Defense hawks eager to break through President Obama’s austerity budget and post-war strategy for the military will face a formidable defense: the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As of Monday, all four service chiefs have gone public, lining up shoulder-to-shoulder to support their budget-saving and strategy-matching decisions as necessary and reasoned changes during a national economic crunch and in a changing world.
“Our nation is in the midst of a challenging economic environment that has forced the Marine Corps to make tough fiscal choices,” said Commandant Gen. James Amos, in a statement issued on Monday. “We are confident that we managed risk… while maintaining the high levels of readiness the nation has come to expect of its Marines.”
Amos and his colleagues have in measured tones long prepared their forces for leaner times. The Marines began a formal “force structure review” in late 2010 after Amos took office and began visiting troops around the globe to warn that the seemingly limitless spending of the past decade was coming to a close. “Our goal in this effort was to provide the American people with the most ready, capable, and cost-effective crisis response force our nation can afford,” Amos said.
Amos’s boss, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, has said he feels it is the military’s duty to scale down and live within economic realities, as must the rest of the nation. Two military officials told National Journal that the senior leadership understands and is willfully on board with this new strategy; there is no internal pushback claiming this is an unwanted, politically-driven budget slashing being forced on the Pentagon by President Obama.
The White House and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta largely credit Dempsey, a leadership and management studies buff, for making sure that the Joint Chiefs and combatant commanders were intimately involved in last fall’s strategic review and budget deliberations, several U.S. officials told National Journal this month. The result: buy-in.
“The creation of this strategy was inclusive and comprehensive,” argued Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, in a Pentagon briefing on Friday. “[Army] Secretary [John] McHugh and I were deeply involved in this unprecedented and collaborative process…. Accordingly, the time is strategically right to reduce the Army’s force structure.”
Opposing the uniformed-front will be a tough challenge. A series of highly orchestrated DOD media events during the January recesses — Obama personally issued the strategic guidance at the Pentagon and featured the military in his State of the Union speech, and DOD leaders held an elaborate, if redundant, “preview” of the budget request on Thursday — has given the administration time to make its case, frame the national security budget message, and take early ownership of the defense agenda. Obama’s reelection campaign now says he will run heavily on national security.
Congress doesn’t really get its fair shot until budget hearings begin two weeks from now. Still, some conservative lawmakers and off-Hill think tankers — not to mention GOP presidential candidates — are not waiting, or backing down.
“These cuts reflect President Obama’s vision of an America that is weakened, not strengthened, by our men and women in uniform,” said House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., last week. “This is a vision at odds with the president’s empty praise on Tuesday evening, and one I fundamentally disagree with.”
McKeon’s vice chairman, Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said Obama’s budget was filled with “serious dangers and illusory savings.”
Off the hill, the battle flags are raised.
“Despite… Dempsey’s protestations to the contrary, this budget request is a clear pathway towards dismantling America’s military supremacy,” wrote Mackenzie Eaglen, resident national security fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. AEI, the Heritage Foundation, and Foreign Policy Initiative are challenging the administration on national security with their own united front, called “Defending Defense,” issuing memos such as “Danger! Hollow Force Ahead.”
On Monday, the group issued its own reaction to DOD’s proposals, giving not an inch on austerity: Obama (the statement makes no reference to the uniformed leadership) will “slash” the budget, is “giving the pink slip” to troops, “puts our military at risk while it is still in harm’s way,” and “leaves devastating gaps in manpower.”
“America’s military and the citizens it serves deserve better,” the group argues.