Remembering Peter Peterson
By Barry Blechman
In the passing of Peter Peterson, the United States has lost a brilliant visionary devoted to finding practical solutions for the terrible threat posed by the nation’s ever-rising debt. It was my privilege in recent years to work with “Pete,” as he preferred to be called, as well as his son, Michael, on a Stimson project funded by his foundation. Our former chairman, Linc Bloomfield, as well as Gordon Adams and Russ Rumbaugh also participated. The fact of the project, and Pete’s personal involvement in it, revealed his commitment to finding balanced, non-partisan solutions to the looming debt problem, but also showed me many of his extraordinary personal characteristics.
The many obituaries written about Pete all stress his determination to find solutions to the rising burden of entitlement programs posed by long-standing demographic trends. The Stimson project featured another aspect of his efforts to curb the nation’s indebtedness – defense spending. The project was begun at a time when the Congress, unable to find rational compromises on spending programs, simply imposed separate caps on defense and non-defense spending and mandated that if appropriations exceeded those caps, then virtually all programs would have to be cut proportionately. This meat-axe approach made absolutely no sense, of course, but was the consequence of the legislative and executive dysfunction that continues today.
The Peterson Foundation asked Stimson to put together a working group of retired high-ranking military and civilian defense officials, along with experienced experts, to do two things: (i) Identify a military strategy that could protect the nation’s security in a time of rapid change in both Europe and Asia; and (ii) applying that strategy, recommend cuts to the Defense budget that would bring it under the mandated caps. And that we did. The working group, including two former vice chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a former chief of naval operations, a former Air Force chief of staff, two Army three-star generals, and many distinguished experts and officials met over a two-year period. After one year, Stimson published the strategy, A New US Defense Strategy for a New Era: Military Superiority, Agility, and Efficiency; after the second, the group’s budget recommendations, Strategic Agility: Strong National Defense for Today's Global and Fiscal Realities.
Pete took part in every meeting and read every word of every draft. I can attest to that personally, as I often fielded calls from him or Michael (once in a London pub) questioning the logic behind one statement or another. A neophyte in military matters, Pete dug deeply into the subject, availing himself of the wide range of expertise arrayed around his foundation’s conference table. He showed the same willingness to learn, to reveal his own lack of knowledge, and to defer to authorities that probably fueled his amazing successes in the worlds of business and finance.
Pete Peterson embodied the same values we pursue in all of Stimson’s work. A determination to avoid partisanship, a commitment to finding long-term solutions to important national issues, an insistence on honest appraisals of strengths and weaknesses, an impatience with the short-sightedness of the political system but recognition that to be viable, solutions must also be politically realistic, and a dedication to the nation and its well-being. He was, indeed, an excellent man.