WASHINGTON: In the emotionally charged debate over the Army National Guard, the “don’t cut our Guard!” side has been much louder than the pro-cuts camp. That’s why it’s interesting to read this pretty low-key letter from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel defending the cuts.
The simple fact it’s Hagel’s signature on the letter speaks to the administration’s desire to de-escalate, because the people he’s writing to had wanted an answer from the president. Dated June 2nd, Hagel’s letter is the administration’s public — but unpublicized response — to a high-profile appeal signed by all 50 state governors and addressed directly to Barack Obama. (Our particular copy is addressed to Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama).
“I am responding on the President’s behalf,” Hagel writes. “I have also received a letter from 50 Adjutants-General” — the technical term for the top-ranking Guard officer in each state — “and have directed the Deputy Secretary of Defense to respond.” Note how Obama delegates to Hagel, and Hagel to Dep. Sec. Robert Work, in what’s clearly a deliberate attempt to downplay the issue.
So what does Hagel say? Politically, the most important lines are:
“I do not support an independent commission on the structure of the Army at this time. I am, however, committed to engaging the Council of Governors earlier in the defense decision-making process to share ideas and information.”
An independent commission to settle all questions about the size and mission of the Army National Guard, similar to a previous one for the Air Guard, is the leading demand of the stop-the-cuts camp. The idea’s made some progress in Congress. Naturally the administration wants its cuts to go ahead without waiting for what it sees as constitutionally uncalled-for meddling. But Hagel’s rejection is very mild — note the escape clause “at this time” — and it’s coupled with a vague but conciliatory promise to give the governors more input in the future, if not any actual power.
Such gestures aside, however, Hagel spends most of the letter making the case for the Army Guard cuts — and, by extension, for a host of politically unpopular cutbacks that Congress is already rejecting. “We simply cannot afford the current size of the Army,” the secretary writes, but you could easily substitute “the Air Force,” which wants to cut A-10 attack planes, or “the military’s pay and benefits system,” whose growth the administration wants to slow with lower pay raises and higher healthcare fees.
As the automatic cuts called sequestration crunch the bunch, Hagel writes, “we focused the reductions on force structure” — that is, on the number of troops and units — because “we must invest properly in modernization and readiness.” The bottom line of Hagel’s argument, one widely echoed by Democrats on Capitol Hill: “If we retain too many units, we will be unable to adequately train and equip them, resulting in a hollow force which none of us wants.”