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The Problems of Politics and Posture Are Baked into the System

The competition for resources within the Department of Defense seems to be at a historic high. Nowhere is that competition more apparent than in the tension between the priorities and desires of the armed services and those of the combatant commanders. Observers tend to side with one or the other, pointing either at the admirals and generals in the Pentagon who are insufficiently responsive to the real-world requirements of the combatant commanders, or at the need to restrain the voracious appetites of the combatant commanders. Irrespective of the side chosen, a common refrain suggests that better allocation could result from reform to the process that governs it. While no process is perfect, the tension is rooted, not in process, but in the Constitution of the United States and the powers it provides the president (Article II). By vesting the commander-in-chief authority in a national, political figure who also leads the executive branch, the framers of the Constitution ensured that, regardless of how efficient or effective a process is, political considerations will always enter the mix. Assuming that the process can either account for or eliminate politics represents the conceit of the technocrat.

A recent example of this conceit occurred in what was an otherwise excellent essay in War on the Rocks by Becca Wasser. In it, she assessed the Biden administration’s Global Posture Review and found it wanting for several reasons (which are largely beyond the scope of my response). However, when discussing the allocation and posture process, Wasser suggests that proposed reforms could rein in the combatant commanders, presumably leading to a more efficient allocation of scarce resources. She explains:

Establishing a “disciplining framework” for more rigorously assessing posture subtly put the combatant commands — the most voracious consumers of force deployments — on notice, signaling that their near-constant requests for forces will be evaluated more critically by the Pentagon. Posture changes driven by combatant command demands have complicated previous administrations’ attempts to revise and align global posture with broader defense strategies. For example, the sizable U.S. Central Command’s successful requests for big-ticket assets like carrier strike groups and increased force deployments in the name of deterring Iran upended the Trump administration’s desire to shift away from the Middle East. In many respects, this disciplining framework is a bureaucratic victory that better ensures the Biden administration’s desired future posture changes are not upended by emergent combatant command needs.

Several points arise from this passage. First, it is unclear at this point exactly what a “disciplining framework” is. Second, it ignores that one analyst’s “near-constant requests for forces” are a combatant commander’s prudent response to the security environment. Third, that such a framework would “more rigorously” assess posture and “more critically” evaluate requests suggests a lack of rigor and critical thought in the current approach. And finally, referring to the as-yet unspecified “disciplining framework” as a “bureaucratic victory” seems premature.

The most important part of the passage quoted above is the example given, which highlights the critical tension among the commander-in-chief function, the political nature of the presidency, and the executive branch. Pointing to the frustration of the Trump administration’s desire to de-emphasize the Central Command’s area of responsibility, Wasser cites “successful” requests for both land and sea forces in order to deter Iran. Implicit in the example is the failure to recognize the complicity of the administration in the decision-making process. Multiple secretaries of defense had the opportunity to say “no” to these requests, including one who routinely made such requests while on active duty (James Mattis, while serving as the commander of Central Command). We do not know how effective the Pentagon was in shaping the requests from Central Command. Rather, we only know that there were real-world events in the region which the commander was either anticipating or addressing, based on his understanding of U.S. national security strategy, his responsibilities, and U.S regional interests.

Such requests undergo a formal review process that includes the Joint Staff, the services involved, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, with the secretary of defense as the primary decision-maker. Because the secretary is appointed by the president, is a member of the cabinet, and is in the formal military chain of command, he or she must make not only military and resource judgments, but also political ones. The Trump administration may have decided to de-emphasize Central Command in its priorities, but rising tensions in the region stemming from worsening relations with Iran helped prod Tehran to step up its malign behavior in the region. The Trump administration could have chosen not to respond to such behavior, or to respond with other than overt military gestures, but the plain truth of the matter is that the Central Commander’s job is to assess the situation and request the means to address it. The secretary of defense’s job is to say “yes,” “yes, but …” or “no.”

Were there to be an administration in power that believed responding to regional instability, even in key regions, was not in the security interests of the United States, such requests would routinely be denied, and would likely decline in number. They would fail two tests that seem to be applied by political leaders: necessity (are the forces needed to accomplish a legitimate and recognized national security goal?) and politics (the application of forces would be counter to either established political positions of the administration or a perceived preference of the American people). To the extent that the allocation process plays a role in this decision, it does so in the necessity test, which is its proper place. But the judgment of the president and the National Security Council — while aided by decision-making processes —ultimately involves politics.

Applying this approach to Central Command during the Trump administration, one can imagine growing tension in the Persian Gulf, increasing intelligence chatter indicating Iranian planning, the likely targeting of strategically important nations (like Saudi Arabia), and the potential endangering of U.S. forces. Any commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East who ignored these developments would not remain there for long, especially if a significant attack on U.S. forces or interests occurred. The system we have demands that officers of judgment render those judgments, and presumably that is what happened.

Not concerned with the politics of the matter, the Pentagon would evaluate the requests against current policy direction and available resources (to include balancing against other stated priorities), and the secretary of defense would then have what is known colloquially as “the best military advice” of the nation’s most senior military leaders. In this instance, he could have said “No, the president has made it clear that he wants nations in the region to tend their own knitting, and we already have a ton of force over there. Request denied.” However, some requests were approved, which seems to indicate that while the administration wished to de-emphasize the Middle East at the policy level, the appearance of backing down to Iran was politically unacceptable in the moment.

No Pentagon bureaucratic process is going to reconcile the impact of domestic and international politics on how, where, or to what extent U.S. forces should be postured around the world. The current process for evaluating geographical combatant command requests (and for setting peacetime posture) is both rigorous and critical, as anyone who has worked within it can attest, but it is incomplete by design, in that it arrives only at military judgment. The political aspect of the question is settled elsewhere: While there are growing voices to the contrary, the people of the United States have not agreed to relinquish their position of leadership in the world, and one of the primary ways of showing and sustaining it is through military power.

The United States created combatant commands in order to enable a decentralized mode of exercising a centrally managed global strategy. The tension that exists between the near-term needs of the combatant commands and the future budgets of the services is both good and proper. Acting as if the demands of the combatant commanders are a bug — not a feature — of a system in which force suppliers were purposely separated from force employers (after World War II), ignores what has grown to be an effective means of managing global interests and responsibilities. However, the nation exercising those interests and responsibilities is a representative democracy guided by a written constitution and buttressed by a set of governing norms. The two highest officials in the military chain of command are civilians, and civilian control of the military is one of those cherished norms. Because both of those civilians arrive in those positions are a result of the political process, aspiring for a means of allocating military force and resources that is immune from politics is folly. And as long as both of those civilians exist in a political environment that carries at least the threat of removal through elections, the president and the secretary of defense are going to make decisions that at least account for the politics of the matter.

If and when the time comes that Americans accept that they are no longer the world’s most dominant political, military, and economic power, new or improved processes for determining military force allocation and posture might become possible, as the need to protect the perceived dominant status would be removed. As long that need remains, efficient and technocratic approaches to resource allocation and posture will mostly be overcome by the politics of the moment. This does not mean that there are not reforms or improvements to be made in the force management process, and time will tell if the reforms telegraphed in the Global Posture Review will result in improvement in those areas the Pentagon process controls. Presidential political considerations are not among those things.

Bryan McGrath is the managing director of the FerryBridge Group LLC. All opinions expressed are his and not those of any client.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 2nd Class Claire DuBois)

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