Foreign Policy Blogs

The Importance of Being Frank

An important story as been hanging out in the news for the past couple months and it’s time I wrote about it.  Barney Frank is on a serious campaign to get the U.S. to curb military spending.  Earlier this year he convened a Sustainable Defense Task Force to find ways to do it.  Read their report here.  They wrote a letter to Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which you can read here.

Their proposal blends uncontroversial and controversial elements.  Uncontroversial (at least as far as I know) is the idea that the Pentagon should be reformed so that it can pass an audit, which will reduce wasteful spending.  Controversial are proposals to alter U.S. grand strategy.   For example, the Task Force recommends cutting the U.S. nuclear arsenal to 1000, which would mean shifting from a nuclear triad (land, sea, and air) to a nuclear dyad (just land and sea).  The Task Force also recommends a strategy of Offshore Balancing, meaning U.S. forces wouldn’t be stationed directly in the Middle East, and other areas around the globe, but rather, as the name suggests, “offshore,” only intervening if strategically necessary.  The aim is to gain more strategic benefits from our financial investments.

Look at the opponents of these proposals and you’ll find that their problems are not with the proposals but rather the proposers.  Kevin Williamson of the National Review writes:

But we must develop a sensible national-defense doctrine before working out the details of its economical implementation, rather than taking the covert, backward approach of using budget-balancing to overturn our existing arrangements.

Though, of course, the Task Force presents the opposite argument in its report:

…[M]any argue that defense budgets should flow from security strategy and goals, and not the other way around. This proviso seems straightforward and indisputable when a nation is defending against major and immediate threats to its very survival.  But what makes sense when the threats are less monumental and the benefits of our expenditures less clear or assured? How do we defend for the long-haul against many and varied lesser challenges without sapping our national strength?

Sean Bielat (challenger to Barney Frank in the 2010 congressional election) and Benjamin Friedman (Task Force member) hammered out the same argument on the pages of South Coast Today, a local Massachusetts news site.  Bielat wrote:

In short, Frank has zero credibility to revise our national defense strategy, and neither does the majority of his commission.

To which Friedman responded:

The report ought to be judged by its argument, not its authors. Bielat trashes us, but makes no coherent criticism of the report (it’s not clear that he’s read it) and does not say what he disagrees with in it.

The Offshore Balancing and nuclear dyad ideas should be put on the table somehow.  If this is the way to do it then this is the way to do it.  Attack the argument, not the arguer.