Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Will and the Wallet

I don't know how this happened, but I just noticed that our blogroll somehow omitted The Will and the Wallet, the Stimson Center's outstanding blog on budgeting for defense and foreign affairs. It's absolutely essential reading -- the very best there is on this subject. This should come as no surprise, considering who runs the show over there.

Today's post by Rebecca Williams on foreign aid in the context of deficit reduction is a great example of what they do so well: data-driven analysis and explanation, clear language, and excellent supporting graphics.

Add it to your blogroll. (I have, belatedly.) Read it. Learn things. Thank me later.

7 comments:

  1. I could not possibly disagree with your assessment of Gordon Adams and the Will and the Wallet more. Although Adams' mastery of national security budgeting is inarguable, he and Becky (and Matt Leatherman) have consistently demonstrated a shallow - in some cases non-existent - understanding of the national and international security issues that should, along with economics, drive spending decisions. Instead, they start from the numbers and an unwavering assumption that the defense budget should be cut, then use facile bromides to paper over how intensely contested those choices are.

    I don't have an ideological problem with cutting the defense budget, per se, but it should be done with a serious discussion of the tradeoffs involved in those cuts, which calculated risks we're willing to take, and how we mitigate those risks. Based on what I've seen and heard, Adams does not contribute constructively to that conversation.

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  2. I completely disagree, and I think your criticisms are wildly unfair. It seems to me that when you say those folks don't understand the substantive debates that inform the strategy development that underpins budget decisions, you're really saying that you dislike the way they've reached different conclusions than you. How do you reconcile that complaint with this post, for example?

    [Gates] is dead on target that setting mission priorities and defining acceptable risks should be the centerpiece of a review. Unfortunately, he also said that the Quadrennial Defense Review would provide the basis for mission priority setting and risk definition. But the QDR failed because it specifically did not provide any such guidance. It gave equal priority to all missions and argued that risk should be reduced as close to zero as possible across the board.

    The Secretary is going to have to do better at defining the criteria for setting priorities. And as for risk, it always comes with the territory. Given that resources are always constrained, the key will be defining “acceptable risks,” by truly examining whether all these missions are equally needed.


    I think you're so far off the mark here that I can't even believe we're talking about the same people.

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  3. The QDR has to be consistent with the NSS, and given that both the 2006 and 2010 versions of that document privilege a forward global engagement (and, as you and Jason pointed out, fail to set priorities), Adams' et al. real beef is with that document, not the QDR.

    Read their work over the last couple years, and you'll see that they consistently use the military and DOD as a whipping boy for their broader complaints about US foreign and security policy, and go so far as to define the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as the Pentagon's problems. They advocate against COIN and 'nation-building' and for a much smaller ground force without ever arguing the strategic merits of those positions vis-a-vis the future threat environment (nor have I ever see them even footnote to arguments by others). In articles like this one ( http://thewillandthewallet.org/2011/05/05/sasc-should-seek-answers-to-its-questions-on-pooled-funds/ ) they rail agains the supposed militarization of foreign assistance and make the absurd and ill-infiormed argument that "security assistance, police training, judicial reform, and other security-sector assistance are fundamentally civilian responsibilities." Really? Tell that to all the ex-military personnel who are contracted to actually design and implement those DOS-led programs. (obviously judicial reform is a different category).

    Also, Gulliver, both I and others you know have direct knowledge of how Adams' approaches these questions. They start with the numbers and look for justifications, even on some DOS-led programs.

    Again - I have no ideological problem with cutting the DOD budget, and I certainly think that DOS and USAID need to be strengthened. But Adams' work simply does not display a rigorous engagement with the underlying realities and challenges that should inform those tough choices.

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  4. It seems to me that when you say those folks don't understand the substantive debates that inform the strategy development that underpins budget decisions, you're really saying that you dislike the way they've reached different conclusions than you.

    Show me the rigorous and detailed argument they've made about why the current and future threat environment means:

    1 - We should have a significantly smaller ground force.
    2 - COIN and nation-building don't serve US national interests.
    3 - DOS is best suited to have sole control of security force assistance, with the military relegated to an implementing role.
    4 - DOS and USAID have a comparative advantage in non-kinetic stabilization activities when experience over the last decade seems to indicate the opposite?

    Moreover, explain to me why, in a period when voices at DOD are among the most strident proponents of increased civilian capacity, Adams et al. continue to depict them as dangerous, power- and money-grabbing hawks who want to usurp the roles of DOS and USAID in foreign policy.

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  5. The QDR has to be consistent with the NSS, and given that both the 2006 and 2010 versions of that document privilege a forward global engagement (and, as you and Jason pointed out, fail to set priorities), Adams' et al. real beef is with that document, not the QDR.

    As in the other thread, irony: you note that the NSS calls for international engagement and global leadership, but then you criticize Adams for failing to argue "the strategic merits of [various] positions vis-a-vis the future threat environment," while absolving DOD of the responsibility to actually justify in the QDR how the proposed systems, polcies, and capabilities will better support the strategic imperatives of the NSS any better than a range of other possible choices. Why do you have higher expectations for an outside analyst than for the government, which actually DOES spend the money?

    I don't agree with everything Adams and Williams have written on security assistance, but the report they published recently was the best thing that's ever been written on the subject by someone outside the government. The activities you've listed above ARE fundamentally civilian responsibilities, even though execution of the programs will often be performed by folks with the necessary skills and expertise. Security assistance is foreign policy, and foreign policy should be run by civilians. You picked a very poor example here. The argument is neither absurd nor ill-informed.

    I know you're more directly familiar with how the folks over there work than I am, and if that's enough for you to write off their work, that's fine by me. I certainly don't recommend that anyone uncritically swallow the policy prescriptions of ANY scholar, analyst, or blogger, but rather that they inform themselves and come to their own decisions. On the subject of budgeting for foreign affairs, Adams et al. provide the simplest, most clearly-presented, and overall best resource on the internet, bar none. Whether or not you agree with their policy prescriptions is a whole different story.

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  6. Show me the rigorous and detailed argument they've made about [...]

    These are all complicated, multi-layered questions and reasonable people can answer them in different ways. These are budget people. The write a blog about budgeting. They're going to approach that subject with certain premises, not all of which are going to be extensively explained or substantiated. I don't take that reality to mean that there is no reason to hold these premises, only that their explanation and elaboration isn't the subject of the blog. We all do the same thing here, and these specific questions are much more closely related to the purported core focus areas of our blog. I don't know why we should expect budget people to start with strategy and work towards resources when even strategy people should, in large part, be doing it the other way around.

    1 - We should have a significantly smaller ground force.
    2 - COIN and nation-building don't serve US national interests.
    3 - DOS is best suited to have sole control of security force assistance, with the military relegated to an implementing role.
    4 - DOS and USAID have a comparative advantage in non-kinetic stabilization activities when experience over the last decade seems to indicate the opposite?


    We could get into all of this, of course, but the result would be... our entire blog.

    (As an aside, for whatever it's worth, I addressed point 3 in my previous comment and I think you misunderstand the premise in point 4: it's not that the civilian agencies "have a comparative advantage," I don't think, so much as the belief that they are properly responsible for those roles and missions. But I digress.)

    Moreover, explain to me why, in a period when voices at DOD are among the most strident proponents of increased civilian capacity, Adams et al. continue to depict them as dangerous, power- and money-grabbing hawks who want to usurp the roles of DOS and USAID in foreign policy.

    You have, once in this thread, appealed to personal experience and direct knowledge, so allow me here to do the same: part of the reason DOD is depicted in this way is because it behaves in this way. (I'm considered a heretic in this community for saying such things, but it is what it is.) All the strident proponency in the world hasn't amounted to sweet FA when it comes to resource time, and the Department consistently takes action to muddy the waters about appropriate roles and missions and to solidify its hold over whatever additional authorities and resources it may be fortunate enough to accumulate as a result of warfighting justifications. It is simply impossible for any reasonable and objective person NOT to perceive an increasing militarization (I prefer "securitization") of foreign assistance, in particular, and to a certain extent in foreign policy writ large.

    But again, this (and the several other questions above) is a much bigger topic than can be contained by this comment thread.

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  7. I picked those topics straight out of their articles and blog entries. I've never even seen them footnote to justifications offered by others. It's disingenuous to claim that DOD needs to make choices based on their assessment of the security environment, but then tell them what their choices should be without even a cursory reference to that environment.

    On point 4 - that's not historically accurate. DOS and USAID (except for the latter in Vietnam) have in general played relatively minor roles in US stabilization and reconstruction efforts, and both DOS and USAID (not to mention some other civilian agencies) continue to resist getting too deeply involved in such activities.

    On DOD - fair enough, but I have some experience with DOD on this topic too, and I think maybe our disparate experiences suggest that (as with DOS and USAID) they are not monolithic institutions, and different components have different perspectives and agendas. I guess if Adams' et al. were castigating DOS and USAID for their (equally enormous) shortcomings in such sweeping terms, I might just dismiss it as painting with an overly broad brush. Since they exclusively single out DOD, it strikes me as playing to the cheap seats on the Left.

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