The Constant Adversary


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Two distinctly different secretaries of defense.  Two momentous periods in office.  Two speeches separated by a decade but inextricably linked.  On May 24, Secretary Robert Gates capped a series of departing addresses with a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, reviewing his efforts to achieve efficiencies across the department so that resources might be freed for the benefit of the American warfighter and the modernization of forces.  Almost a decade prior, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld delivered an address to the Pentagon workforce, announcing his intention to achieve a comprehensive transformation in how the department conducted business.  Gates's speech marked a triumphant valedictory as he leaves office being heralded as the nation's most significant secretary of defense, indeed one of the rare "wise men" from which the nation is fortunate to receive counsel.  In contrast, some commentators hypothesized Rumsfeld's speech might be his last, given the vehement opposition to his plans and increasing calls for his resignation, including some from longtime conservative allies.  As the reluctant heir to the wars and initiatives undertaken by Rumsfeld, few would have objected if Gates -- the "anti-Rumsfeld" -- had chosen to emphasize how his leadership differed, in both substance and style, and the corollary in terms of events.  Instead, Gates echoed his repudiated predecessor by naming and warning about the lone constant from the two men's terms in office -- the institutional inertia of the massive Defense Department bureaucracy.

An Unlikely Convergence...?

When Rumsfeld took office in January 2001, the preceding Clinton Administration had presided over general peace and prosperity, but had failed to craft a coherent approach to defense matters.  The period “between the wars” was marked by high economic growth rates and unprecedented fiscal surpluses, but reduced defense funding, particularly for procurement, and repeated overseas deployments resulted in aging equipment and lower unit readiness.  The incoming Bush Administration promised “help was on the way” and the president gave Rumsfeld a direct mandate to implement changes.

Rumsfeld has been the only individual to serve in the post twice; he was a highly regarded businessman and an accomplished corporate turnaround artist.  The sum of these experiences left Rumsfeld intent on enacting “transformation.”  After only eight turbulent months on the job, Rumsfeld spoke with complete urgency, pointedly asserting that modernizing the department was a “matter of life and death.” Pre-emptively dismissing criticisms he was attacking the department, Rumsfeld declared he was merely acting “to liberate it... to save it from itself.”  

In contrast, Gates came to the post after a decade of retirement.#  The Bush Administration’s principal foreign policy endeavor, regime change in Iraq, had degenerated into a “long, hard slog” and Gates initially focused on reversing the situation by directing resources and equipment there.  Success on this front and accolades for his management style earned him retention by the incoming Obama Administration, becoming the first individual to serve as defense secretary for two presidents of different parties. Gates arrived at his pronouncement after four and a half long years consumed by wars and a newfound urgency to rein in runaway government spending -- “an era of debt and austerity at home”.  Eschewing talk of transformation or liberation, Gates instead preferred to focus on the “health and future of the military as an institution” -- of which securing the same would require “fundamentally re-shaping the [department’s] priorities”.  

Rumsfeld portrayed the challenge more starkly, ominously labeling the Pentagon bureaucracy an “adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America.”  

Gates instead opted for a more circumspect characterization, referring instead to “institutional obstacles in the Pentagon -- cultural, procedural, [and] ideological.”

Ultimately, Rumsfeld and Gates did differ significantly -- in terms of backgrounds, temperament, prevailing circumstances, and priorities -- but both achieved successes qualified by the inability to out-maneuver an entrenched bureaucracy.

Or a Convergence Preordained?

Rumsfeld asserted his ire wasn’t aimed at his people, but at the “the processes … the systems” that had resulted “the uniformity of thought and action that we too often impose on them,” and, even worse, a stifling aversion to risk.  The department’s first Quadrennial Defense Review report in 1997 underscored the lack of imagination.  Six years after the end of the Cold War, department leadership could only offer outmoded planning constructs and obsolete force structures in its conclusions.  In contrast, the independent National Defense Panel of the same year, discussed the need for broad transformation across the government, spirited experimentation within DOD, and, more pointedly, a measure of risk, because America’s military advantages, while still substantial, were failing to evolve in step with a changing world.  Rumsfeld embraced this call and did succeed in implementing a number of changes.#

Gates arrived with no ambitions of transformation but instead promised to focus on nothing but “Iraq, Iraq, and Iraq”.  Gates and GEN David Petraeus shepherded the Bush Administration’s surge to a successful conclusion and, by 2008, DOD had begun planning the withdrawal of forces.  At the same time, Gates restored constructive relations with Congress and his flag officers, a welcome change from Rumsfeld’s readiness to dismiss their perspectives.  Given these accomplishments, President Obama decided to retain him as secretary of defense.  With this opportunity, Gates translated his initial focus on Iraq into the broader mantra of “rebalancing,” whereby the department would finally direct resources to current fights and prepare for similar missions in the future.  

For his part, Rumsfeld undertook more risk than was tolerable in a time of war in two theaters.  In Iraq, the consequences of pursuing smaller, lighter, and networked forces became painfully apparent -- especially when the military scrambled to properly armor their vehicles amidst an increasingly deadly Iraqi insurgency. At a December 2004 town hall meeting with service members, Rumsfeld responded to comments about the lack of armor with the now infamous statement “you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”  With that statement, Rumsfeld’s fate was sealed. He persisted until 2006, when sectarian violence exploded in Iraq following the Samarra mosque bombing.  That year, institutional opposition worsened and culminated in the infamous “revolt of the generals” in 2006.  (Only after the disastrous mid-term elections later that year did President Bush finally dismiss Rumsfeld.)

Gates similarly encountered a recalcitrant bureaucracy when it slow-walked his priorities, namely unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, and (ironically) mine-resistant vehicles.  Gates succeeded, but only after demonstrating he wouldn’t hesitate to hold senior civilian appointees and flag officers to account for serious missteps  -- revelations of poor patient care at the Army’s Walter Reed Hospital, the Air Force’s mishandling of nuclear weapons.  Gates scored additional victories, namely the cancellation of massively expensive acquisition programs, but his pursuit of efficiencies met with only limited success.  When Gates speaks of an inability to reduce overhead, the Fourth Estate (astonishingly a title actually embraced by components of DOD), or compensation and benefits, it is probable he is recalling these recurrent frustrations with the department bureaucracy.

“People say the Pentagon does not have a strategy.  They are wrong. The Pentagon does have a strategy; it is: ‘Don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it.’”  
USAF COL John R. Boyd

The Department of Defense, despite its astounding scope and grave mission, is the equal of any other bureaucracy whereby the absence of competitive pressures or performance metrics result in incentives for organizational bloat and inflated funding requirements.  Moreover, whatever rationale can be employed to justify its preservation will be employed.

History has shown defense budget allocations among the three military departments are virtually immune to rising and declining budgets.  Less readily recognized is the continuous growth of Defense-wide appropriations, the locus of funding for policy and support entities, the military health system, common information services and systems sustainment, contracts, family support programs, administrative functions for the military services, as well as combat support agencies, and the activities of intelligence agencies and the Special Operations Command.

According to the National Defense Budget Estimates for FY2012, Defense-wide appropriations rose from 6.5 percent in FY1970 to 12.5% in FY1980, amidst a substantive decline in overall defense spending during the same time (DATA, CHART).  During the subsequent Reagan Administration buildup, overall Defense-wide appropriations amounts declined, returning to the 6 percent range by FY1990.  As the Cold War wound down between FY1990 and 1992, Defense-wide appropriations again rose as a proportion, climbing 5 percentage points over three years as declining defense budgets returned.  Fast forward a decade and Defense-wide appropriations peaked at 15.4 percent of the overall defense budget in FY2000, even though total appropriations had declined over 100 hundred billion dollars during that period.

By FY2002, the year immediately following the September 11 attacks, Defense-wide appropriations grew by 30 billion dollars, a level equivalent to all of the three military departments combined, and comprising an all-time peak of 19.7 percent.  The rush to fund the military for the global war on terrorism immediately reduced this proportion over the next decade, but it never fell below 14 percent.  

According to FY2012 budget projections, Defense-wide appropriations will never fall below 18 percent through FY2016.

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Current CIA Director Leon Panetta is President Obama’s nominee to succeed Gates and many expect his background as House Budget Committee Chairman and director of the Office of Management and Budget leaves him prepared for the likely round of fights over defense budget reductions.  Bush gave Rumsfeld a mandate and Obama essentially delegated national security policymaking to Gates -- and both still came up short.  In battling DOD’s “semi-feudal system” and “amalgam of fiefdoms,” even the office of secretary of defense and certain to decline budgets are not enough.  As Dr. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute has noted, President Obama has yet to deliver a dedicated address on defense matters; taming the Department of Defense bureaucracy will take purposeful and comprehensive presidential leadership.