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Obama defunding the Pentagon's net assessment brains

By

Andy Marshall came to Washington in 1971. President Richard Nixon recruited him to start up an office in the White House to help think through how to handle the toughest, most complicated challenges of the Cold War.

Marshall didn’t expect the gig to last long. He took an apartment at the Watergate and rented some furniture to go along with it.

Two years later, Marshall moved his shop to the Pentagon. The rechristened Office of Net Assessment became the Defense Department's center for long-range thinking about strategic challenges.

Over the years, Marshall’s team has produced some of the most innovative and impactful analyses Washington has ever known.

It was, for example, Marshall’s shop that identified the deep flaws that led to the (for most people, surprisingly sudden) downfall of the Soviet Union.

That small office continues to tackle the tough issues today. And Marshall is still at its helm. He does, however, now own his own furniture. (After a couple of decades, the rental company simply gave it to him. He’d paid for it many times over.)

Marshall's tenure is as remarkable as his accomplishments. He has done far more than produce a continuous stream of top-drawer analyses.

Over the years, he has trained and mentored a cadre of analysts that includes some of the town's best strategic thinkers. The Marshall men are often called graduates of Saint Andrew's Prep.

Yet today, Marshall's operation is on the chopping block. Again. In 2011, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed slashing Net Assessment's research budget as part of his push to downsize the Pentagon — as if taking a little over a million dollars from the hardest thinking people in D.C. was a smart way to save money.

Common sense prevailed then, but now the budget cutters are back. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reportedly won't try to kill the office outright, just cripple its funding and bury it deep within the Pentagon bureaucracy.

The former would diminish the quality and quantity of work. The latter would jeopardize Marshall’s continued access to the building's most senior policy makers.

This latest assault on the Pentagon's brain has not gone unnoticed. Last month, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., led a small band of congressional brothers that took Hagel to task for even thinking about taking down the Office of Net Assessment.

Forbes has been a modern-day Paul Revere, sounding the alarm about defense cuts that have undermined military readiness and capabilities.

And this is one of his most important rear-guard campaigns — battling Washington's penchant for self-destructive budget cutting, shining a light on a serious effort to kill off the Defense Department's best and most cost-effective idea factory.

In a department with a multi-billion dollar budget and millions of employees, the Office of Net Assessment may appear to be inconsequential.

But the recurrent effort to hamstring its operations is emblematic of how this administration has treated most all of defense.

Though the constitution requires the federal government to provide the common defense, the White House has instead used the Pentagon's budget as a piggy bank to be raided so that more might be spent on discretionary programs and new entitlements.

At times, the administration has tried to hold defense spending hostage, to force Congress to raise taxes and increase funding for domestic programs.

Rather than offer strategy-driven defense budgets, this administration produces budget-driven defense strategies.

Saving the Office of Net Assessment might be only a symbolic victory, but it would show that some Washington policymakers still believe it's important to work smarter than the enemy--and that defense policy and planning ought to be driven by reality, not presidential politics.

- James Jay Carafano, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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