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War games: why a meddling Congress doesn't always make the best defense.

Congress has 110 new members. Many earned their seats in Washington by promising to attack wasteful government expenses--not the least of which are military outlays. Our defense budget, they said campaigning, should be driven by what's best for the country, not pork-barrel politics. No question, they're right, and I wish them the best of luck. But don't get your hopes up.

They, like the people they replaced, will soon learn that while logic dictates that the defense budget should be driven by national strategy, every incentive works against congressmen thinking of the big picture.

Congressmen might find it interesting to debate geopolitical strategy--whether, for example, Congress should approve of convoying Kuwaiti tankers. But actually recording votes on the subject is a risky proposition. In 1950, for example, we put Korea outside our defense perimeter, and look what happened. When a bad decision is made, those who vote for it are likely to be blamed, which means that congressmen generally shy away from policy decisions. Bad policy decisions can sweep you out of office faster than almost anything else.

For congressmen, thinking about the big picture can also mean shooting themselves in the foot. If a legislator argues that the American global situation suggests a smaller military, that might mean, for example, killing the A-12 program. Then everybody who wants the A-12 will say, "Wait a minute, I agreed with that strategy, but I didn't think that strategy meant no A-12." We all witnessed this phenomenon as Congress began drawing down the military in the wake of the Soviet demise. Radically cutting defense jobs during a recession is a painful business. Thus, the primary concern of the congressman from Detroit isn't the defense of the country, but how many jobs the Defense Department can give to Detroit and how well he can protect those jobs. Those considerations bring defense questions fight into his backyard, where he can get his teeth into them. And he better, or they will come back to bite him.

Given that defense expenditures are so profoundly political, is there any way to inject more efficiency into the system? There is, but it will mean streamlining the relationship between Congress and the Defense Department.

Among the most counterproductive (and intensely aggravating) aspects of this relationship is the congressional proclivity to micromanage defense programs. Congress simply should not be involved in second-guessing every nut-and-bolt issue. It is neither proper nor effective for congressmen to tell the Pentagon that it should buy a 40/60 molybdenum-aluminum bolt rather than, say, a 20/80 molybdenum-aluminum bolt. But they regularly do, most often because a company in some congressman's district produces such a product and wants the order.

There are several culprits here. One is the spiraling growth of congressional staffs. The average senator's staff increased from six in 1975 to over 40 in 1985, and a representative's staff from three to eighteen. Large congressional staffs generate work. Their very numbers lead them to get involved in subjects that are not their business and that common sense would leave strictly to project managers.

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I found it depressing to contemplate the monumental amount of time and effort we put into satisfying Congress. If I believed we were actually influencing decisions or persuading people, I would not have begrudged the time. But the Pentagon files roughly 600 reports to Congress annually and answers 250,000 phone calls a year from it. I for one was never persuaded that the effort was worthwhile.

Whenever a congressional committee confronts a tough problem, most often because the political forces are too evenly divided, it directs the Pentagon to make a study, rather than admitting it cannot resolve the issue. "There are some extremely important questions here," runs the congressional rationale, "that have to be answered before we can deal with this question. So we think, Admiral, that it is necessary for Defense to conduct an in-depth study of the six points spelled out below and report back to us in nine months." Unspoken, though understood by all, is the fact that it may be politically easier to deal with the matter next year.

Normally, the study will provide little new insight. Of course, putting off a decision to a future date may on occasion be a wise strategy; perhaps the political forces will be aligned more favorably for a decision at some later time. But directing a study to justify the postponement is unconscionably burdensome for the Pentagon. The result is that the Pentagon spends an astounding portion of its time dealing with congressional requests, many of which are unnecessary, and almost all of which concern marginal projects. The huge expense foisted on the Defense Department in this fashion makes a $600 toilet seat seem prudence itself.

Tomahawk chop

To remedy this situation, the first priority is to reduce the size of congressional staffs. Second, Congress should resist the temptation to micromanage programs. It should consolidate the overlapping committees that oversee the Defense Department. (At present, three different committees in each chamber perform the same function--reviewing the defense budget.)

But if these often called-for reforms are put in place, Congress would still not be attending to its primary defense-related mandate: "To spell out," in the words of the Senate Armed Services Committee report, "major strategies and purposes." Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen anytime soon. Why not? Consider an exchange between Senator Sam Nunn and the then-secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger. Nunn pointed out that our national strategic requirements, as laid out by the Pentagon, essentially declared that the entire world is vital to our security. Clearly, we were not capable of defending such global interests with the military we had.

Weinberger's answer went something like this: Senator, I have no quarrel with that reasoning. Where do you want to cut back? Would you be amenable to cutting Israel out of the strategic interests of the United States? How about Saudi Arabia? We spend an awful lot of money on the Greek-Turkish area, Senator. Do you think we should defend Turkey or Greece? That would be a good place to save; why don't we cut them out of our strategic orbit and leave the eastern Mediterranean alone? Or perhaps we should forego Pakistan.

Congress's response to Weinberger's questions was usually: That's not our job, Mr. Secretary, it's yours. Congressmen will not draw the strategic lines, because doing so would alienate important constituencies. Strategic questions are almost always political, no matter who deals with them. Strategic questions are not usually resolved by the light of pure reason but by the lights of human beings who are by their nature political animals. What president wants to say, "I dismantled NATO"?

A good bureaucrat understands the political process and manipulates it ruthlessly. One of the best was a former secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, a man I had my run-ins with. Lehman understood the process, and he possessed an iron determination and a fine sense of timing to go along with his savvy. He had concluded before he was appointed secretary that the United States should have a 600-ship Navy, and by God we were going to have a 600-ship Navy. It was a simple vision, one that could rally support; it sounded good and it had sex appeal.

In terms of the political hopes he harbored at the time, he was not eager to be the man who took the Navy from 60 percent spare parts to 95 percent spare parts, or from 10 percent of the required Tomahawks to 40 percent. That would have been a tremendous accomplishment, but it would not have held much attraction for the folks back in Iowa who did not know nor care what a Tomahawk was. In the end, Lehman got almost all of his 600 ships, but they were not nearly as well provisioned and armed as we would have preferred.

Sure, Lehman scored a major coup, but it's the kind of victory that drives professional military men to distraction. The military can seldom get support for the mundane essentials it desperately needs. In all fairness, we had so much military funding under Reagan that we did get lots of those things. The massive expenditures of Reagan's first term allowed American forces to go into Saudi Arabia in 1990 in great shape. But even with an excess of funds, we were unable to build up the ammunition and parts inventories until we had made the sexy procurements: more tanks, more artillery, more planes--the big-ticket items that the politicians could get their hooks into. Congress, after all, has a difficult time taking future contingencies seriously, especially when there is no pressing political need for them to do so.

Because it is at heart a political process, military funding is not easily amenable to reform. Congressmen, by their very makeup and their most fundamental responsibilities, are going to make decisions in a political fashion rather than by logic or operational analyses. The plain talk about defense is that the process is fractious and messy. But at the same time, I am not so sure that in our complicated pluralistic society it can be any other way.

Admiral William J. Crowe Jr. was the 11th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1985-1989). Copyright [C] 1993 by Admiral William J. Crowe, Jr. From the forthcoming book In the Line of Fire by Admiral William J. Crowe Jr. to be published by Simon & Schuster Inc. Printed by permission.
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Title Annotation:excerpt from In the Line of Fire
Author:Crowe, William J., Jr.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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