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Do the Brass Support the Obama Defense Budget? Do the Brass Support the Obama Defense Budget?

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Do the Brass Support the Obama Defense Budget?

Some conservatives keep citing dissenters in the Pentagon who don't want the budget cut. If that's true, it's time we heard from them.

photo of Kevin Baron
April 13, 2012

Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the Foreign Policy Initiative. The group collaborates with American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation on defense issues but is an independent think tank. 

While you were on spring break, the growing divide between GOP defense hawks and the generals cracked open into a virtual Grand Canyon.

First, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., claimed that the Pentagon brass did not “truly” support President Obama’s defense budget request--even though they had testified that it was adequate to meet the nation’s national security needs. Then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued, “There has clearly been dissent within the Pentagon” about Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget request.


“I know there's been a big debate within the Pentagon. We hear about it. We're aware of it,” McConnell said, trying to simultaneously defend Ryan and not disrespect the nation’s top officers.

If the senior-most Republican in the Senate knows of dissenters in the senior ranks, it’s time to produce them. Put them on the witness stand and roll tape. Under the protection of giving their “best military advice,” heretofore silent dissenters should tell the public why they oppose what the administration has put forth. This is national security, after all, and the nation is at war. McConnell’s and Ryan’s offices didn’t respond to queries, and  conservative surrogates  wouldn’t name names.

For a year, Republican members and conservative hawks off Capitol Hill have been saying that the military needs a bigger budget than Obama is willing to provide. While the Joint Chiefs signed off on a new strategic guidance for smaller and more-agile armed forces, conservatives have stayed their course, arguing that the Defense Department needs more troops and weapons. That’s not what the members of Joint Chiefs of Staff testified that they wanted. It’s not what a host of other senior U.S. combat commanders and program officers have testified under oath that the U.S. requires. It’s important to understand that when the Joint Chiefs testify before Congress, they’re required to give their honest assessment, regardless of whether it conflicts with the president’s policy. Gen. David Petraeus made it quite clear back in 2007 when as Iraq war commander he told Congress his testimony about reducing the surge had “not been cleared by nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House, or the Congress.”

Even if they’re unwilling to testify, when the highest-ranking officers want something, historically they usually have ways of making it known. Whether it’s saving a favored weapon from cuts or opposing political issues, reporters usually find out who’s in the “no” column, members of Congress hear the back-channel complaints McConnell referenced, and the public learns of commanders’ true feelings.

Former Commandant of the Marine Corps James Conway made it known indirectly that he was not thrilled about repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Everyone knew that Lt. Gen. David Deptula, then-Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, wanted to save the F-22 Raptor.

That has not happened with the fiscal 2013 budget request. Perhaps it’s because this year the Pentagon made no obvious big-ticket weapons cuts that needed saving. But privately, defense officials say if there's dissent in the Pentagon, it only lingers at lower ranks where commanders and program managers always vie for more dollars. The Pentagon’s strategic top-levels of generals and admirals, however, have been publicly anticipating and forecasting for years that their budgets would come down.

Sure commanders grumbled, but they made adjustments they could live with. Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno asked for and was granted six years to shrink the Army to a smaller number of troops (to 490,000 instead of 520,000). The Navy offered to delay building one $2 billion Virginia-class nuclear-attack submarine.

Since January, Republicans in hearings this year have tried asking 100 different ways if commanders had any complaints about their budgets. They’ve found little traction. Answers have sounded like very light regrets, first offered with a shrug but getting testier.

“Do I wish that the top line were different? Sure. I wish that Christmas would come every day,” Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz said on Monday, at the Atlantic Council. “But the reality is, the country has trillion-dollar deficits to deal with, that’s part of it.”

“I’m not sure to whom [McConnell and Ryan] are talking, but I can tell you with certainty, it isn’t the Joint Chiefs.”

Hawks coming to Ryan’s defense maintain that the generals' hands are tied, that they are obeying their commander in chief.

“Once the president’s budget is submitted, I mean, there aren’t going to be dissenters, or at least not in any public way, because basically they’re opening themselves up to be fired or to be kicked overboard,” said Jamie Fly, executive director of Foreign Policy Initiative, a collaboration of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Fly was unable to name a specific commander or command he considers in the dissent column, other than “industry.” But he argued that, generically, there has been “clearly a lot of unease” in the Pentagon over a series of budget demands placed on it going back to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s “efficiencies” mandate. And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey oppose additional cuts beyond the Budget Control Act mandate of $487 billion over 10 years.

“I do think the White House has put Dempsey and Panetta in an awkward position,” Fly asserted.

The brass, have no choice but to “move beyond, salute, and implement.”

But the doing-their-duty claim is just a nicer way of restating Ryan’s original controversial argument: “We don’t think the generals believe that their budget is really the right budget.”

Ryan’s 2013 stronger-on-defense budget may have backfired. It elevated year-old conservative defense messages from inner circles to a much-larger political stage. Yet it has not forced Obama to explain defense cuts or bow to GOP demands that he personally negotiate on the defense sequester. Instead, Ryan found himself defending a military budget with no visible senior military support--at least not from the active ranks. Even on sequester, which nobody wants, Dempsey backs the president and Panetta’s refusal to remove sequester from the deficit negotiating table. Republicans ignored the demand, with the blessing of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on Thursday, Dempsey argued, “Today, our military is adjusting to the reality that cost is an independent variable in national defense. We can no longer meet new threats by throwing more resources at them. For the first time in a long time, we have to make hard choices about where to put our resources--and where to pull them back.” 

If Republican hawks stick with their guns, the “GOP-versus-the-Generals” theme only threatens to grow, and to bleed into Romney’s campaign, which hitched its wagon to FPI’s talking points long ago. For now, it’s Republicans, not the president’s defense budget, who ring hollow.

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