A major bipartisan critique of the nation’s defense posture, commissioned by Congress and released Nov. 14, urges the federal government to urgently rebuild the military or face a dangerous decline in national security at a time of rising tension with Russia and China. This long-term project, it rightly says, cannot succeed unless the federal government gets its fiscal house in order.
“Providing for the Common Defense,” the report of the National Defense Strategy Commission, is a forceful document. But its words and recommendations will have been in vain unless they are taken seriously and acted upon by Congress and the executive branch in the nonpartisan spirit with which they were written.
The report is a platform for a much needed new bipartisanship in a divided government. It has plenty to say about the shortcomings of the present state of affairs in the White House, the Pentagon and Congress.
The document endorses President Trump’s approach to the new world disorder, set forth in his 2018 National Defense Strategy, as “a constructive first step.” But it correctly criticizes his national security team, beginning with the observation that the civilian leaders appointed by Mr. Trump and confirmed by Congress have failed to take an appropriate and necessary hand in shaping the political aspects of military planning. While we disapprove of the micromanagement of military operations and plans characteristic of the Obama administration, there has to be a firm alignment of such strategies and operations with the political objectives of the administration or there will be chaos.
This is all the more true because our defense resources are exceptionally limited and the challenges the nation faces are large — and getting larger.
The Navy has fewer surface combatant ships, including carriers, than it did eight years ago and will face a sharp decline in nuclear attack submarines in coming years. Shipbuilding plans will gradually expand the surface fleet, but the need for new submarines has not yet been addressed. The commission found that the nation’s forces are currently insufficient to carry out its necessary missions.
The report recites many deficiencies in the national defense posture and resources. For instance, Congress and the White House have mistakenly tried to balance the budget in the past by taking proportionate swings at both defense and non-defense spending while ignoring the much larger problems created by the rising costs of entitlements and interest to pay for a rising public debt.
The commission rightly points to the disorderly congressional appropriations process characteristic of the past decade. This herky-jerky approach to budgeting is a nightmare for all federal departments, especially those like Defense that must look years ahead to manage large weapons procurements.
The current congressional budget chaos can be traced to a decade-old decision by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to do away with the regular order being followed by then-chairman of the House Budget Committee, former Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C. It has been wrongly encouraged by President Trump, who recently said it might be time to shut down the government if he does not get funds for building a wall along the Mexican border.
A good starting point would be an agreement by the new speaker and Mr. Trump to return to regular order in congressional appropriations and shelve the use of manufactured budget crises to make political points.
But, as the commission strongly notes, even regular order will not solve the national security problems identified by the commission if the government continues to ignore the gap between its promises to citizens and the resources it has to fulfill them.
During the decade that Congress has abdicated its financial responsibilities for orderly government it has also failed to address the rapidly approaching fiscal crisis caused by rising deficits. President Obama and then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, failed to reach agreement on a grand compromise to fix it. Now President Trump and Rep. Pelosi, if she becomes speaker again, will fail to carry out their responsibilities to the nation if they neglect the need for one.