The budgetary theater of the absurd

As we step onto the stage for the next act of the budgetary drama, things seem to make less and less sense. The budgetary solution shimmers on the road ahead, then evaporates as members of Congress repeatedly present legislation that either cannot pass or will not meet the needs of the other chamber.

Only the world of theater can provide the metaphors that describe where we are.

For the last two years I have been describing the budgetary point and counterpoint, the moments of high drama and unresolved outcomes, as an Indonesian shadow play. The budgetary players are actors manipulating two dimensional puppets, backlit through a white sheet. To the audience, the puppets seem real, the actions seem productive, but in the end it is a show.

Today, we have graduated from the shadow play and have entered a more surreal, or even nihilistic drama.

Might we be in a Pirandellian world, where six players (Boehner, Pelosi, Reid, McConnell, the president, and his veep) desperately try to figure out what the script is, what their roles are, and search for a playwright who can get them off the stage.

Or are we in the Sartrean world of No Exit, where nobody can get out of the room and the players all look smaller and smaller in each others' eyes?

Perhaps it is a Beckettian universe, an apparent Endgame which does not end, but is a series of meaningless interactions that end where they started, but actually went nowhere.

Or even the more nihilistic world of Macbeth, where the characters have become poor players who strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more. Players who have been weaving a horror story in the sky that is, in the end, a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."

As John Boehner refuses to talk, the president shouts into the Learian wind about the storm to come, and senatorial fingers point at each other, we are, perhaps watching the surrealistic world described by Ionesco in the Bald Soprano. We can only exclaim, as his players do: "How curious! How bizarre, and what a coincidence."

How interesting to watch; how little to behold; how invisible the outcome. Only dramatists could improve on this "reality."


National Security

The sequester is Chuck Hagel’s best friend

Welcome to the Pentagon, Mr. Hagel. And, by the way, it's one more day before doomsday, before Armageddon, before the meat axe falls on the Pentagon.

Wait a minute. How could you possibly say this on your first day there: "It's the uncertainty of the planning, it's the uncertainty of the commitments, the uncertainty of what's ahead. We need to figure this out....We need to deal with this reality."

Didn't you get the memo Panetta left behind? Did you really retire the meat axe metaphor? On your first day???

How utterly refreshing! Send out a new memo. Remind the chiefs that the secretary is in charge; he is the decider. Remind them that they are to give you their best options. That they are to give you advice, not selection A on the menu, without disclosing selections B and C.

Before they rush up to the Hill once again to plead their case, remind them that they have to clear their testimony with you, with the civilian, with the secretary. That perhaps, just perhaps, a sequester, while a miserable way to run the Pentagon, may be something they need to learn to manage, not complain about.

When I read the remarks you made as secretary, my first reaction was, "how bland, there's nothing here." Then I thought about it. Yes, bland may be the best place to be -- bland, disciplined, and ready to do the job. Perhaps that's the best way to start.

Your job one is not Iran, not North Korea, not even Afghanistan. Your first job is management, and getting discipline back in the way we do our defense business. It hasn't really been there since the late 1990s. Budgets just grew like Topsy, and, with that, as Admiral Mullen said in January 2011, the building lost its ability to make the tough choices and set priorities.

Well, that's no longer an option. Budgets are already down 10 percent since FY 2010. The drawdown is here, sequester or not. So, here are your priorities:

Job one: See if you can convince the White House that flexibility is what you need, not more money. (And every federal agency should get it, not just the Pentagon.)

Job two: Work with Congress to settle the FY 2013 level of spending. If it is at the continuing resolution level, live with it.

Job three: Living with it means getting your arms quickly around the forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review, the planning for which is just getting under way. Do the revolutionary thing: For the first time since 1993, make the review into a resource exercise. As Bernard Brodie put it years ago, "strategy wears a dollar sign."

Use that shrinking dollar sign to discipline the QDR. Strategy, yes, but within the resources we have available, not a blue-sky exercise that calls for everything the services can imagine they need. Discipline the analysis of risk in a world that poses no existential challenge to the United States. Measure carefully when and where the United States intends to engage its forces.

Use the QDR to force weapons systems choices and cost controls. Use it to shrink the back office -- the biggest in the world. Find your "bloat brush" and use it to scrub down unneeded offices, duplicative activities, excess staff. Bring the pay and benefits problems into the review and put some tough, but necessary, proposals before Congress. Make it clear to Congress that they have a choice: combat capability or an excessive infrastructure that needs another base-closing round.

The QDR is your best tool; it is there right now. The resource shrinkage is your friend; use it to put real choices on the table.

It's entirely OK with me if the rhetoric goes away, as long as the next step is quiet discipline that produces an even higher quality force that is cost-effective.