Can Progressives Run The Pentagon?
When National Security Competes With Other Priorities
I have been in the national security business for 35 years, 21 on the pointy end of it and 14 in the pointy-headed end of it. I have been an ideological conservative for the last 39 years, getting off to a rocky start in 1983 when my UVA First Year Dorm “Stranger Date” saw the official photo of Ronald Reagan posted above my door and nearly walked out of the room. As a conservative, I have never felt a tension between what I believed to be my ideology (free-market, individual liberty, rule of law, limited government, you know, the stuff enshrined in the Constitution) and my preferences for American national security.
I use that phrase— “preferences for American national security” — on purpose, because I realize that there have been throughout American history, strains of conservatism that do not comport broadly with my primacist, muscular, dare I say “Reaganite” views. Additionally, I will likely steer away from party discussions here, as the modern GOP bears little resemblance to the one I grew up in, and the regrettable rise of the nationalist/populist (NatPops) wing of that party has rendered it unfamiliar to me.
This essay is not about who is a good, patriotic American, as those are found across the political spectrum. This is also not a history lesson, as I am well-aware that “progressives” (for their time) were at the helm of American national security for the start of WWII, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. What I seek to do here is to contrast the “go to” political moves of the modern American progressive with the modern American conservative and put forward something that should be unobjectionable but that is likely to be objected to anyway: that progressives in positions of authority in the Department of Defense must wrestle with ideological dilemmas that do not occur to conservatives, and that to the extent their ideological priors influence policy, those influences are unlikely to be additive.
How Did I Get Here?
I have been watching the Biden Administration’s team at the Pentagon through two budget cycles, with the budget submissions as the “proof in the pudding” of an administration’s priorities, preferences, and proclivities. The administration came into office after four years of schizophrenic national security policy that amounted largely to “let’s make our military more ready, let’s talk a lot about making it bigger while making no real progress in doing so, let’s undercut our alliances, and let’s antagonize our friends.” All of this while insisting that re-emerging great power competition was guiding star, something they got right.
The lens that I’ve applied to this observation is that of a navalist and advocate for seapower. Thus far, their efforts have been disappointing, as I have alluded to here and here. From what I read, my colleagues in the air and land power choruses are similarly disappointed. The FY23 budget released recently was particularly disappointing (this dyspeptic essay comes at the end of reviewing LITERALLY THOUSANDS of pages of Navy Budget documents over the weekend), as it reflected a fundamental lack of seriousness with respect to the military threat posed by China, while acknowledging that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had come at an inconvenient time and so was not much reflected in the submission.
Not that their budget was nonsensical. In fact, it was quite the opposite, as I laid out in the piece at Commander Salamander I cited above. What we see in the Pentagon’s budget is the result of political prioritization at the highest levels of the administration. Those priorities form the basis for their strategy, and the strategy is driving the budget—just as it is supposed to. I put it this way:
Namely, that there were basic needs and services that the administration believed were not sufficiently resourced, that there were infrastructure requirements that needed addressing, and that there were important long-term changes in energy production and consumption to be made to address climate change. These “investments” were considered essential to shoring up America’s ability to compete with a rising China, who was recognized to be a security threat in myriad ways, but none so important as economic. These investments would be funded out of discretionary funding, the largest single claimant upon which is the defense budget. Given the difficulty in raising revenue (taxes) to address these priorities, minimizing real growth in the defense budget would provide a generous portion of the money needed to fund the domestic agenda. Clearly, over $700B annually in defense spending should be sufficient, so DoD will simply have to make do.
In essence, the Pentagon—populated with progressives in key policy jobs—is being asked (told) to keep a lid on spending so that money can be applied to other domestic political priorities. And I assert that this is fine with most of them. These other domestic political priorities are not random or unanticipated; they represent the jot and tittle of the modern progressive agenda. Inequality, climate change and the environment, the welfare state, and urban transportation and housing are center of mass policy ends of the progressive cause, far more so than Pentagon spending. Progressive national security types certainly want sufficient resources for national defense, but they REALLY want a domestic agenda that looks to the defense budget for resourcing.
And because as we know, “personnel is policy”, the progressives appointed to political jobs at the Pentagon have been raised in the language and preferences of the left. Progressive national security hawks are as rare as pro-choice conservatives, and while there may be some real disappointment in some appointees at the budget controls they are passed from the White House and the degree to which their policy options are constrained, their basic political instincts broadly conform to the strategy they are implementing and the politics it produces. They are not foxes guarding the henhouse, but neither are they unalloyed advocates of the mission of the department in which they serve.
This is an important point to pause: we have seen examples of people appointed to political jobs in the executive branch whose experience and background mark them as having been generally antithetical to the mission of the department to which they are appointed. Industry executives in the EPA, anti-Union lawyers at Labor, and teachers union critics at Education are examples. That is NOT what I am asserting here. Most of the progressive appointees at Defense are not “critics” per se of the mission of national defense, they simply have ideas and preferences that have been filtered through the rubric of their other political preferences. It is this central point that separates progressive national security types from conservative. Conservatives CLEARLY filter also, but when a prevailing norm within the modern American conservative movement is for a strong national defense, they are far less likely to look at the national defense as a means to subsidize other elements of their political agenda. Their agenda IS national defense.
The Deputy Secretary of Defense
The current Deputy Secretary of Defense is an incredibly competent and experienced woman named Kathleen (Kath) Hicks. Dr. Hicks has had decades of experience in the Pentagon, and is generally considered to be the single most powerful and influential person in the building, this recent profile of her boss notwithstanding. She sits atop a bureaucracy within the Office of the Secretary that has grown more powerful at the expense of the service secretaries, in a centralization that has mirrored that of the uniformed services to the Joint Staff.
As I mentioned in the piece above, Secretary Hicks spent a good bit of time and energy thinking and writing about how to cut the defense budget before she came into office. This Foreign Affairs piece from 2020 pretty much serves as a playbook for the Biden DoD, and a few extended quotations from it are instructive:
On the campaign trail, some Democratic candidates are moving in the opposite direction. To free up money for her health-care plan, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has said she plans to slash defense spending. Likewise, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has said that in order to “invest in the working families of this country and protect the most vulnerable,” the United States should put an end to “massive spending on a bloated military budget.”
Here, Hicks contrasts two of the (then) leading Democratic presidential hopefuls with the Trump Administration approach, citing statements that represent(ed) fairly common rhetoric on the left. Although Hicks supported Joe Biden (who is not quoted in the piece), it seems likely that fervent supporters of both Sanders and Warren have found their way into plum Pentagon assignments.
The closer one looks at the details of military spending, the clearer it becomes that although radical defense cuts would require dangerous shifts in strategy, there are savings to be had. Getting them, however, would require making politically tough choices, embracing innovative thinking, and asking the armed forces to do less than they have in the past. The end result would be a less militarized yet more globally competitive United States.
It is difficult to conceive under what circumstance a modern American conservative national security thinker would advocate for a “…less militarized yet more globally competitive United States…”, but I supposed they may exist.
In the year before Joe Biden became President and Dr. Hicks became DepSecDef, she was writing with clarity that DoD should get smaller. She was not being controversial, quite the contrary. Her thinking in this article was representative of moderate progressivism, the kind America voted for in Joe Biden. Here is Dr. Hicks on how the strategy she advocates (which is the Biden approach) will impact the size of the force:
This strategy would require reshaping the defense budget. As ever, the military would need to navigate painful tradeoffs among readiness, investment, and structure, since all three types of spending are needed to keep pace with China and Russia. Yet because this strategy envisions a somewhat smaller force, the Pentagon could spend less on structure, which would in turn lessen the pressure on the other two categories. In terms of investment, it could favor long-term priorities over upgrades of current hardware. Spending on readiness would have to be kept high, although the absolute costs would go down since the force would be smaller.
Between “…because this strategy envisions a somewhat smaller force…” and “…asking the armed forces to do less than they have in the past…”, we begin to see the degree to which taming defense spending, rather than spending what is required for the national defense of the world’s most powerful and influential nation, is at the heart of her mission. If you don’t believe me on the linkage between domestic political priorities and national defense, take Dr. Hicks at her own word:
Here, domestic and foreign policy objectives can converge. Lowering overall health-care costs, for instance, also lowers the cost of military health insurance, which is second only to pay as the biggest driver of growing personnel spending in the military. Investments in education, infrastructure, and programs that help workers transition between jobs have the added benefit of making it easier for politicians to stop protecting manufacturing plants that produce yesterday’s equipment and instead invest in capabilities for tomorrow.
While there are links between these things and national security/defense spending, right of center national security hands come at this apparent zero sum game from the opposite side. Where Dr. Hicks (and the left in general) would have us believe that we should invest in these other things in order to spend less on defense, those on the right would suggest fully funding an appropriate defense posture, and then look to other desires.
At some level of abstraction, progressive national security types are a lot like conservative education policy types. The work is incredibly important to the country, but within your own tribe, other priorities exist. When a nation spends $750B on defense even under a progressive administration, it is hard to feel bad for the left of center defense community, and I’m sure the policy analysts at Health and Human Services aren’t crying any crocodile tears for the poor Schedule C personal assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Partnerships with whom they worked on the Hill. But it is important to realize that both come from the same set of policy preferences, one that sees unfairness and inequity as something to be addressed by government and policy, and that sees “investment” in education, the environment, infrastructure, and diversity as governing priorities, with national defense as as a necessary government function requiring reshaping and reform in order to harvest savings to be applied to the other priorities.
I’ve thought this through, and I am having a tough time coming up with examples of where my deeply held conservative ideology would be in tension with my approach to resourcing national security. I’m a lot squishier than some (conservatives) on alliances and international organizations (I like them, I think they are useful, and I think we need to lead them), and if you held a gun to my head, I’d probably support a tax increase on myself in exchange for higher defense spending. But since my brand of conservatism takes as its raison d’etre the conservation of the blessings of our founding as codified in the genius of the Constitution, the whole “provide(ing) for the common defense” and “…provide and maintain a Navy…” things just keep finding their way to the top of my list. I’m funny like that.