In the mid-1990s, congressional Republicans, concerned that the Clinton administration was allowing the Department of Defense to run on inertia, mandated the Pentagon produce a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)….The roots of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s dicey relations with the uniformed military stemmed from his refusal to accept a fait accompli in the form of a [2000-01] QDR largely drafted without his input. The consequences of the rift were severe.
This has since changed, of course. The QDR review is now conducted not in the last year of a presidency, but in the first. The next QDR will be conducted in 2009, and released in early 2010. It will be an Obama-influenced product from start to finish.
Or will it? Finel says that the uniformed services have already tried to hijack the process by teaming up with conservatives to make sensible defense spending a political impossibility:
Earlier this year, briefing slides showing $60 billion to $80 billion per year in new expenditures started making the rounds inside the Beltway, supported by a public campaign by conservative think tanks and politicians to establish a floor on defense spending at 4 percent of GDP.
The uniformed services are trying to lock in the next administration by creating a political cost for holding the line on defense spending. Conservative groups are hoping to ramp up defense spending as a tool to limit options for a Democratic Congress and president to pass new, and potentially costly, social programs, including health care reform.
….There are so many things wrong with this emerging process that it is hard to address the issue concisely. Promoting overspending on defense in order to forestall popular social spending is undemocratic — it creates a false tension between national security and other public policy goals.
The informal alliance between the services and conservative think tanks threatens to further politicize the military. The abuse of national security arguments to win political arguments is both morally suspect and threatens the security of the nation by delinking strategic assessment from public policy.
This is nothing new. The Pentagon has been highly politicized pretty much forever, and has worked hand-in-glove with hawkish conservatives for its entire existence. The fact that the service chiefs want more money and are laying the groundwork to get it is entirely unsurprising.
Which is why Obama’s most important cabinet appointment probably won’t be either State or Treasury, but Defense, where his personal experience is at its lowest. It’s also what makes the possibility of Robert Gates staying on so interesting. In his favor: he has the background and conservative cred to fight off the kind of power play Finel writes about. On the other hand, the QDR he produces would set Pentagon priorities for four years. Does Obama really want a Bush holdover wielding that kind of influence?
I’m not sure myself. But here’s an interesting observation: there’s been loads of scuttlebutt about who Obama’s picks for State and Treasury will be, but very little about his pick for Defense. There’s been lots of talk about whether Gates will or won’t stay, but not so much about who’s in line for the job if he leaves in January. Why is that?