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DepSecDef to Hill: Let's be 'rational'

In case anyone in Congress was wondering, the Pentagon still stands by all the things it asked to do, even though lawmakers rejected them.

Congress won't go along with TRICARE fee increases; it would force the Air Force and Navy to keep the aircraft and ships they want to deal; and it will run a harpoon through the next person who even breathes the word "BRAC."

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter knows all that, but he stepped forward Wednesday and volunteered to be the grown-up. Everyone agrees that we don't have a bottomless bank account, he said, which means that there's no option but to make the oft-discussed "hard choices." He spoke calmly, with no bomb throwing or finger-pointing, but the message was clear: We're trying to get this right, and the Hill is not helping.

"When we're forced to hold on to older, less capable systems, it means we cannot buy newer, more capable systems," Carter said. "Others can pick one item or another that they favor, but we have to balance them all."

And then there's sequestration. The Pentagon, the defense industry and the hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on DoD's budget are getting tired of being stuck in a game of chicken between Republicans and Democrats, Carter said.

"This is something that both by its size and nature is -- I've used the word irrational," he said. "It's irrational from a managerial point of few, for those of us who are supposed to keep complicated programs on track. If you have people working; if you have a flow in your factory or whatever; if you've got it all planned out; if you've agreed with us and we're at a place where we've got a good thing going, we need economy. It makes a managerial mess out of all the things we've tried so carefully to put on this steady footing, our partners in industry and us, that's why it's so irrational. It's managerially irrational."

Note that Carter, the Yale and Oxford physicist, is not using the rhetoric of violence that so many -- including your correspondent, shame on him -- have used when talking about the sequester. No "We'd be shooting ourselves in the head;" no "Sword of Damocles;" no "Doomsday Mechanism." Carter made his best scientific case that Washington's present course does not make sense and it needs a new one, hoping that an appeal to reason might be the antidote to all this gridlock.

We knew BRAC wouldn't be popular when we brought it up, but c'mon, Carter said. (In so many words.) Iraq is over; Afghanistan is ending -- we're at a strategic turning point. We would've reevaluated our stance and probably shrunk our force no matter how the economy and the budget looked. And given the way they do look, it would be irresponsible not to draw down and not to shrink the military's footprint accordingly, Carter said. If we don't do it now, we'll still have to do it someday.

So will his Al Gore-style appeal to reason break the logjam and get the process moving again? No.

Most congressional defense advocates agree with him, as far as it goes, but their impasse is tied up with larger problems. Democrats insist upon new "revenues," their code for taxes. Republicans won't hear of it. As we saw last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has thrown up his hands: If Republicans won't play ball, fine -- he is willing to let sequester take effect and embrace its authors' fiendish original goal: Make sure everyone is miserable.

That could change after the election, but for now, Carter's appeal probably will not mean any movement before then.

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