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Washington's defense strategy paradox

Three top former four-star Pentagon leaders repeated a familiar message to House lawmakers Thursday, one so ubiquitous in Washington you can hear Metro conductors calling it over the PA or find it written on the back of matchbooks: The U.S. needs a strategy to guide its coming defense build-down. Retired Marine Gen. Peter Pace, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it this way: "Strategy, strategy strategy."

But there is no strategy, and because of the shifting power dynamics across the capital, there probably never will be -- or at least not one that satisfies the Platonic ideal everyone seems to be grasping for. To the extent it ever did, Congress no longer accepts what used to be the Pentagon's main strategic guide, the Quadrennial Defense Review. Lawmakers' independent QDR review panel (yes, a review review) produced their own review that concluded the Pentagon's review was just a fancy budget justification, not an actual strategic assessment. So the QDR is nullified as a guide all sides can accept, but Congress also doesn't have the credibility to produce a substitute -- that would have to come from the military experts in the Pentagon. Who favor the QDR. Until they say it's out of date. Until they produce another one paired with that year's budget submission.

So now we have a strategy vacuum, and at the time when, according to everyone, we need a strategy the most. It's possible the Pentagon's "comprehensive strategic review," set to arrive with the fiscal 2013 budget, could be a shining beacon of clarity and direction that everyone will embrace -- but probably not. The public sections of the document might just as likely be cut and pasted from DoD's many other buzzword-rich analyses of "persistant instability," and reach conclusions so generic they'll be of no use to anyone actually trying to reevaluate the strategic posture of the United States.

If it's true the military-industrial complex needs a big idea, such as Containment, to provide the backbone for the coming decades of planning and spending, it may not get it. In fact, part of what we want out of a strategy is something that's impossible to get: Certainty that the future will follow a traditional plot arc. You could argue that one reason defense strategy has fallen into such disrepair was the lesson delivered 10 years ago on Sept. 11th, when a shocking, deadly attack from out of nowhere forced the Pentagon to rewrite its projections and assumptions to effectively say: Well, lots of different stuff can happen, so we've got to be ready for everything.

"We can be certain that a security surprise is in our future," said retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, another former chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Wise, true -- but not a "strategy" to help Washington assess where to keep or increase defense spending and where to reduce it.

Now DoD must keep that same 'be ready for anything' caveat, but for the first time in 10 years, it won't have an unlimited checkbook. Which brings up another explanation for today's strategy vacuum: When it could spend whatever it wanted, the Pentagon didn't need to make choices, as top uniformed and civilian officials have acknowledged to Congress. For awhile there, the Army could pursue Future Combat Systems and fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, all at the same time. No wonder the services apparently are having so much trouble facing the Big Crunch.

So then witnesses such as Pace, Myers and retired Navy Adm. Ed Giambastiani, a former vice chairman, wear their business suits up to the Hill and say what those in uniform can't: Just tell the Building what you want, and it'll write you a strategy based on that. In other words: You Congress, and by extension your bosses, the American people, have got to decide what you want the military to do. Then we'll tell you how we'd do it and how much it would cost. So the buck is passed back to Congress, where it's torn into 535 pieces. Where's the White House in all of this? Good question.

It all adds up to the reality that no matter how many times lawmakers, think-tankers and military officials say there must be a master strategy, there's a good chance the one they're counting on won't materialize. It's politically easier to set down no goals and just try to stutter-step along, with most of the focus kept on just getting one foot in front of the other.

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