WASHINGTON: Dov Zakheim and Roger Zakheim, the father-and-son team of national security advisors to the Romney campaign, fenced with skeptical reporters this morning about what their candidate would actually do differently from the Obama administration.
The big things, in brief: boost Navy shipbuilding by 66 percent; slash the civil service workforce at the Defense Department; show no “daylight” between the US and Israel on Iran; and arm the Syrian rebels. The Zakheims emphasized, however, that the Romney defense buildup would not happen all at once but would scale up as the economy recovers — and it isn’t that different from the administration’s own totals, anyway.
Romney has promised to spend 4 percent of gross domestic product on Defense, but the Zakheims said that will be the “base budget” once the government ends its the current practice of annual supplement appropriations for the Afghan war; with those supplements for “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO), defense spending is already over four percent of GDP.
“You look at where we are today, 4.2 percent of GDP; you look at what the [former Defense Secretary Robert] Gates projections were for fiscal 13 and 14,” said the elder Zakheim, Dov, who served as comptroller in the George W. Bush administration. In that context, he said, “these are not outrageous numbers and they’re not two trillion” — a figure cited by some Democrats for the Romney buildup. “We’ll get to four percent; we’re not necessarily going to go to 4 percent in fiscal ’13.” The President’s 2013 budget is already before Congress, Zakheim noted, and “we’re not going to come in with this massive supplemental.”
Besides, pegging Defense spending at 4 percent of GDP makes it a variable, not a fixed figure. “If Romney’s going to turn the economy around, then the GDP’s going to grow,” Dov noted. “If it grows more quickly, the number will be larger.”
In addition to increasing budgets, eventually, a Romney administration will force the Pentagon to make better use of the money it already has, the Zakheims said. Challenged by reporters, who noted that that every administration has tried (and largely failed) to do this, they contrasted their candidate’s business experience to the president’s community activist roots.
“You have a CEO who doesn’t know what a bottom line looks like because he’s never been in business,” Dov said of Obama. “Gov. Romney, with his background and experience in the private sector, will absolutely be focused on making the department more efficient.”
Beyond the usual acquisition reform measures — controlling change orders and requirements creep, stabilizing budgets, limiting technological ambitions — the most specific step Romney would take to improve efficiency would be to cut civil servants. After a decade of post-9/11 growth in the Defense Department’s civilian workforce, “there are almost as many people in suits as there are in uniform,” said Dov. “There’s a need to reduce the size of the civil service.”
At the same time, Romney would build up the uniformed military, reversing the cut of 100,000 personnel (80,000 Army soldiers, 20,000 Marines) and increasing spending on key weapons systems, especially warships and submarines. Under the Obama administration’s plans, “with the military force structure they’re putting forward, you’re going to have to choose between the Middle East and Asia,” said Roger, the younger Zakheim. “The so-called pivot is hollow.”
Given the vast expanses of the Pacific, and the maritime nature of the current standoff with Iran in the Persian Gulf, naval forces are particularly critical, but both Zakheims lamented what they called “the incredible shrinking Navy.” Challenged that the fleet has actually increased somewhat under Obama, Dov replied, “sure it’s gone up, I gave them the money!” It was the Bush budget he worked on as comptroller that paid for the ships entering service today, Dov argued — “It takes years to build those ships,” he said — but today’s low rate of new naval construction will come back to bite us in the future.
Besides, he argued, much of the current shipbuilding plan emphasizes lighter vessels like the Littoral Combat Ship and the Joint High-Speed Vessel: “That’s one heck of a way to jack up numbers but that’s about it,” said Dov. What’s needed is high-end combat capacity, he went on, and “Littoral Combat Ships aren’t going to do that for you; they weren’t intended to.” While LCS is a support ship for minesweeping, subhunting, intercepting small attack craft, and showing the flag, Romney will emphasize full-up battle groups of aircraft carriers, destroyers, and submarines. That’s the kind of force that make Iranian strategists take notice.
“The governor’s overall foreign policy [is to] push forward with this diplomacy but at the same time you can back it up with a strong military presence,” said Roger. “The best way to do that is by having a navy.”
On the diplomatic side, Romney would tighten sanctions on Iran by closing loopholes for China, India, and other countries, while keeping any differences with Israel strictly private. “The daylight between the Israeli prime minister and a President Romney would not be played out in the headlines of every major daily in Israel and in the United States,” said Roger.
The best way to forestall an Israeli strike on Iran, added Dov, is to give them confidence the US has their back. “Let’s show the Iranians we have an agreed ‘red line’” — that is, a point past which their nuclear program will not be allowed to grow. For Israel, he said, “it’s beyond a rational issue. [They will] absolutely not tolerate even an epsilon of a probablity that a missile will get through.” The Israelis are only talking about acting on their own, he said, “because they’re terrified that the American policy seems to be we’re going to wait until they [the Iranians] are nearly there with a bomb and then we’ll stop them,” somehow.
Arming rebel groups in Syria, which Romney has pledged to do and Obama hasn’t, would also put more pressure on Iran. But these tough policies, the Zakheims say, don’t amount to a return to the preemptive interventionism of the George W. Bush era.
“One of the things I keep hearing from the Obama side is, what a warmonger Romney is,” said Dov. “If you’re a warmonger, you don’t use the Navy.” In fact, he said, “historically the agency that always calls first for the Navy ….was the State Department, because the State Department recognizes the importance of naval presence.” After all, America’s global seapower got its start with Teddy Roosevelt, the Assistant Navy Secretary, president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner who famously said: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Dov dismissed Democratic charges that Romney would return the nation to the interventionism of the Bush era. “The neo-cons hate me!” Dov said of his former colleagues who pushed for the Iraq war. Some hawkish neo-conservative may be among Romney’s advisors, Dov admitted, but they’re one voice among many. “I don’t agree with neo-cons and they certainly don’t agree with me,” he said, “but I think the mark of a leader is somebody who listens to lots of different opinions and makes up his own mind.”
“We’re going to have multiple views” in a Romney administration, Roger added. “There will not be rigid ideological purity.”