The Pentagon’s New Year’s Resolutions

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You make them, I make them, we all make them…but few of us keep them. In keeping with the seasonal delusion, let’s imagine our favorite world’s biggest office building is a sensate creature, and suffered shortcomings and regrets just like the 25,000 humans who toil there:

1. Lose weight. Why should the Defense Department’s top New Year’s resolution be any different than most Americans’? The list of what can be cut is lengthy. Trouble is, everybody’s list is different – kind of like how you’re going to lose weight by eliminating potato chips, while your spouse is going to lose weight by scrapping chocolate bon bons – thereby guaranteeing that both vices will remain in your kitchen, dooming your good intentions. The Pentagon, of course, doesn’t have a spouse. But it does have Congress. Same difference.

2. Stop over-reacting. The non-event of ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” should be a lesson. Of course, many in the military think that preparing for the worst-case means they have to over-react. In reality, the military only over-reacts to things that confirm its desires. Aerial dogfights, amphibious landings or missile defense, anyone? Religious zealots with box cutters? Who’da thunk?

3. Cut the hubris. Iraqi Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki declared New Year’s Eve a national holiday to mark the end of the U.S. military presence in his country. “Your country has become free,” he said. He didn’t acknowledge or thank the U.S. Take the hint: war is a selfish and nasty business, and we should stop trying to justify it by predicting flower-tossing natives, grateful for our sacrifice.

4. Stop this one-size fits all routine. The military didn’t learn its lesson with the TFX (“Tactical Fighter Experimental,” which became the F-111) debacle 50 years ago, and it’s not learning it anew with the F-35. Building warplanes for three services through the Marine template – single engine (VSTOL requirement), compact design (Marine amphibs don’t have much room) – means the nation’s cutting-edge fighting fleet will be compromised in ways we only now are beginning to comprehend.

5. Stop exaggerating the threats facing the nation. Some of us recall the days when GOP hawks John Tower and Barry Goldwater were busy wondering how much defense spending could be cut if the Soviet Union simply disappeared. I recall 50% being the consensus number. Hey – the Soviet Union has disappeared – and we’re spending more now than we did during the Cold War.

6. Stop exaggerating the cuts the Pentagon faces. Sequestration – if it comes to that – will be tough. The across-the-board cuts make no sense, except for the fact that a guillotine has a way of concentrating the mind. In any event, sequestration will peel back military spending to the 2007 level. That’s hardly draconian. Instead of complaining about how cruel it is, simply flip the question: how come this nation can’t defend itself with more money than it did during the Cold War? Answer that question honestly, and act accordingly.

7. Rationalize the U.S. military’s missions. Take a close look at the globe and figure out what’s important and what’s not; jettison what’s not. If we’re not pro-active in this regard, we’ll do it in a reactive, and much more painful, way.

8. Chop the redundancies. There is no need for three air forces, or three ways of delivering strategic nuclear weapons. The mantra for continuing this way has for too long been that’s the way we’ve always done it. That’s a path to penury and madness.

9. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, it is time for a tough, independent budget scrub. And no, the Quadrennial Defense Review doesn’t qualify. Here’s betting the soon-to-be released Comprehensive Strategic Review – where do they come up with these portentous titles that invariably cheapen the words from which they’re assembled? – won’t either.

10. Balance — we can spend what we need to, but not a penny more. On Sunday drives in the family Chevrolet in the 1950s, my late father would express bemusement at Cadillacs parked in front of tenements. As the nation fails to come to grips with its fundamental financial challenges, the over-militarization of America echoes Dad’s refrain. Granted, domestic entitlements have grown far faster than Pentagon spending over the past generation. Yet a former Army general by the name of Dwight Eisenhower was President then, and he what he said in his final State of the Union sounds just as relevant today as on January 12, 1961:

Since 1953, our defense policy has been based on the assumption that the international situation would require heavy defense expenditures for an indefinite period to come, probably for years. In this protracted struggle, good management dictates that we resist overspending as resolutely as we oppose under-spending. Every dollar uselessly spent on military mechanisms decreases our total strength and, therefore, our security. We must not return to the “crash-program” psychology of the past when each new feint by the Communists was responded to in panic. The “bomber gap” of several years ago was always a fiction, and the “missile gap” shows every sign of being the same.

Let’s resolve to figure out which of today’s “gaps” are, in Ike’s words, “a fiction,” and then have the guts to do something about them.