Sequestration of the defense budget is a bad policy idea. However, living in denial about the need to prepare for sequestration is nearly as bad. Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), repeatedly reminded military officials last year: "They are obligated to plan for the worst-case scenario. They will not wait until December 2012 in hopes that things get better." However, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta directed the armed services not to plan for how sequestration could be implemented for over a year, noting, "I can't plan for something that was designed to be crazy."
In fact, the military is actually pretty good at developing worst-case contingency response plans for any number of foreseeable or crazy crises, using the operations -- or "3" -- planning staffs at combatant commands and in the Joint Staff. But the Pentagon's budgetary and programmatic managers did not plan in advance of sequestration, and now they find themselves scrambling to finish the job. In September, Defense Department comptroller Robert Hale said, "We will wait as long as we can to begin this process." Last week, he defended the lack of planning: "If we'd done this six months ago, we would have caused the degradation in productivity and morale that we're seeing now among our civilians." History will judge whether or not the Pentagon gambled correctly, if the already once-delayed sequestration is triggered as scheduled this Friday.
Instead of planning, Pentagon officials seemed to all reach for their thesauri after the Budget Control Act was passed in August 2011. Civilian and military officials have used a range of colorful terms to decry the joint-White House-Congress manufactured crisis of sequestration: "doomsday mechanism," "fiscal castration," "peanut butter," "stupid," "gun to their heads," "nuts," "irrational," "an indiscriminate formula," "worst possible outcome," "legislative madness," "devastating," "shameful," "reckless," and "absolutely disastrous." During what was supposed to be his final overseas trip -- before Senate Republicans delayed Chuck Hagel's confirmation process -- Panetta's staff appropriately gifted him a plastic meat axe, his favorite metaphor for graphically describing how sequestration would be applied across defense budget.
Besides applying these metaphors while simultaneously defending the necessity and relevance of their service or agency, national security officials have also seized the opportunity to paint the world as increasingly dangerous, unstable, and unpredictable. This casual threat inflation -- unquestioned by congressional members and the vast majority of punditry and media outlets -- has serious consequences for America's future foreign policy agenda. Consider these comments from over the past two weeks:
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey informed the Senate Armed Service Committee (SASC), "I will personally attest to the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been." The next day, he warned the HASC: "There is no foreseeable peace dividend. The security environment is more dangerous and more uncertain." Similarly, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno professed to the SASC, "The global environment is the most uncertain I've seen in my thirty-six years of service." Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also concluded in an interview: "In almost 50 years in intelligence, I don't remember when we've had a more diverse array of threats and crisis situations around the world to deal with."
I will not repeat Gen. Dempsey's questionable threat calculus again in this column. However, it is worth noting that Dempsey has claimed for over a year: "We are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime." Now, Dempsey argues that we are not merely living in the most dangerous moment since his birth in 1952, but since the earth was formed 4.54 billion years ago.
Also appearing before the HASC, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos predicted: "The world we live in right now is very dangerous, and it's going to be that way for the next two decades." Referring to the relatively responsive capabilities of the Marine Expeditionary Units, Amos added: "I'm not trying to scare everybody, but you have to have a hedge force...to buy time for our national leaders." Given the U.S. military's terrible track record of predicting future conflicts, we should be skeptical of Amos's contention of being able to accurately forecast the global security environment through 2029.
(Last week, repeating an earlier assertion, Panetta told reporters at NATO headquarters: "[Cyber] is, without question, the battlefield for the future." But then why does the Pentagon spend less than 1 percent of its (unclassified) budget ($633 billion) on cybersecurity ($3.4 billion)?)