Earlier this week we wrote that the chairman of the Joints of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, had “provoked a public confrontation” with House Budget Committee leader Rep. Paul Ryan. It appeared that Dempsey had made a grievous error by claiming that Ryan had “called [the JCS], collectively, liars.”
However, the press accounts of Dempsey’s remarks, upon which we relied, appear to have quoted the chairman out of context. Here is the full passage as provided by Gen. Dempsey’s staff: “First of all, I think there’s a difference between being - having someone say they don’t believe what you say versus - (inaudible) - calling us collectively, liars. Stated another way, I mean, my impression is that the chairman has indicated that he hasn’t been persuaded that this process was strategy-driven.”
In other words, the import of Dempsey’s remarks was the opposite of how it was reported and, hence, how we interpreted it. In fact, it appears that Dempsey was trying to stay out of a controversy rather than creating one, and was even observing that the Pentagon had not made a persuasive case about the strategic analysis behind the 2013 defense budget proposal.
However, we also wrote that the underlying source of congressional concern about what they were hearing from the service chiefs was their insistence that the administration’s strategy-making preceded its budget-building. As Dempsey said last week: “[W]e started with a strategy, we mapped it to a budget.”
That’s technically true if you start the clock this past winter with the process that created President Obama’s “defense guidance,” which was published in January. Yes, the final program decisions and tweaks to the defense budget – the refining of the 2013 request – came after that. But to start the clock there is misleading. Three previous events made the current defense budget crisis inevitable: President Obama’s April 2011 proposal to cut $400 billion from the Pentagon’s long-range plans, the subsequent enactment of the Budget Control Act (which not only ratified larger immediate cuts but created the “sequestration” mechanism that might reduce another $600 billion from defense), and the administration’s interpretation of the BCA, which upped the initial round of cuts to $487 billion.
We still believe that the chairman is doing his credibility little good by ignoring the budget cuts of early 2011 – which were, beyond argument, the point of departure for the late 2011 strategy review. And far more important, the failure to admit as much is what hurts the chairman and the chiefs on Capitol Hill. And, in that regard, we would reiterate that sound civil-military relations are not confined to the relationship between generals and presidents alone. Congress supplies the funding for and the regulation of our service institutions, of which the chiefs are the uniformed caretakers. Presidents and battle captains can either win or lose America’s wars, but Congress and the JCS can either build or gut our ability to fight.
Finally, this contretemps might lead to some better trust: Dempsey saw no offense in Ryan’s off-the-cuff remarks, thus Ryan had nothing to apologize for. Frank exchanges of views between these two men--the nation’s top military officer and a key member of Congress and the loyal opposition--would serve us all well.