Spencer Ackerman is one of the brightest and most provocative defense policy journalists working today, but he is wrong to be so upset that the Department of Defense executes its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) without consideration of potential budget constraints. For what it's worth, I do not much like the QDR myself: I think it should be written after the National Security Strategy, not before, and that it should prioritize the things the Department of Defense needs to do in order to better inform elected officials and the general public. I could go on, in fact, about the ways in which I do not like the way the QDR is created and written. I do not think it is a particularly helpful document. But it is right to not consider financial constraints. It is the responsibility of elected officials in the executive and legislative branches -- not military officers of Department of Defense civilians -- to determine where and how to assume risk in our national defense posture and activities. Here is the way the conversation should go:
Department of Defense: "I need to do X, Y, and Z, and here is what I need to do X, Y, Z."
Elected Officials: "Great. We will fully fund X and Y but not Z. Given spending priorities elsewhere, we will assume risk there."
Department of Defense: "So I understand that if I am called upon to do Z and am unable to do so, the burden of responsibility falls on those elected by the American people and not those commissioned to defend the American people."
Elected Officials: "Correct."
Obviously, this dialogue is simplified in the extreme. Elected officials might instead respond, "We agree you need to do X, Y, and Z and also think you need to do Q as well."
But you get the point of this: elected officials are the ones elected and paid by the American people to assume risk and accept the lion's share of the blame if and when things go wrong.
P.S. I also think Spencer gets it largely wrong in this Danger Room post as well. I am not sure why advocating for resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaigns to salvage what were rapidly deteriorating situations in Iraq and Afghanistan necessarily means that scholars and practitioners working at CNAS would continue to push for the same capabilities to wage such campaigns after a transition in Afghanistan. You might have needed capabilities and resources in 2007 that you will not need in 2017. If President Perry or whoever invades Iran, that may well change, but I guess I thought it to have been reasonable to assume we should invest fewer resources in our conventional ground forces and more resources in our air and naval forces after 2014.
Put another way, what is strong, pragmatic and principled defense policy one decade might not be so strong, pragmatic and principled the next.