Greater discipline required on defence spending
By Gordon Adams
The Financial Times
March 18 2008
Deep into the election campaign and five years into the war in Iraq, the US national security debate is missing the point. Instead of debating a strategy that engages the world differently after Iraq, the presidential candidates are arguing over the cost of the war, who can be trusted to execute the next war and who can expand the military and raise the defence budget to handle it. This instinctive, mindless focus on expanding the military and its funding may well sink US national security policy in the next administration.
Five years in, the uncertain adventure in Iraq is certainly not cheap. The US has already spent more than $600bn on Iraq and Afghanistan and Congress will consider another $270bn for this year and next year's war budget. But despite (exaggerated) outside estimates of $3,000bn for the war, it does not really matter how much it costs; that is already sunk. We urgently need a debate on a different global strategy.
The phoney election debate over military experience and trustworthiness is also a sideshow. In reality, there is a bizarre Clinton-Obama-McCain consensus that the US military should grow, with bigger budgets. For the Democrats, this proposal is opportunistic and defensive; for John McCain it is based on faith. But none of them justifies this growth in strategic terms.
The candidates are not alone. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, is advocating that the Department of Defense budget be guaranteed 4 per cent of US gross domestic product yet has offered no strategic rationale for this demand. Meanwhile, the services are actively expanding training for counterinsurgency warfare, post-conflict reconstruction, training in governance, broadcasting and a host of other non-traditional missions.
Thanks to this strategy-free consensus, the US could spend in excess of $700bn on defence next year, more than double the amount spent in 2001. That represents more than 50 per cent of all global spending on the military and 17 times US spending on diplomacy and foreign aid. US ground forces number more than half a million, yet will grow by 92,500. While some justify this by pointing to the stresses from Iraq, by the time these recruits are ready, in 3-5 years, those pressures will have ebbed.
The absence of real strategic thinking behind this growing military presence will have negative consequences for US national security.
First, by having no guidelines for defence priorities, everything is a priority. Moreover, with 25 per cent of defence department resources now being provided through so-called "emergency supplementals" for the war, the budget receives even less scrutiny, leading to wasteful spending uninfluenced by a set of strategic priorities. Even in Korea and Vietnam, war funding became an integral part of defence planning after a year or two, not a free good outside the regular budget. Future defence needs would be better served if the candidates focused on disciplining the defence budget and abandoning these supplementals, rather than on writing ever bigger cheques.
Second, the toolkit of US statecraft is out of balance. To restore its international leadership, the US needs stronger diplomacy and foreign aid programmes. But funding for these has fallen far behind defence. Instead, the military has become America's "default" tool, taking the lead for missions such as training police, even though it is not especially adapted to this work. Over time the civilian tools are withering. The candidates are aiding and abetting this trend by supporting military expansion without posing harder questions about the strategy that should drive defence planning.
Third, the expansion of US military engagement has a severe impact on the perception of America's intentions. More and more, the public face of American diplomacy wears a uniform. Around the globe, the expansion of the US military is now seen as threatening.
Because the candidates are not offering an alternative strategy using all the tools of statecraft, the US is slouching toward ever higher military budgets, expanding forces, weakened diplomacy and a declining international reputation. The candidates are tiptoeing around this debate for fear of being attacked as weak on defence. Better to be strong on disciplining defence budgets and forcing a strategic rethink. Once in office, they will pay the price of avoiding this debate, inheriting a swelling budget that lacks sufficient oversight and strategic foresight.
The writer is professor of international relations at the School of International Service, American University. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House official for national security budgets
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008