Hard Choices the Parties are Avoiding

The General Accounting Office, Congress’s auditing and investigative arm, is known in Washington for producing often excellent analyses of government operations and departments that might serve as fodder for a speech or two but are subsequently ignored. It has produced an excellent report on military reform that the Washington Times recently acquired that is likely to suffer the usual fate.

It would be nice to hope that the GAO’s debunking of Pentagon cost estimates will receive something close to the attention it deserves. But it implies that more difficult choices even more difficult than the choice to conduct reasonably honest management evaluations and audits will have to precede genuine reductions in military spending.


The essence of the GAO report is that the Pentagon is overestimating by billions of dollars the cost savings that will result from a major quasi-privatization program begun a few years ago because the four branches of the military refuse to give up troops personnel even when they are no longer needed, at least theoretically. The Pentagon’s 1997 Defense Reform Initiative involves contracting-out for a number of goods and services in ways that should lead to cost savings.

The problem is that if those goods and services are supplied through contract, part of the way money can be saved is to reduce the number of uniformed personnel who had previously been responsible for providing them, in-house so to speak. But the military services, while going forward with contracting out, at the same time refuse to give up about 200,000 targeted positions in the military services that should be eliminated.

The result is that even more money must be spent, even as Pentagon leaders and people in Congress are recommending reductions. As Jay Spiegel, executive director of the Reserve Officers Association of the United States told the Times‘ Rowan Scarborough, "There are no savings if the military position is converted to contract because the military will still keep its end strength and now needs additional money to pay the contract."


The military services have delayed management evaluations, in part because of the cost of those evaluations themselves, so it doesn’t have a realistic idea of the impact of the 1997 contracting-out reforms on either cost or military readiness. But the projections from the initial plan show that there should be cost savings of $12 billion between 1997 and 2000, so the Defense Department is said to be ordering the four services to cut their budgets accordingly.

The draft GAO report studied two programs within the overall cost-saving initiative, one to privatize some combat support jobs and the other to develop better procurement practices through what is called "strategic sourcing." In both programs, the report concludes, "anticipated savings projections have not adequately accounted for the estimated costs of conducting and implementing the studies or the estimated cost for retaining its military personnel, all of which could significantly reduce the anticipated level of savings.

"The department is already reducing future operating budget estimates in anticipation of savings, and such reductions can create operational difficulties for service components." No kidding.


The natural instinct of a military bureaucrat, like any bureaucrat, is to resist the idea of downsizing. Thus the four branches, especially the Army, are resisting directives from defense civilians to reduce their ranks.

At the same time, service honchos are questioning just how far privatization should go. The Army has hired a private firm to buttress truck capabilities in the Balkans, for example. But that could push civilians into close proximity to battlefields, which has some people concerned.

"I believe that war is not a commercial function," said Mr. Spiegel of the Reserve Officers Association. "People on the battlefield should be soldiers, not contractors. If a group of ground contractors is killed in the next conflict, I’m not confident the company will send over another group to do the job. That’s not the case with soldiers."


Leave aside the potentially fascinating philosophical question of whether war is in its essence a commercial function. Leave aside the fact that private enterprises and endeavors have placed people at risk of death in all sorts of situations up to and including war, from providing security at an overseas office building to mineral exploration to providing services for government soldiers. The discussion places the cart before the horse.

Mr. Scarborough approaches the proper point obliquely when he notes that "shrinking budgets coupled with increased overseas deployments put a strain on training time, spare parts, equipment and retention of key people." That hints at but doesn’t get to the real problem. Before it is possible to develop a budget for the Defense Department it is necessary to agree on a strategy or at least a set of tactical considerations to govern overseas deployments.

The "national interest," about which we heard a great deal of empty rhetoric during the Republican convention, with more to come from the Democrats, is an amorphous term that doesn’t provide very concrete guidance to budget makers.


So instead of asking the hard questions first – does the United States have a national interest in every potentially destabilizing conflict in the world, only in those that involve our European "partners," only those that involve the supply of oil, only those where starvation is an issue, those in which human rights violations are perpetrated on a considerable scale, all of the above or none of the above – we simply take the current Pentagon budget as a given and adjust it marginally, hoping that the future doesn’t hold too many really rude surprises and improvising through the political opportunism any president will indulge in.

The problem doesn’t lie solely or even mainly with the military services themselves – although like any government organization they resist change and will continue to do so. It lies with the political branches that are supposed to control the military, and to some extent with the American peoples’ complacency and disinclination to make hard choices.


It has been more than a decade since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union changed the nature of the world we live in. But we still have not had a national discussion or debate about what American policy should be in a post-Cold War world. The administration undertook the Gulf War because it was about oil supplies and because it was not especially difficult to demonize Saddam Hussein (although Bush the Elder did make either visionary or ominous noises, depending on your perspective, about it serving as a model for New World Order multilateral interventionism). Since then the government has improvised.

There is a usually unstated assumption behind American foreign policy that no remote corner of the earth is immune from being considered vital to the national interest. Even those who implicitly hold this view, however, do not agree on the criteria that would suggest when an intervention is to be considered or carried out. Some think the U.S. should be the guardian of human rights, calibrating interventions to prevent the worst potential abuses. Some think we should think strictly as a Great Power in a realpolitik world, intervening only when it will enhance US power or influence. Some think we should be the guardian of stability and of existing borders. Some think we should be the last line of defense against famine and natural disaster.

And some – a surprisingly large percentage of ordinary Americans, I suspect, if the issues were phrased accurately in opinion polls – believe the United States should be the friend of liberty everywhere but the guardian only of its own.


Don’t expect such weighty questions to figure prominently at the upcoming Democratic convention, even as they were addressed only in the most fuzzy and sentimental ways at the GOP lovefest. Pat Buchanan has been trying to raise them to some extent, but seems to have been sidetracked not only by trade issues but also by nasty squabbles within the Reform Party whose candidate he is trying to be. Harry Browne has a clear-cut position, and will probably get some coverage in local newspapers and on talk radio. But the major networks and "national" newspapers are unlikely to give the Libertarian Party candidate any attention, let alone the attention he deserves.

Ralph Nader might have some interesting things to say about foreign policy, but he doesn’t seem inclined to make it a major issue and few reporters are likely to ask him. So the most important thing the national government does at least constitutionally is likely to get little if any discussion or coverage during an election ostensibly designed to determine the future course of the nation.

This is a shame. I still suspect that most Americans have little interest in running an empire, though they can still be bamboozled into supporting activities ostensibly directed against especially bad actors. That mind-our-own-business attitude would solidify if those who can express it coherently were given even a bit of attention or coverage. So the majority is in danger of being marginalized by the small elite packs that run the national government and the national media.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).