Pentagon officials have been insistent that they are not planning for sequestration. Speaking on Tuesday at the National Press Club, Gen. James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave an interesting explanation for why that might be:
My sense is that there's a bit of a conundrum here. You want to plan for the future. It's responsible to plan for the future. You also don't want to give away anything. And so often times the worry is that as you announce a plan, well, if I were asked to do X, Y or Z, this is what I'd do, and then all of a sudden it happens and the discussion sometimes is felt to be lacking in whether that should have happened or not.
“Wanting to plan” for sequester might not be quite as clean-cut as Cartwright’s description. It all depends on who’s being asked to do the planning. The military has a planning culture, and this clearly is weighing on General Dempsey’s mind, but the civilian leadership is part of an administration trying to keep the pressure on Congress and ensure that sequester is the most damning incentive for deal-making that it can be. Underscoring their point that sequester can’t – and won’t – be managed is part of that strategy.
Still there are many types of possible plans. The Pentagon could offer an alternative savings plan, for instance, without planning for sequester itself. In this respect, Cartwright is spot on about the risks of that approach. As our own Matthew Leatherman noted in February:
Showing forbearance is its own challenge, of course. If the Pentagon has a plan to manage cutting on this scale, it would show that such cutting is manageable. Congress then would be much more likely to impose it. That is because lawmakers could burnish their collective fiscal credentials without looking soft on security.
With all this subtext, it’s no wonder Gordon Adams talks about this debate as a political “shadow play”.