20 years after Desert Storm, Congress defers to the Pentagon on budgets

Since the swift U.S.-led victory in Operation Desert Storm, Congress largely has shown deference to Pentagon decisions on budgets, weapon programs and war plans — a trend accelerated by the 9/11 attacks, defense experts say.

As former military officials and defense analysts pointed out last week, that resounding victory over Iraqi forces created celebrity generals and the nation’s fighting forces came home riding a wave of public support.

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“The nation entered a period after Gulf War One where the military was at its peak in how it was perceived by the public,” said Nathan Freier, a retired Army officer and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The military, for the first time really since Vietnam, had a new public face.”

Largely credited for the victory were Gens. Colin Powell, Joint Chiefs chairman at the time, and Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of U.S. forces during that war. “There was great deference among lawmakers from that point for senior uniformed leaders,” Freier said. “You hadn’t seen it to that extent before.”

In the years that followed, the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations moved forward with plans for a leaner military. But then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the aftermath, the Bush administration kick-started a dramatic increase in annual Pentagon spending.

With the nation firmly behind striking back in Afghanistan, the post-Gulf War deference shown to senior generals only intensified — even spreading to civilian security officials, analysts said.

“9/11 solidified the executive branch as being firmly in the driver’s seat in terms of setting and shaping U.S. defense policy,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate defense aide-turned-Heritage Foundation analyst. “For many years after 2001, Congress was absent from conducting oversight and mostly took the Pentagon at its word even when analysis was grossly lacking to justify strategy, budget or even base-closure decisions.”

Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense budgeting at the Office for Management and Budget, said “the last chairmen of the Armed Services committees that did meaningful oversight were Aspin and Nunn,” referring to former Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).

“The Armed Services committees were never at war with the Pentagon,” Adams said. “But, until the mid-1990s, they were much more prepared to engage in an intellectual dialogue … and give a comprehensive authorization of policy.”

Experts see consequences in Capitol Hill’s acquiescence, including a chilly relationship between even senior congressional defense committee leaders and top Pentagon brass.

“Ten years later, that culture has settled into DoD where stonewalling Congress has become standard operating procedure,” said Eaglen. “One member of Congress on a key defense committee recently was told he could not meet personally with the secretary of Defense because [Robert] Gates ‘does not meet with freshmen.’ One year later, this member is still waiting for that meeting.”

In another example, House aides last week complained the Pentagon is stiff-arming them on information about weapons-program moves announced earlier this month.

Although more and more money poured into Defense Department coffers each year during the Bush era, the military bought few models of new combat platforms. Defense analysts say Congress did little to stop this, save writing new and larger checks for the Pentagon each year.

“The same military that Reagan built during the Cold War, and later overwhelmingly defeated Saddam Hussein in Desert Storm, is largely still the same one America is relying on today,” Eaglen said.

The funding infusion left many program managers, service leaders and industry titans with giant appetites to keep adding costly and technically challenging subsystems to aircraft, ground vehicles and warships.

“Hardware program advocates in DoD, industry and Congress continue to hype the performance of preferred, almost always highly complex, extraordinarily expensive hardware, as they did with the F-117 in Desert Storm,” said Winslow Wheeler, a former Senate GOP defense aide now with the Center for Defense Information.

And with all the money flowing in, there was no incentive for Pentagon officials or lawmakers to exert discipline over major hardware programs, no matter the technical hurdles, schedule delays or cost overruns. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, many major weapon programs were delayed as a result of this new culture.

A system flush with cash produced a number of weapon systems Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. James Cartwright dubbed “exquisite.” The F-22 got that moniker, and the Air Force was forced to buy hundreds fewer than planned because the program became too expensive. Most recently, another program to make Cartwright’s “exquisite” list, the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, was canceled due to his price.

On both sides of the Potomac River, the primary answer the last two decades was to shake up schedules and throw more money at the technical problems, Pentagon officials and analysts say.


“This budget has basically doubled in the last decade. And my own experience here is in that doubling, we've lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen told reporters Jan. 6.

One former Office of Management and Budget official called that “a very striking admission.”

And through it all, Congress largely went along for the ride, says Wheeler.

Congressional defense panels in recent years have “performed little to no oversight and ignored information that does not conform to preconceived notions and — of course — the preferences of campaign contributing corporations.”

Lawmakers during this two-decade span have shown too little interest in “what works and what doesn't in warfare,” Wheeler added.

While experts agree that oversight from Capitol Hill has been on the decline, they see partisanship creeping into defense issues.

“The partisan divide in defense affairs is more pronounced now than at any point in the last 20 years,” Freier said. “It seems when one side is for something, the other is almost reflexively and strongly against it.”

Looking forward, experts see a bleak picture for defense issues in Congress.

“Desert Storm unfolded in the immediate aftermath of a 40-year rivalry with Russia that America had won. The quick victory in Kuwait amplified the prevailing mood of triumphalism,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “America's mood today is anything but triumphant. The government is borrowing $4 billion every day, much of it from a rapidly rising China. The political system seems paralyzed by ideological divisions. Pessimism prevails.”

The nation’s economic slump is “making the cost of overseas wars controversial” on Capitol Hill, and the skyrocketing costs of troops’ pay and benefits is now on the minds of lawmakers, Thompson said.

Freier said the rigid nature of policy debates in Congress leaves him fearful “if we can ever move past it and have the kind of debates about a number of defense issues that needs to take place.”

Adams agrees. “There are fundamental conversations that are not occurring about defense issues and the role of America’s military,” he said. “But it’s almost to the point that it’s impossible to have a rational debate.”

As the calendar moves toward the 2012 election cycle, Adams sees lawmakers ready to enter into a months-long “superficial non-debate” about defense issues.

“The Democrats will hunker down and say, ‘We’re not weak on defense,' " Adams predicts. “And the Republicans will simply reply, ‘Oh, yes, you are.' "