By Harlan Ullman
With potential budget cuts looming that would, at best, decimate military spending, the Obama White House and the Pentagon are scrambling to invent a strategy to shape fiscal reality. Strategy, the Pentagon rightly observes, should drive spending, not the converse. But reality dictates that spending will dominate whatever strategy emerges.
Given a government that is badly broken and a budgetary process that makes the old Soviet system look rational by contrast, the Pentagon will be forced to make substantial and even Draconian cuts. That is not all bad. Indeed, with the draw downs of the Iraqi and Afghan wars and the absence of clear and present danger in the form of an adversary with powerful armies, navies and air forces, the U.S. military can and should be made substantially smaller without risk to the nation’s safety and security.
Predictably, that will not happen. In graphic terms, suppose the U.S. military were an individual who, for health reasons, must lose 15 or 20% body weight. The sensible way would be to prescribe a carefully monitored program of exercise and diet. Instead, given the lunacy of the current process, what happens will be the equivalent of an immediate amputation of a limb or other body part to shed the extra weight.
Under present circumstances, no alternative to this rather dire outcome is likely. History, however, is useful in considering seemingly insoluble problems. January 1969 when Richard Nixon assumed the presidency is a good starting point.
Times today may be tough. But could they be tougher than forty two years ago? The nation was trapped in Vietnam. The Tet offensive a year earlier had ended any chance of success even though it would take six more years for the final act to finish. President Lyndon Johnson would leave office as a result.
Vietnam and race riots had made combat zones of many U.S. cities, further inflamed by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. A graduate of West Point’s class of 1968 would later remark that his first firefight was not in Vietnam but in the nation’s capital providing security for the Nixon inauguration.
The economy was in a tail spin. Abroad, the Soviet Union was a behemoth. The bloody repression of the Prague Spring in 1968 had demonstrated again the brutality of Moscow towards dissent. Soviet strategic arms were pulling alongside America’s. China seemed to have gone berserk with its Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. And the June 1967 Middle East war with Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the eastern part of Egypt was a ticking time bomb for further conflict.
Nixon and his team would devise a comprehensive plan combining the critical elements of foreign, domestic, economic and security policy. Strategic outreach to China, at a time when most Americans thought Beijing had gone mad, paved the way for détente with the Soviet Union and ultimately extrication from Vietnam. While the psychological and physical pain of Vietnam was enormous, defeat had virtually no geostrategic impact. And the Strategic Arms Reduction agreement (START) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Moscow had profoundly positive effects.
At home, Nixon put in place extraordinary domestic measures including creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. While price and wage controls failed, Nixon would detach the dollar from gold ending the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and in the middle of a war began turning the economy around trimming the budget. Defense was not spared cuts.
One example. In 1970, in the wake of the first drastic budget reduction that amounted to about $25 billion in current dollars, the Navy began cutting its largely antiquated fleet of 950 ships in half. For the record, a far better and more modern Navy emerged in the process.
Nixon produced what today is called “a whole of government approach” in this comprehensive plan. Why is it so difficult or impossible to replicate that feat today? The answers are more than troubling.
The White House is in full campaign mode even though the election is a year away. This president sadly missed the chance to craft an effective overarching strategy when he first took office. Now, he must defend his administration’s dismal record at time when jobs and the economy are in or close to crisis and focus is at home not abroad.
The loyal opposition is likewise in disarray. Accusations of hiring “illegal aliens” for garden work, questioning the president’s birthplace and proposing a fatuous economic plan better called “nein, nein, nein,” pass for sound thought. Meanwhile, it is questionable if Congress will come to grips with an effective budget solution on spending and taxes.
Last week’s column satirized that stupidity got us into this mess and only stupidity will get us out. But, sadly, the evidence suggests that we are on that trajectory.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council.
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