Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Treating “The Pentagon” and “The White House” as if They Were People

Acting Defense Secretary briefs press

It’s common shorthand that we all use: referring to “the Pentagon” or “the White House” as if they were actors in the political process. “Pentagon to cut troop levels in Afghanistan, Iraq.” “White House blocks key witness from testifying.” The problem is that the Pentagon and the White House are buildings. Buildings do not talk or take action in the political process. Indeed, the image of the Pentagon speaking or the White House uplifting itself to block a person from testifying is striking. This would be a harmless journalistic shortcut if not for the fact that it can mislead listeners about what is going on.

The problem is that attributing action to a building obscures the internal dynamics of what is likely a major internal debate. Consider the Pentagon example above. The acting secretary of defense did indeed announce a troop cut in the Middle East. However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and most of the policy community strongly opposed the policy. So was this really a “Pentagon” action if most of the leadership in the Pentagon actually opposed it? A more accurate description, which many media did use, would be “the acting secretary of defense announced…”

Similarly, consider the frequent complaint that Congress buys weapons and equipment that “the Pentagon” does not want, for example, “Congress funds problematic weapons the Pentagon does not want.” It’s a classic narrative about congressional parochialism in the face of executive branch rationality. The problem is that it’s highly misleading. What the construct obscures is that some elements of the Pentagon typically wanted those weapons. In this story cited here, the Navy wanted to build more ships whereas the secretary of defense wanted to buy fewer but more capable ships. This was not just a debate about shipbuilding; it was also part of a broader debate about the role of military forces. 

The Navy had to meet the day-to-day force demands from combatant commanders for ongoing conflicts, crisis response, humanitarian assistance, and exercises with allies and partners. These demands kept ship deployments at a very high level, beyond what the Navy could sustain with the fleet size it had. Maintenance suffered as ships stayed at sea longer in order to meet these commitments rather than return to port for scheduled repairs. Attempts to reduce these force demands failed in the face of escalating tensions with Russia and China and the rise of ISIS. Yet, less capable ships could perform many of these tasks. For example, it made little sense to send a $2 billion destroyer with powerful electronics and long-range weapons to the east coast of Africa to suppress pirates in wooden boats.

The Navy further argued that many potential future conflicts did not involve great powers but instead regional powers like North Korea and Iran. These powers lack the advanced capabilities of Russia and China and therefore less capable ships could contribute to operations against them.

The secretary of defense and his strategists had a different view. They wanted to focus on conflicts with great powers, specifically China and Russia.  These countries could set up powerful defensive bubbles around their territory. These bubbles, with long-range precision munitions and advanced sensors carried by cutting-edge aircraft and ships, would stress the U.S. Navy in any conflict. Only the most capable ships could survive in such an environment. Building ships that could not survive did not make any sense and diverted funds from ships that could contribute to the conflict.

The point is not whether one side or the other was right. There are good arguments on both sides. The point is that saying “the Pentagon” did not want certain equipment obscured a debate within the Department of Defense (DoD) about a major strategic issue.

A similar example arises from Congress’s annual provision of additional equipment for the National Guard and reserve components, also frequently portrayed as “weapons that the Pentagon didn’t want.” As with Navy ships, such portrayals obscure internal debates and strategic issues. Typically, active duty personnel have the strongest influence in developing budget requests. These requests do not include all the equipment that the National Guard and reserve components want. The National Guard and reserve components send lists of desired additional equipment to Congress, which adds some items to the final budget. Thus, the actual situation is that Congress provided equipment that the secretary of defense did not want but that the National Guard did.

Even that might not be quite accurate. The secretary might have wanted the equipment but wasn’t able to squeeze it into the budget or get it past the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Thus, it might be more accurate to say that Congress funded military equipment that the secretary of defense did not include in his budget request. 

As with the Navy example, there is also a strategic question beneath the (very real) parochial interests at work. That question regards the kind of conflicts that the United States might face in the future. If conflicts will be short, then forces need to be more heavily active duty because reserves take time to mobilize, train, and deploy. On the other hand, if conflicts will last for an extended period, then there is more time to get reserve components ready. Then, the defense establishment would be better off emphasizing reserve forces because a limited budget can afford a larger force. 

Disagreement inside DoD about strategy is a more interesting story, though it doesn’t fit a narrative about wasteful Pentagon spending.

The same dynamic plays out with the White House. There are many organizations in the executive office of the president: not just the West Wing where the president sits but also OMB, the National Security Council, and many other smaller presidential agencies. Frequently the president and his advisers will disagree with other elements of the staff. Conversely, sometimes one of these agencies in the executive office of the president will announce a policy that the president has not necessarily signed off on specifically.

This phenomenon is not limited to the executive branch, as many writers use “Capitol Hill” as a synonym for Congress. It lends itself to vivid imagery such as “storming Capitol Hill.” Most frequently, the construct is with “tensions on Capitol Hill,” for example: “Top Trump critic … sparks tensions on Capitol Hill.” The problem here is the same as with “the Pentagon” and “the White House.” It substitutes the part the whole for the part. Are the tensions traceable to a small group or even a single member who was unhappy about some policy? Or is it something broader, involving a committee, a majority of one chamber, or a majority of the entire Congress? Far better to attribute actions to a particular committee or member to be clear about how extensive and influential the attitude is.

The bottom line is that all of us should avoid using the colloquial and instead be precise. The result will not just be more precision, which is desirable on its own, but also a better understanding for our readers of organizational dynamics and strategic choices.

CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views expressed above should be understood to be solely those of the author.

(Photo Credit:  DoD Photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders.)

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Mark Cancian, "Bad Idea: Treating “The Pentagon” and “The White House” as if They Were People," Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 1, 2020, last modified December 1, 2020, https://defense360.csis.org/bad-idea-treating-the-pentagon-and-the-white-house-as-if-they-were-people/.