Opinion: Columnists

James Carafano: Budget gimmicks reduce U.S. military readiness

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Photo - PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 07:  U.S. marine soldiers from 1st battalion 3rd marine deployed from Hawaii, and South Korean marine soldiers participate in the U.S. and South Korean Marines joint winter exercise on February 7, 2013 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. The South Korean troops train in temperatures below minus 20 degrees celsius to defend the country against any possible attacks from North Korea.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 07: U.S. marine soldiers from 1st battalion 3rd marine deployed from Hawaii, and South Korean marine soldiers participate in the U.S. and South Korean Marines joint winter exercise on February 7, 2013 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. The South Korean troops train in temperatures below minus 20 degrees celsius to defend the country against any possible attacks from North Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Congress was clueless.

Report after report warned that missions were outpacing resources. But instead of funding the troops, Congress demanded more reports. They dispatched investigators to scrub the books. Some wanted to manage Army operations and logistics from the halls of Congress.

The Joint Chiefs think they have it tough today, but they've got nothing on George Washington. Throughout the Revolution he fought a two-front war -- on one side against the Continental Congress, and on the other against the British.

Forces in Philadelphia were out to get him. Over the course of the war, the Continental Congress created 3,249 committees -- many of them to dog the general's decisions. "Most," wrote historian Thomas Fleming, "with members chosen with little or no reference to their expertise or abilities, which meant they were usually incapable of getting much done."

The back-biting, second-guessing and incompetent micromanagement from Philly had consequences. Exhibit A: Valley Forge. There, in the snow and the bitter cold, Washington's Army lacked the bare essentials. As one general wrote, "men lacked heavy watch coats, half had no blankets and not a few were without shirts." That the Army survived, let alone won the freedom of the new republic, was little more than a military miracle -- a testimony to Washington's remarkable leadership.

Today, the city named after the father of America's Army seems as inept as colonial Philadelphia at managing military affairs. Case in point: the automatic spending cuts required under the Budget Control Act of 2011. More than half of the cuts will come from defense spending, even though defense accounts for less than 20 percent of the budget.

The sequester is a blunt instrument that will ultimately wind up wasting money. Worse, military capabilities and readiness will certainly decline. As one Washington defense expert rightly observed, "It will be impossible to manage these cuts."

Then again, the cuts were never designed to efficiently save money. They were simply a scheme to hold defense hostage so the president could press for higher taxes or, if that failed, blame conservatives for undermining defense by refusing to "compromise" on taxes.

So far, neither side has blinked. The generals and admirals in the Pentagon know, however, that the sequester is just the first skirmish in their budget war. Even without the mandatory cuts, some senior defense officials question if the Pentagon has the resources to fully implement the administration's year-old strategic guidance issued to "sustain global leadership" for the 21st century.

Rather than provide the resources needed to maintain readiness and capability, Washington is pulling a Continental Congress -- supplying the Pentagon with more disruptive ideas. One calls for creating a "national security" budget that lumps State, Homeland Security, Defense and the intelligence community into one funding bucket -- so the government can make "smart" trade-offs. There is an idea whose time has definitely not come. Security instruments aren't fungible. There is no objective way to measure the value of a Stryker battalion against another platoon of diplomats.

Further, lack of accountability -- specifically, Congress' failure to pass a joint federal budget for years -- has helped create the problem. Giving Washington a security slush fund to play with smacks of madness.

Enough with the budget gimmicks and cutesy ideas! How about some old-fashioned adult leadership? Both sides want to blame politics and partisanship for our problems. But the real shortfall is a lack of leaders.

Like the Continental Congress of yore, too many in today's Congress have lost sight of their responsibility to provide for the common defense. Political self-interest, personal vanity and myopic vsion are no way to run an army.

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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