United States suddenly has to withdraw its forces from the world because the GOP won't negotiate?

The endgame is to get the Republicans to the table -- a Republican Party that is divided on the defense issue and clearly motivated to get domestic spending down. The services are doing their best to terrify the Republicans into cutting a deal, and the administration is giving them free rein to make their case by any argument necessary, no matter how exaggerated. Like the bard said, "our revels now are over"; we have come to the crunch point. It is not about readiness abroad, it is about the readiness to deal at home.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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