The Cable

Rumsfeld’s CFO: Bring on the supercommittee defense "trigger"

File this under cynical genius. The best way to protect the defense budget may be for the congressional "supercommittee" to fail, triggering $600 billion in defense cuts, because such a drastic reduction will be totally unenforceable and probably undermined by Congress, said the Pentagon's comptroller during former President George W. Bush's administration.

If the super committee cannot reach an agreement on $1 trillion of discretionary spending cuts by Thanksgiving, a "sequestration" mechanism will force $600 billion in cuts to defense over 10 years, along with another mandated $600 billion in cuts to entitlement programs. This "trigger" was part of the August deal to raise the debt ceiling, and was passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by President Barack Obama.

Dov Zakheim, who served as the Defense Department's comptroller and chief financial officer from 2001 to 2004 under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told The Cable today that the trigger is so drastic and unpalatable that those who are trying to protect the defense budget should actually welcome it, because Congress and the administration would surely find a way around it -- as they did during a similar situation in 1988. Zakheim noted that, back then, Congress simply passed a law to undo the previous legislation that would have forced the cuts.

"If there's sequestration, Congress has a year to move out from under it," he said. "If the supercommittee actually strikes a deal [that includes some defense cuts], it will be exceedingly difficult to undo the deal."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on the other hand, has called the trigger a "doomsday mechanism" and testified recently that if implemented, it would cause "catastrophic damage to the military and its ability to protect this country."

Zakheim emphasized he was only speaking for himself, not for GOP candidate Mitt Romney, whom he advises, or his son Roger Zakheim, who leads a task force on protecting the defense budget and works on the staff of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), a key critic of defense cuts.

Whether the super committee reaches a deal of not, Panetta will still have to start implementing the $450 billion in defense cuts over 10 years, as mandated by the April deal to avoid a government shutdown. Panetta told the New York Times in an interview today that he is putting sacred cows like military healthcare and benefits on the table, and is even thinking about shrinking the fighting force.

"There will be some huge political challenges," he said. "When you reduce defense spending, there's likely to be base closures, possible reduction in air wings."

Some defense cuts are expected if the super committee reaches a deal, despite the threat by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) to walk away from the panel if it tried to cut defense. Kyl later walked back that threat, clarifying that he was just "making an offhand remark that [defense cuts are] not what I'm on the committee for."

The Cable

Daalder: We’re not even thinking about intervening in Syria

The top U.S. official at NATO said Monday that there is zero planning -- or even thinking -- going on about a military intervention in Syria.

"There has been no planning, no thought, and no discussion about any intervention into Syria. It just isn't part of the envelope of thinking, among individual countries and certainly among the 28 [full NATO members]," said Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO. "If things change, things change. But as of today, that's where the reality stands."

Daalder, speaking to an audience at the Atlantic Council, is in town along with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who will meet later today with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  They will be discussing the NATO summit to be held in Chicago next May and taking a victory lap following the fall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Daalder said that there were three overarching conditions that need to be met before the Obama administration would even consider any future military intervention such as occurred in Libya.

"The formula was that there needs to be a demonstrable need, regional support, and sound legal basis for action," said Daalder. "It's those three things we need to look for before we even think about the possibility of action. None of them apply in Syria."

Daalder also noted that there is not enough evidence that air strikes would be effective in Syria, that the opposition and the Arab League have not asked for intervention, and that the U.N. Security Council has refused to act.

Daalder said several times that the United States had not been "leading from behind" in Libya, and he offered his take on the Obama administration's foreign-policy philosophy, as implemented during the Libya intervention.

"The administration came to power with a particular view about how the world worked. And that was a view that in an age of globalization, security was no longer principally determined by geography, but developments anywhere in the world could have a major security impact at home, so as a result you had to find a way to work with others," he said. "The lynchpin of Obama foreign policy was rebuilding partnerships and alliances."

"As part of that analysis, there was also a belief that the era when the United States could decide, determine, and do everything by itself had also come to an end," he said.

The United States is conducting an exercise to examine the lessons learned during the Libya intervention. However, Daalder said that although the European countries ran short of key items such as precision missiles during the war, the United States was perfectly well-prepared and did everything basically right throughout the mission.

"I'm not sure there is a lesson we need to learn for the United States," Daalder said. "In terms of capabilities, we know where the shortfalls are, but they are European shortfalls.... We could have done this campaign by ourselves. But the wise decision was not to do something we could, because others could help too."

Daalder also acknowledged that NATO-Russia talks over missile defense cooperation are at an impasse over a dispute regarding Russian demands for written assurances that U.S. systems are incapable of being used against Russia. The United States has no intention of giving such assurances, according to Daalder.

"We have put on the table numerous proposals for cooperation, which in many ways take their proposals as the basis," he said.

"They want a written guarantee that is legally binding that says the system will be incapable and will never be directed against them," he said. "And we have said that a legal guarantee like that is not something we want nor something we could ratify."

AFP/Getty Images