The administration says it’s determined to pull out of Middle Eastern “forever wars” so it can focus on countering the rise of Russia and China.
But many of President Donald Trump’s actions send a much different message — from his decisions to send thousands more troops to the Mideast to last month’s killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. And that mismatch is already fueling skepticism on Capitol Hill about the proposed $741 billion defense budget that the White House is rolling out next week.
The budget proposal, for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, is expected to include more rhetoric about the administration’s “great power” rivalry with Moscow and Beijing. But those ambitions carry a big price tag — and they come as the Pentagon faces a flattening budget that also has to make room for $7 billion for Trump’s border wall.
Add to that the growing concerns about a possible war with Iran or the future of U.S. troop deployments in Iraq and Syria.
“It’s going to be hard to explain [a pivot to China and Russia] to our troops when they’re stuck in the sand,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.).
A popular pivot
The administration’s National Defense Strategy, unveiled in 2018, places a priority on competition with Russia and China after nearly two decades of counterterrorism operations, largely in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The blueprint has proved popular on Capitol Hill, where both parties have called for adapting to meet new threats and pleas to wind down decades of war are gaining traction.
But Democrats say they’re wary about the Pentagon’s commitment to that strategy as tensions simmer over Soleimani’s killing, which prompted Iran to retaliate with a missile strike against bases in Iraq that house U.S. troops.
“I don’t think anything’s changed since the National Defense Strategy was implemented that warrants us picking an extended fight with Iran,” House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said, adding that the president’s actions are hurting the Pentagon’s ability to make the case for his budget. “And I think it does undermine those larger issues and is not in our best interests.”
“I do not know what this president will do next,” added Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), a former National Security Council official. “I see no consistency in his actions, and he doesn’t seem to be anchored in the security documents that his own administration has put forward.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) questioned the administration’s commitment to its stated strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. “I think we have taken our eye off the ball there,” she said. “We say we’re going to do it, but then we send more troops to Saudi Arabia, which doesn’t help.”
Just weeks after rebuking Trump on Iran, House Democrats last month passed even more legislation to limit the president’s military options in the Middle East.
The looming spending crunch
The Pentagon also faces growing competition for its dollars.
The department is expected to fork over another $7.2 billion from its budget this year to help fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, after the administration shifted $6.1 billion in military funds last year toward the effort. The $13.3 billion total, some lawmakers have noted, is enough to buy a Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier.
And the defense budget is set to flatten after several increases by Trump and Republican defense hawks.
An independent commission recommended annual budget increases of 3 to 5 percent to carry out the National Defense Strategy. But a two-year budget deal struck by congressional leaders and the White House last summer essentially keeps the budget flat through fiscal 2021, the final year of mandatory caps on spending.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other brass are increasingly predicting static budgets and emphasizing the need to find savings internally to reinvest in the programs crucial to carrying out the strategy.
Walking and chewing gum
The Pentagon acknowledged that it must find a way to both focus on the long-term goals of countering Russia and China, while continuing to deal with regional issues with countries such as North Korea and Iran.
“The goal is that we need to shift our focus to the Indo-Pacific, we need to shift our resources and our eyes that way, but we got to do it while still engaging with the current threats and the current crises,” Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said at a briefing last month. “We’re going to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.”
The administration has so far escaped the choice between the National Defense Strategy and regional conflicts by adding money to the Pentagon’s budget so it can invest in the conflict in the Middle East and future capabilities to counter Russia and China. But a strict top line budget for the Pentagon in fiscal 2021 means that’s no longer possible, and services may have to pick one or the other.
“I think the next budget is going to bring these issues to the fore because services will propose cutting force structure to invest in high tech programs aimed at great power conflict,” said Mark Cancian, who worked on Pentagon budget strategy at the Office of Management and Budget for seven years. “Those force structure cuts, like the Navy proposing to retire ships early or the Air Force proposing to retire aircraft, will cause the Congress to balk.”
Some cuts coming
Some of this has already begun to come true. A Navy memo to the Office of Management and Budget showed that the service wants to make cuts to the fleet, but the White House instead asked the Navy to stick with the administration’s plan to grow to 355 ships from 293 now.
One way the Pentagon can keep pursuing both missions without increasing the budget is to get international partners to pick up some of the slack, Hoffman suggested. “Part of this is our efforts to get our allies and partners to increase their funding so we can maybe shift over to some different missions,” he said.
Despite the perception problem, the immediate crisis with Iran is unlikely to affect the Pentagon’s fiscal 2021 budget request, planning for which was well underway before the Iran situation heated up in late December. Reaching the goals laid out by the National Defense Strategy requires investing in research and development for future technology such as hypersonic weapons and the procurement of advanced ships or planes, which can take years to bring into the force.
“The money that’s going to deal with Russia and China is primarily research money … and procurement money,” said Dov Zakheim, who served as the Pentagon’s comptroller in George W. Bush’s administration. “That doesn’t really change because of this Iran crisis, because this is an immediate crisis, whereas procurement … could take … years.”
By the time the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, the country may have moved past the current tensions with Iran. Zakheim added it’s more likely the Pentagon could ask for a supplemental budget request for fiscal 2020, something that would be required only if the president grows the military footprint in the Middle East considerably.
Going back for more money
But some experts predicted even the warfighting account for “overseas contingencies operations” won’t see massive growth.
“Keep in mind that the operations against Libya in 2011 did not change the OCO budget, and those operations came in as something under $1 billion,” Cancian said. “With that as a precedent, what’s going on now wouldn’t push an administration to ask for more money. You would have to have a much higher level of activity before they go through the hassle and political price.”
The gap between where the Trump administration wants to focus its attention and where the world is in turmoil is reminiscent of the Obama White House’s attempt to “pivot to the Pacific,” Cancian said. Shortly after the former president announced a renewed focus on the Pacific and China, Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine and the Islamic State rose to power in the Middle East, forcing the White House to direct its focus and funding back to the Middle East and Europe.
“The Trump administration is having some of that experience, that it wants to reorient on great power conflict and it’s being pulled back into regional conflicts,” Cancian said. “My argument is that it’s just not realistic to believe we can disengage from these kinds of conflicts and global commitments to focus on great power competition.”
Never really leaving
Defense hawks agree and are quick to note that, regardless of the Pentagon’s focus on Russia and China, the U.S will still need to remain involved in the Middle East.
Ultimately, the National Defense Strategy is about making a priority of great power competition rather than abandoning the Middle East, said Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
“The Middle East is never going to let you pivot away from it,” Thornberry said. “It’s a matter of priorities, paying more attention to something that we weren’t paying enough attention to, but you can’t just focus on one — whether it’s North Korea or China or Russia or terrorists or Iran — at the exclusion of all the others.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a strong backer of the strategy, added that matching Russia and China “will continue to be No 1.”
“What’s happening in Iran and Iraq shouldn’t even be discussed at the same level, in my opinion,” Inhofe said.