President Obama's big thinkers fussed from February 2009 to January 2010 over what to put in this year's sweeping, congressionally mandated review of future defense strategy that would justify what the Pentagon was doing and might do in the future if Congress voted it enough money.
The formal name of this kabuki dance that bureaucrats perform every four years is Quadrennial Defense Review or QDR. The QDR is one of those documents that government insiders argue about endlessly to make sure they do not say anything offensive, provocative, informative or even interesting. Few outsiders read the QDR, if they have heard of it at all.
The House Armed Services Committee recently did hold a quickie hearing on this year's 105-page QDR during which Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., gave the Pentagon's chief author, policy director Michelle Flournoy, a brush of a kiss while ranking member Rep. Howard (Buck) McKeon of California gave her a bit of a slap.
Said congressional veteran Skelton: "Overall I find the 2010 QDR to be a solid product and superior to the last several iterations that we've had ... Still, the way the QDR seems to treat the force-sizing construct is to advocate for a force that is capable of being all things to all contingencies."
"It's tough to determine what the priority is, what the most likely risk we face may be, and what may be the most dangerous," McKeon said. "It seems that the QDR makes no significant changes to major pieces of our current force."
Complained McKeon: "This QDR provides a force structure for the years we're in today when the purpose of the review is exactly the opposite: to prepare for the likely conflicts of tomorrow. One must ask what's new here? If this is really a vision for the defense program for the next 20 years, as the statute requires, then why does the QDR lay out a force structure for the next five years, not to mention one that looks a lot like today's force? The QDR is supposed to shape the department for 2029, not describe the Pentagon in 2009."
Flournoy answered in typical diplo-speak: "Our efforts in this QDR really have evolved around the imperative to reaffirm our commitment to the health of America's all-volunteer force, to rebalance our program and capabilities to fight both the wars that we're in today and also prepare for future contingencies and to reform how and what we buy."
"Rebalance" is the euphemism Defense Secretary Robert Gates uses to try to persuade Congress to cancel some of the clunkers he does not want to keep buying, like the Boeing C-17 transport, to free up money to buy the here-and-now smaller weapons to help our troops fight back the bad guys in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As for Flournoy's words about changing the way the Pentagon chooses and buys weapons, Gates is but the latest in a long line of defense executives to promise reform. Last year he had all he could do to convince Congress to stop buying F-22 fighters which cost $350 million a copy and don't help win the war against terrorism. Gates will find the reform hill even steeper this election year as lawmakers balk at killing any weapon, however unnecessary, that provides jobs back home.
I spent months in 1997 going behind the scenes at the Pentagon and Congress to find out about all the wheeling and dealing that went into the writing of the QDR that year. "I had high hopes for the QDR," Gen. Ronald Fogleman, former Air Force Chief of Staff, told me. "In my view, for the QDR to be a success there was going to have to be some fairly significant realignment among the [armed] services."
But Fogleman said his hopes for meaningful reform were dashed when the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, sent a two-star general to Fogleman's office to deliver this message: "The chairman would like to have the QDR turn out to be as close to the status quo as we can make this thing work. His message is: 'We don't need any Billy Mitchells,'" the general said, referring to Army Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, who revolutionized the use of air power by demonstrating in 1923 how bombers could sink Navy warships.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote this assessment of the 2010 QDR: "From my perspective the QDR takes positive steps to support the Department's efforts to rebalance the force and reform processes. It provides needed focus on improving stability and defending our vital interests in the Middle East and South Asia as well as continuing to be good stewards of the health of the force and balancing global strategic risk."
But Shalikashvili's mind-set about preserving the status quo still dominates the thinking in today's Pentagon. So, despite some promises of change around the edges in this newest QDR, I see the 2010 report headed for the Pentagon's huge mausoleum of unread or unheeded documents which didn't make a significant difference.