Intervention on the Cheap

Lawmakers trying to tie Syria to sequestration don't seem to realize we've already paid for this war.

Syria may be the issue of the week, but the budgetary opportunists are not missing the chance to tie defense budgets to the vote on a missile strike. No sooner had President Obama announced that he would seek congressional approval for launching missiles on Damascus, than the defenders of defense stepped out to say: The Pentagon can't do this; it has no money; do something about the sequester.

This is Washington; nobody misses an opportunity to hang their pet rock on a passing vote. But the thing is, budgetary sequestration is irrelevant to what the president says he intends to do. We already bought the five destroyers now off the Syrian coast. We bought the Tomahawks the president plans to fire off, if he gets the vote he wants, years ago. There are several dozen on each of those ships. And we are paying the sailors who will fire them off. In fact, the president has now twice exempted military pay from the sequester (smart political move).

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the military is ready to do whatever the president asks. There is no suggestion here, of any kind, that the sequester has degraded the capability of the military to execute this option, whether one thinks it is wise, necessary, potentially effective, or none of these things.

The administration has pretty sharply circumscribed what it intends to do. In my view, the action that is being planned -- a limited strike on selected targets in Syria -- is not intended to weaken Bashar al-Assad's military in any significant way; it is not intended to alter the internal balance in a civil war; it is not intended to produce regime change in Damascus.

One could reasonably ask: Why do it at all, then? My suspicion is that it is not about the civil war in any profound sense. The president and the secretary of state have made it clear: It is about the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. And, as Secretary Kerry made more clear on the Sunday talk shows, it is about Iran. "Watch what we do, Tehran, and take note," he seemed to be saying.

Obama has been saying for years that nonproliferation rules are important to him -- even creating norms about their use that are of dubious validity under current treaties and international law, as is the case with chemical weapons. It is the credibility of that commitment which is at stake, not his support for the Syrian rebels.

This is why I expect any strike to be limited in impact and duration. One can argue about whether Iran will be deterred from its nuclear program by a strike on Damascus over a weapon that some think shouldn't even be in the same class as nuclear weapons. But this seems to be the president's purpose: It is a limited, demonstrative strike, not something intended to change the balance of forces in Syria.

Perhaps the best proxy for the costs of a few days of Tomahawk flights is not Kosovo, which was a classic air interdiction campaign, or Iraq, an invasion, or Afghanistan, regime change. Libya comes closer and it cost a billion dollars, but there the United States was flying intelligence flights and sharing the data, transporting forces, refueling other aircraft, for days. This strike does not sound nearly so extensive. The most comparable strike would be the brief Clinton campaign in 1998, when the United States sent missiles into Afghanistan in a failed effort to "get" Osama bin Laden, and into Sudan to wipe out an alleged bioweapons facility (which turned out not to be one).

One can ask how effective this message is likely to be or whether it will occasion much of a response from Assad, who seems determined to hold on to power by any means available. But one cannot claim that it wreaks havoc on the Pentagon budget or that the Pentagon is not ready because of sequestration.

The back of my envelope says the incremental costs might come to $100-200 million for the operating days, any hazardous duty pays, oil consumption, and the like. Even that seems generous. And if we want to replace the Tomahawks down the line, they come to about $1.5 million each, so the (voluntary) replacement costs could be another $200-300 million.

That's cheap war. Keep firing and the cost goes up. Take out his air defenses, radar, and communications grid, the costs go up. Fly a no-fly zone to protect the rebels -- now we are talking real money. But a few days of lobbing missiles to send a nonproliferation warning? Not expensive.

Congress needs to deliberate whether it is effective war, given the limited mission. But the sequester has no part in it. Or, put another way: Linking the sequester and Syria is a political, not a budgetary issue. The Pentagon can easily reprogram what it needs for the strike. But this is a political "seize the moment" issue for politicians who have been seeking some way to spare defense from sequestration ever since they started feeling guilty about voting for the sequester in the first place.

Opportunism in Washington knows no limits and no shame. So it wouldn't surprise me to see the "defending defense" crowd seize this passing vessel as another way to make their case. The president would do well to resist this bargain, that is, if he wants to protect his broader strategy for getting a budget deal downstream.

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National Security

Return of the Precipice

Raising the curtain on this fall's fight over the defense budget.

Washington may be quiet in August, but we are headed toward a busy budget season in the fall -- and not one that will reassure the leadership of the Defense Department.

There are three ways the coming months could go. Option one: "the mini-deal." In a fit of reasonableness, some or all of the appropriations bills, including defense, could be passed and land on the president's desk. This is a long shot -- none of the appropriations bills has been passed and landed on the president's desk, and any that violate budget limits and rules face a presidential veto.

Option two is an agreement between Congress and the president that greases the skids for those bills and pushes sequestration off -- forever, for several years, or maybe just for a year. Well, one can dream. But despite Senator Bob Corker's assertion that the White House and compromise-minded senators are talking about their agreements and disagreements, such a deal shows no sign of appearing. Lucy has teed this ball up several times in the last two-and-a-half years, only to have it swept away. Plus, we are heading into the 2014 election season, when dreams of a Republican Senate majority swirl through Mitch McConnell's head, while he and Minority Whip John Cornyn face uncompromising Tea Party opponents in their primaries. And whatever an ad hoc bipartisan group and the White House agree to has to run the Tea Party gauntlet in the House, which will club it to death.

Behind the third door is the grand surprise: We could watch the sequel of what we have seen for the last two-and-a-half years or more: "The Fiscal Cliff: The Return of the Precipice." Scene One: (Are you sitting down?) the appropriators fail and somebody proposes a continuing resolution. John Boehner rushes to the front of the group he purportedly leads, trying to get his caucus to support it. They don't, since he cannot rally the fractious Republicans, so he turns to the Democrats at the last minute (again) to save his bacon. Here, Nancy Pelosi could agree to save him from going over the cliff, or she could let the Republicans be responsible for shutting down the government. Last time, when Newt Gingrich did this in 1995 and 1996, it did not work out so well for the Republicans, but maybe memories are short in the Tea Party. Either way, we eventually get a continuing resolution, with headlines in the meantime full of sound and fury, signifying very little.

Scene Two drives us straight toward the debt ceiling fight, round two, sometime in November. The Congressional Budget Office told us this month that the estimated 2013 deficit through July ($606 billion) was 38 percent lower than it was over the same period in 2012. This might delay the debt ceiling scene by a bit; maybe not. If the debt ceiling fight is delayed, it will hit just as we face another round of sequestration -- 15 days after Congress adjourns (around Christmas) without a budget deal, we get another $100 billion plus reduction in the federal budget. With fun like this, who needs the theater?

We then head straight into Scene Three: the midterm elections of 2014, when there will be no incentives at all to solve the fiscal dilemma.

What this means for federal departments is continuing turmoil and uncertainty. Is the budget process broken? You bet. Can my pet rock -- defense -- deal with it? Yes, but it takes reaching the "acceptance" stage of grief. When Secretary Hagel rolled out his Strategic Choices and Management Review on July 31, he said that cutting $500 billion from the projected defense budgets over the next 10 years would lead to "fielding a force that over the next few years is unprepared due to a lack of training, maintenance, and the latest equipment." He called this "a huge strategic miscalculation that would not be in our country's best interests."

Better than "doomsday" or "a meat axe," but not by much.

I was at the Aspen Strategy Group meeting last week and took away the sense that seasoned observers think such a reduction is not only consistent with what we did after Korea, Vietnam, and the end of the Cold War, but manageable. But there is a lot of push-back on the pace of the reductions. Give us time, or, as Secretary Hagel put it more technically: "The review demonstrated that making cuts strategically is only possible if they are back-loaded. While no agency welcomes additional budget cuts, a scenario where we have additional time to implement reductions, such as in the president's budget, would be far preferable to the deep cuts of sequestration."

The reality is that the Pentagon may not get that time, and it certainly won't get the president's budget. (And "time," in budget land, is a bit like what Samuel Johnson said of patriotism -- "the last refuge of a scoundrel." It is always easier to say the cuts will come way out there in the future, when the current leadership is gone, the world has changed, and different folks are in Congress.)

As hard as it is, DOD needs to bear down. They will not be exempted from the bigger budget fight, at least as far as the White House is concerned. It's time to think outside the box in defense world. Maybe, as Defense News reported this week, it is time to abolish some combatant commands -- like Africa Command, which is busily creating a vital national interest on that continent we never knew we wanted. Or shrink the Army way below 490,000 troops -- perhaps by another 200,000, as retired Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Hoover Institution scholar Kori Schake have proposed. Or think even more radically: Maybe consider abolishing a service, like the Air Force, and let the Army, Navy, and Marines fly planes more integrated with ground and sea missions, as Prof. Robert Farley of the University of Kentucky has proposed.

I'm not saying I endorse all of these, but they are outside the box and open up debate in a way we need to. And if DOD really wants to maintain a ready force, properly armed for its missions, Secretary Hagel and Deputy Secretary Ash Carter need to take a much more aggressive stance on cutting the "back office" at DOD than the tepid 10-year savings of $60 billion dished up by the SCMR.

With more than 42 percent of the defense budget being spent on overhead, three-quarters of it in the service bureaucracies, there is a lot of work to be done. Buying "time" will not get it done. It will just let the back office sit around until the next secretary or the next administration comes in and starts all over again. If the savings come slowly, there is no time like the present to start; waiting won't make them come faster.

Sequester is a pain, for sure. But it has been my view for some time that rather than wait for the deal that doesn't seem likely to come, DOD should just step up to sequester-level cuts, roll up their collective sleeves, and get on with it.

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