Trump: Pursuing a Defense Spending Hike and a Pentagon Audit at the Same Time?
December 21, 2017
Curt Mills / The National Interest
Left unmentioned in the president's speech on Monday regarding the National Security Strategy is that, under his direction, the Pentagon is undergoing its first audit in history. It's not referenced in the document itself, either, though "restraining Federal spending" and "making government more efficient" are mentioned. The National Interest pointed out last week how little attention the audit is getting.
Trump Is Pursuing a Defense Spending Hike
And a Pentagon Audit at the Same Time?
Curt Mills / The National Interest
WASHINGTON (December 19, 2017) -- Left unmentioned in the president's speech  on Monday regarding the National Security Strategy is that, under his direction, the Pentagon is undergoing its first audit in history. It's not referenced in the document itself , either, though "restraining Federal spending" and "making government more efficient" are mentioned. The National Interest  pointed out last week how little attention the audit is getting. [See story below. -- EAW]
When the Republicans first made gains back in the Barack Obama era, they did so on the Tea Party wave. Now-forgotten is that many of those emerging political stars, like Rand Paul and Mike Lee, dissented from party orthodoxy on military spending. That legacy carries on, to some extent, today; Paul and Lee were among only eight senators to vote against  the National Defense Authorization Act earlier this year.
Perhaps this skepticism helped broaden the conversation on the Right, allowing the rise of a Republican nominee in 2016 who openly mocked George W. Bush.
Yet, seemingly paradoxically, Donald Trump stands with most establishment Republicans in favoring some sort of defense spending hike, and his administration is pursuing that path -- is that a contradiction? Some observers insist a one-two punch is necessary: a defense spending hike can only possibly be justified in tandem with a long-overdue audit.
One source, an advisor to the US Navy, thinks the audit is "going to spur a new round of BRAC," the Base Realignment And Closure process that has shuttered north of 350 bases in its five rounds (1988, 1991, 1995, 1998 and 2005).
"You've got a lot of wasted administration and travel costs coming from keeping smaller bases that aren't needed anymore open. . . . Also I could see them going after General Services contracts  -- lots of people fill redundant roles that used to be operated by civilian government personnel," the advisor says. "Ironically, it would be cheaper to bring these back to permanent government positions than to pay the salary, processing and overhead for a contractor."
"Oh, and I bet a bunch of people get their hands slapped for poor fiscal controls," the source says.
US Defense Spending
In the Era of Reemergent Geopolitics
Vladimir V. Putin's Russia on Tuesday called the new National Security Strategy "imperialist " and a return to the "Cold War." This on the heels of a few days of warm words between the White House and Moscow, after Trump and Putin spoke twice by phone between Thursday and Sunday.
On the latter call, Putin had rung to hail an intelligence-sharing exchange Russia says averted a terrorist attack. "President Putin extended his thanks and congratulations to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo and the CIA," the readout noted. It ended enthusiastically: "President Trump then called Director Pompeo to congratulate him, his very talented people, and the entire intelligence community on a job well done!"
Exclamation points in White House statements are unusual. Russia now always a thorn in the administration's side domestically, the exchange drew a sharp rebuke from former National Intelligence Director James Clapper, a trenchant Trump critic: "I think this past weekend is illustrative of what a great case officer Vladimir Putin is," referencing the Russian president's KGB past. "He knows how to handle an asset , and that's what he's doing with the president."
H. R. McMaster, the national security advisor, swiftly dismissed that characterization. "It's just not true ," the lieutenant general told CBS. He also noted earlier this month the administration's general framework , seemingly confirming some of Putin's concerns: "Geopolitics are back, and back with a vengeance, after this holiday from history we took in the so-called post-Cold War period."
Surely the administration sees defense spending (how much, and where?) and defense efficiency as an integral competent of putting the United States on the correct footing. Or if not, then referencing the audit in the National Security Strategy is an indication to the contrary: it should.
Jacob Heilbrunn writes , "Perhaps what the document reveals most clearly is the mental scaffolding of the Trump administration, which is to seek American dominance. Whether the Trump approach, encapsulated in its maiden national-security statement, restores that dominance or accelerates its erosion is the standard by which the administration will be judged in coming years."
Curt Mills is a foreign-affairs reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtMills .
Can America's Foreign Policy Be Restrained?
Curt Mills / The National Interest
(December 12, 2017) -- A year on from the election of Donald Trump -- which some hoped would usher in a new era of foreign policy "realism" and "restraint" (in contrast to the swashbuckling days of the last Republican administration) -- many of those same voices are gravely disappointed. "There is no realism and restraint in American foreign policy in the Trump era," the editor of The American Conservative, Robert Merry, said  at a recent conference.
Others assert things have changed, if only the conversation: "realism is back ."
Rex Tillerson's State Department has openly downgraded the focus on a defense of human rights internationally, in a huge contrast with the two previous administrations, Obama and Bush 43, which were at times outright dominated by liberal interventionists and the neocons, respectively.
Tillerson, on the other hand, has repeatedly argued Foggy Bottom's principal charge is to be "efficient ." And the X factor of an unprecedented occupant of the White House cannot be overstated: Donald Trump's administration may be stocked with characters who know how to stick to conventional talking points, but his often-renegade Tweets are also official statements of government policy, no less than the Justice Department  has said. And on Tuesday morning, we learned Moscow and President Vladimir V. Putin see it the same way. 
Still others are playing a longer game, hoping to begin the process of reorienting how Americans should view their place in the world, and encouraging a new generation of "restrainers."
"How is it that the national security managers get away with it?" historian and foreign policy intellectual Andrew Bacevich asked at a recent event at Catholic University (CUA) in Washington, DC.
"My answer lies in our collective, self-assigned role in history."
The event was held by the John Quincy Adams Society -- which is "committed to identifying, educating, and equipping the next generation of scholars and policy leaders to encourage a new era of realism and restraint" and the newly inaugurated  Center for the Study of Statesmanship at CUA. Both are emerging players, who seek to establish themselves as rivals to more interventionist-friendly outfits like the American Enterprise Institute.
"Here in Washington, in particular… Democrats and Republicans alike subscribe to that sentiment" of a unique, near-providential and irreplaceable role of the United States on the global stage, Bacevich argued. "We hear it, in the repeated references to America as 'the indispensable nation.' We hear it in the reminders of the imperative of the United States exercising 'global leadership' -- always and everywhere, there being no plausible alternative."
Such language is music to the years of paleoconservative writers and politicians such as Patrick J. Buchanan , who has long taken issue with the idea of America as the "first universal nation ."
Some restrainers see bonafide progress. Tucker Carlson's rise  to prominence has been seen as watershed for the movement: the new occupant (like the president) of the most coveted time slot in cable news openly says the Republican-instigated war on Iraq was a fiasco, a generation-defining mistake. Carlson has dedicated good chunks of air time to needling neocons like Max Boot and ultrahawks like Ralph Peters.
In my conversations with him, Steve Bannon , the former White House chief strategist often animadverts about the need to restrict US foreign policy to only "vital national interests."
"Where is all this under Trump? That's changed," Tufts University professor Michael Glennon said at the event at Catholic. "For the first time, in our country, the United States, publicly, has seen behind the veil," of how a lot of this works. But Glennon, for one, worries about some of the American public's conclusions: he doesn't believe in the existence of some sort of "deep state," for instance, a concept that dominated national conversation earlier this year.
Another trouble spot could be this emerging coalition will struggle to agree where there is "vital national interest." Bannon, for instance, is quite hawkish  on Iran, with a source close to him last week insisting to me that we already "ARE at war with Iran throughout the Middle East." Carlson and Buchanan are far more dubious.
Still, some are hopeful a restrainer-leaning alliance structure can cohere. "Am aware of Bannon's views on Iran, but think it best to focus on persuading Trump that fighting the next neocon war, with Iran, has nothing to do with America First but will do for his presidency what Iraq did for W, in spades," Buchanan told me last month. "Don't believe that Trump and his generals -- with North Korea hanging fire -- can be seriously contemplating a war with Iran right now."
A concrete step in the right direction for this contingent could be the announcement last week -- that went largely unnoticed amidst the increasingly all-enveloping national conversation about sexual violence -- that the Department of Defense will be subjected to its first ever audit. In fact, the move has been so hush so far that a source, an advisor the US Army, told me he hadn't even heard of the audit.
"Taxpayers should be encouraged that DOD has finally begun the necessary process of auditing its gargantuan bureaucracy. The Pentagon has done an exemplary job of protecting our national security, but a very poor job of keeping track of how defense dollars are spent," said  Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. "Since the Pentagon is the largest federal department, the lack of transparency and accountability has made this delay even worse."
Channeling Tillerson, chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana W. White said  the move "demonstrates our commitment to fiscal responsibility and maximizing the value of every taxpayer dollar that is entrusted to us." But others have put it more wryly: "Get ready for two years of 'We didn't ask for this platform, Congress told us we had to buy it.'"
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