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August 15, 2012

The Deficit of Strategic Thinking and the Ryan Plan
Posted by Bill R. French

294968003_6N9HX-LFor a campaign that was initially assertive on foreign policy, Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan for vice-presidential running mate comes as a surprise. Not only does Ryan lack any foreign policy experience but the defense policy put forward in the so-called Ryan Plan actively undermines Romney’s national security platform.

Perhaps more importantly, however, a glance at the Ryan Plan sheds light on the second deficit facing our country: the deficit of real strategic thinking.

The Ryan Plan and the Romney Campaign

At the core of this trouble is an apparent incompatibility between the Ryan Plan and Romney’s defense policy.  In his high-profile budget plan, Ryan proposed increasing Pentagon expenditures by $599 billion over the next decade. However, for the Romney-Ryan ticket, the problem is that this is $1.51 trillion less than is called for under Romney’s plan to peg Pentagon spending to 4% of GDP annually.

There is a significant difference in the underlying logics of each plan. In principle, Ryan recognizes the trade-off between failing “to put our budget on a sustainable path” – in which case “we are choosing decline as a world power” – and Pentagon spending, or at least his threat-perception that drives his proposed Pentagon spending. Ryan, no doubt, believes his budget strikes such a balance between deficit reduction and responsible Pentagon financing, however controversial that alleged balance may be. Crucially, that balance appears to be disregarded by Romney’s proposal to inundate the Department of Defense with cash, perhaps risking, in Ryan’s terminology, American “decline as a world power.”

While the GOP will surely develop some narrative to explain away these differences, even the most genuine, effective attempts will come at a high political cost. Consider that 41% of Americans believe the nation spends “too much” on defense and 52% believe cuts to reduce the deficit should come from the military (Medicare came in 2nd at 15%).

Then, of course, if tapping Ryan for VP was intended to provide Romney with conservative credentials and fiscal bona fides, the $1.51 trillion difference between their respective Pentagon plans undermines that attempt.

And just how much does $1.51 trillion buy for the Pentagon? Well, as illustrative examples, that sum could purchase around 122 Ford Class aircraft carriers or about 9,000 F-35s.

Yet, upon Ryan joining the campaign, the Romney Pentagon plan became the Romney-Ryan Pentagon plan. Certainly there were no overnight changes in the strategic environment or in the nation’s fiscal situation to explain Ryan's upward shift of $1.51 trillion from his previous proposal.

Instead, the overnight change, as Ryan explains, was that now he’s “on the Romney ticket.”  In other words: politics. And that’s a problem.

The Deficit of Strategic Thinking

At a moment in history in which the United States faces rapid changes in the international system, the country needs a defense policy driven by strategic thinking, not politicking. The failure of political leaders to think strategically about defense constitutes the nation’s other, much less discussed deficit: the strategic deficit.

Of course, the nation’s strategic deficit extends well beyond Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney. Its inglorious history ranges from the Vietnam War waged in the absence of any serious national interest, to the invasion of Iraq and neoconservatism confusing national interest with global dominance.

Nonetheless, the Romney-Ryan situation demonstrates the core of our politicians' deficit of strategic thinking, namely that American politics often fails to discuss strategy in any real sense all. Real strategy defines and connects ends, ways and means – what you want, how you get it, and what you use to get there. Discussions over defense policy occasionally approach a serious strategic conversation while leveling criticism, but frequently fail to meet the burden of real strategy when putting forward proposals.

Take for example Paul Ryan’s recent spat over the Pentagon’s budget request for FY2013. He criticized the budget for allegedly failing to supply adequate resources for the pivot to the Pacific, claiming that “This budget doesn't do that. So I think the strategy doesn't match the budget because I think what is going on here is this is a budget-driven strategy not a strategy-driven budget.”

Whatever one may think about the accuracy of Ryan’s accusation, he is in essence saying that the administration has failed to properly align ends, ways and means (in this case, by proposing a way – the pivot to the pacific – but failing to provide the means).

But notice that Ryan’s own defense plan presents a "budget-driven strategy," exactly the alleged error for which he criticized the administration. The only difference is that it drives in the opposite direction: the Ryan Plan proposed means – an additional $599 billion in Pentagon spending – but no concrete ways or ends.  What capabilities will this money buy and why? What are these capabilities needed to achieve and how will they go about achieving it? In other words, the strategy was 'spend now, reason later.'

To the extent that Ryan later addressed this problem, he vaguely suggested more naval and air forces are required to execute the pivot to the Pacific.  Assume Mr. Ryan is correct for a moment. The basic question becomes: why do more naval and air forces require the additional spending he has proposed? Why $599 billion?

Meaninglessness and Impossibility

Without an even marginally specific treatment of ends-ways-means, calling for more naval and air forces does not entail the need for greater Pentagon funding.  Depending upon the additional forces in question, it is reasonable that the administration’s current plans are adequate, such as the Navy’s plans to deploy 60% of its fleet to the Pacific by 2020, thereby providing additional resources to Pacific Command without requiring greater funding for the Pentagon. But even if we assume those plans are insufficient for whatever reason, it would still not follow that increased Pentagon spending is required. For instance, can the ‘necessary’ additional forces be financed by savings in Pentagon inefficiencies or  appropriated from other, less critical programs? Not to mention considering more innovative, cost-efficient ways of generating stronger military power.

Indeed, without specifying the goals to be achieved and how to achieve them, it is impossible to determine what forces and resources are needed at all. That is, without coherently addressing ends-ways-means, the Ryan Pentagon Plan is meaningless, making it impossible to compare against the fiscal and security realities facing the nation.

Our nation’s financial deficit is a very real challenge to be sure. But just as real is the deficit of strategic thinking. No doubt that both campaigns will refine their proposals for defense policy, and perhaps Mr. Ryan will even shed light on his own confusing record, but the public deserve proposals coherent enough to admit of evaluation rather than merely the customary politicking.

If proposals are not coherent enough to be evaluated, any discussion of alternatives or choices becomes impossible. Not a good state of affairs for a democracy.

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