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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

National Security

Continental Shift

Why the Pentagon should pay less attention to Africa.

The U.S. military has left Iraq and will leave Afghanistan soon. One might assume that this means a lower level of U.S. military operations overseas. Not so fast. Military operations in Mali and the connected Algerian hostage crisis have highlighted a major shift in U.S. military strategy and overseas engagement, especially in our support for security forces in Africa.

Gradually, through a growing security assistance program and special operations forces action, U.S. engagement in Africa is shifting from a focus on governance, health, and development to a deepening military engagement. And while the Pentagon portrays this expanding military engagement as a way to empower Africans, it is actually building security relationships that could backfire, harming our long-term foreign policy interests.

The United States has had military relationships at a low level in Africa for some time. Before 9/11, these took the traditional form of educating African military officers in the United States though the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET), at a cost of roughly $10 million a year. And the United States has had for decades a small Foreign Military Financing program, providing equipment, training, and services to select African militaries at a cost of around $20 million a year. Neither program has been a centerpiece of U.S. overseas security assistance.

The slide into Africa began in earnest after the Rwandan genocide and the 1998 embassy bombings. A larger U.S.-funded training program was started in the 1990s as a peacekeeping initiative, ultimately morphing into the Bush-era Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI). Through GPOI, the United States has been providing more training to African militaries, seeking to enhance their ability to conduct peacekeeping operations. By now, hundreds of thousands of African soldiers have been trained and are involved in operations in the Horn of Africa -- and perhaps soon in Mali -- at a cost of nearly a billion dollars.

A focus on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations has driven this engagement forward, especially in East Africa. It is not easy to obtain data on how much has been spent on these efforts, but they include training and arming African counterterrorism forces, increasing the presence of U.S. Special Operations forces, and developing closer ties with military operations spreading from North Africa to the central African countries bordering on the Sahara Desert, and from Djibouti to the Atlantic.  

In 2008, this scattered engagement by the U.S. military was pulled together in the creation of a new U.S. regional command. Africom was intended to be a new kind of command, one that integrated military operations with the broader U.S. diplomatic and foreign assistance efforts in Africa.

This is now the key to the "slide" -- after decades of leaving Africa pretty much alone or engaging through health and economic assistance, the United States is now seriously involved, but driven by the mantra American "security." Mixing these messages (development, health, and security) is proving difficult for the African countries. They have begun to wonder why the United States has suddenly developed an interest in their continent. Uneasy African governments resisted the notion that Africom should actually be based on the continent as the United States wanted, so the headquarters remains in Stuttgart, Germany.

Well, they might have reason to be concerned. A growing "security" focus for U.S. engagement in Africa changes things. So does the growing lead the Pentagon and the Special Operations forces are taking in that engagement. When security takes the lead, too often, governance and development step aside. And, while the security focus is ostensibly intended to strengthen African capacities to provide national and regional stability, they have the consequence, intended or not, of dragging the United States into Africa's internal politics, at a potential cost to our long-term interests.

In Mali, for example, the appearance of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has led some in the U.S. military to warn that the Maghreb (that is, the Northwestern rim of the continent) is becoming a terrorist haven and to suggest that the U.S. cannot prevent this reality with a light, indirect military footprint. Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who overthrew the elected Malian government in 2012, was trained under IMET. In Algeria, the United States has partnered with an authoritarian regime in the pursuit of counterterrorism operations.

This increasing focus on security coincides with a broader trend over the past decade towards giving the Pentagon greater direct authority for security assistance programs overall. Where the State Department was once in the lead, DOD is now directly responsible, funded through its own budget, for a growing share of U.S. security assistance, accentuating the pronounced bias in those programs toward DOD's needs, requirements, and missions.

The largest DOD programs have trained and equipped the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, at a cost well over $50 billion. They provide considerable budgetary support to the militaries of Jordan and Pakistan. By the time the United States left Iraq, the Pentagon was directly responsible for more than half of total U.S. funding for security assistance worldwide.

African programs are now part of this pattern. Especially in Africa, DOD has put the label of "Building Partner Capacity" on its activities. That the programs surely do. But especially in Africa, these activities support a particular kind of capacity -- counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. These competencies are unhinged, in large part, from broader U.S. foreign policy objectives in Africa, and provide a sneaky way of pulling the United States into security relationships that may not serve our long-run goals for African state building or development.

The major problem is context. Focusing on our security interests in Africa risks ignoring the need for stronger, more capable, more responsive civilian governance and economic development. While DOD likes to argue that security comes first, before governance and development, the risk of militarizing our engagement in Africa is that it will end the development of fledgling accountable governance in Africa (and elsewhere) and increase hostility toward the United States.

Much as Iraq and Afghanistan reproduced the sad lessons of Vietnam, our slide into Africa risks becoming a sequel to a film we have already seen. Two decades of repression and "disappearances" in Latin America followed from a U.S. security and covert assistance program in the 1960s that focused on our fascination with and fear of insurgents and communists -- at the cost of democracy and warm and fuzzy feelings about America. Cloaked in the mantra of "Building Partner Capacity," here we go again, this time in Africa.

And we are headed there just as we are learning of deep flaws in our security assistance programs. On January 7, the International Security Advisory Board to the State Department, chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry, described U.S. security assistance programs thusly:

There is,...so far as this Board has been able to determine, no comprehensive definition of what "security capacity" means in this context, nor an overall strategy for determining how much to spend and how it should be allocated. Nor is there a coherent system for making those decisions or for evaluating the effectiveness of the program being undertaken.

And, while the Government Accountability Office concluded last year that the risks of unintended consequences, perverse incentives, and moral hazards from U.S. security assistance programs were considered in some of the planning processes, it produced no evidence either that they were actually taken into consideration, or that such consideration led to any decisions not to undertake a security assistance effort in a specific country.

I observed these problems firsthand when I oversaw these programs at the Office of Management and Budget in the 1990s. U.S. security assistance programs, in Africa or elsewhere, have never been embedded in a strategic design or reviewed in the context of our overall engagement with a country or a region (unless considering any opposition activity in any country as an agent of the Soviet Union constitutes sensible strategy); they have never undergone a systematic evaluation for effectiveness; and they have been increasingly driven by the narrow military or quasi-military objectives of the Defense Department.

There are a lot of critical things to say about U.S. security assistance. Many of them I said in a Stimson Center report I co-authored with Becky Williams two years ago, A New Way Forward: Rebalancing Security Assistance Programs and Authorities.

The fundamental problem, bolstered by the Perry report, is that the U.S. plans its security assistance programs in a strategy and policy void and, with a focus on "security" but not "governance," they are largely implemented to meet the bureaucratic, regional, and program priorities of the Defense Department, in this case, Africom. The choice of countries, programs, and individuals to receive support in Africa is driven largely by the military -- the regional combatant commander, the military services, and DOD policy officials. While the State Department has input into these decisions, State simply lacks the staff and the interest to overcome the "security" orientation to these programs.

U.S. security assistance, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan, does put "security" first and "governance" second, which is characteristic of these Africa programs. Sounds like a Tea Party projection of the U.S. constitution overseas. The downside is that by putting security first but having little or no strategy to help African countries develop effective governance, too many of them will end up insecure in another way: hostage to a strongly developed military-paramilitary-gendarme-police force which is the only effective form of political power. As the Perry report said in its subdued way: "In many countries, whether intended or not, the U.S. is choosing sides in the partner nation's political process when it provides assistance to security forces."

Algeria and Mali, and the desperate-looking, one-dimensional focus on terrorists in the Maghreb, combined with the expanding appetite of U.S. Special Operators, suggest that we are entering another generation of misguided efforts to strengthen militaries and their security cousins at the expense of governance capacity and economic development in Africa. Each new "partner" with whom we are "building capacity" draws us more deeply into the internal politics of these countries, becoming a commitment, first with money and equipment, then training, then co-operation, then implicit political support.

Africa can and should do better. And, lest we slide down that slippery slope to military commitments in fragile states, we should do better as well. There is no doubt that bad guys operate in the Sahel. It is less clear that they threaten our interests. The context for our engagement should be responsive and accountable governance, conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and development -- none of which is a core skill in the military, as well-intentioned as they may be. If the supported country feels a need for a security dimension in its approach to these three critical tasks, then, and only then, should the State Department oversee the introduction of support for security forces, under the authority of a legitimate government.

I fear we are getting this wrong, and may live to rue the day we see the outcome of this un-strategic, un-evaluated set of programs.

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images