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Monday, April 24, 2006

# Posted 12:20 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

McCAIN SLAMS GENERALS FOR POLITICIZING NAT'L SECURITY: From the transcript of a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee:
"I must say that this is an almost Orwellian experience for me to have you here today as opposed to your appearance last February wehn you came before this committee and gave a dramatically different view of the readiness and requirements that the military needs to maintain our capabilities...

"In February you said, 'While we are undeinably busier and more fully committed than in the past, the U.S. military remains fully capable of executing national military strategy with an acceptable level of risk. I can assure the Congress that we are not returning to the 1970s. We are fundamentally healthy and will continue to report our readiness status to the Congress and the American people with candor and accuracy.'...

"The fact is that you and [Chiefs of Staff], with the exception of the Marine Corps [commandant], were not candid with this member."
McCain delivered those harsh words to Gen. Henry H. Shelton, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on September 29, 1998. Once again, I have lifted my quote of the day from George C. Wilson's insightful book, This War Really Matters. I've now had the chance to read the book all the way through and believe that it fully merits a more detailed discussion.

Amidst rising indignation over civil-military relations, Wilson's book provides a sober reminder of just how political America's admirals and generals are on a day-to-day basis.

Unquestionably, it is extraordinary for our generals, retired or otherwise, to call for the Secretary of Defense to resign. More commonly, the military brass takes part in pitched battles over subjects such as the defense budget. With hundreds of billions of dollars on the line, the brass serves as both pawn and puppet-master in the complicated struggles between the White House and Capitol Hill, as well as within each of those institutions.

For example, the Joint Chiefs provoked the accusations of hypocrisy that John McCain levelled in September 1998 by revising their assessments of the budget in order to take advantage of the favorable weather for defense spending that prevailed inside the Beltway in the summer of 1998.

At the beginning of the year, the imperative to justify the President's budget had led the Chiefs to pronounce the US military ready for action in spite of reductions in defense spending. By mid-year, influential Republicans had begun to question their own majority's commitment to balancing the budget at the cost of military unpreparedness. At the same time, Clinton's advisors persuaded him both that the military needed more money and that Congress would take the fall for spending more than it had planned. Here's how Wilson describes the political dance that resulted in the September hearings:
[Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond] invited each of the military leaders at the witness table to make a statement. It might appear that the four generals and the admiral were revolting against civilian authority by criticizing the defense budget their commander in chief, President Clinton, had sent to Congress earlier in the year. But the real politics differed from the perception. Clinton had urged the Chiefs in their private meeting at Fort McNair to make their best case for more money. His message was tht if Congress decided to lift or end the caps on defense spending in 1998, so be it. It would be Clinton who broke through the caps but the Republican majority in Congress.
This kind of subtle maneuvering over esoteric budget provisions can rarely hold the media's attention for long. However, it is no less political than a demand that the SecDef resign and perhaps far more important from the perspective of national security.

On the other hand, it doesn't always make great reading. Although Wilson also wrote a bestseller about the USS John Kennedy entitled Supercarrier (which even resulted in a short-lived and heavily-fictionalized television series of the same name), this book is pretty much for wonks only. It has considerable substance, but the narrative is less than compelling.

On matters of substance, the book's principal shortcoming is its disinterest in the military strategies that inform the defense budget. Consumed with the fight for defense dollars on Capitol Hill, Wilson never gives the reader much of an idea about why certain very expensive weapons systems have come into existence and how they might influence the outcome of potential conflicts.

Had Wilson ventured into this terrain, I think he would've found ample evidence to support his less than fully-grounded argument that both the military and civilian officials responsible for our defense are wasting tens of billions of dollars that could be used to provide our fighting men and women with the equipment they actually need.

Although Wilson's book is now almost six years old, the problems he identified are very much with us today. Thus, his book is a very good place to start if you want to understand why that is the case.
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