by Travis Sharp
by Katie Mounts
In the final years of the Bush administration, as U.S. military spending increased to levels not seen since World War II, experts predicted regularly that defense budgets would stop growing soon. These predictions became more plausible late last year as the economic crisis struck. When Barack Obama got elected on a pledge to stop spending $10 billion per month in Iraq, defense spending reductions seemed like a sure thing.
In February, an unsurprising thing happened to expert predictions: they were proven wrong. According to the Obama administration’s budget outline, Pentagon spending will rise again this year.
President Obama is requesting $534 billion for the Department of Defense in fiscal year 2010. That is $9 billion, or 1.7 percent, greater than President Bush’s final defense budget after adjusting for inflation. Although it will not increase defense spending by as much as was typical during the Bush era, President Obama’s first budget continues the decade-long uptick in Pentagon spending, which has grown by approximately 40 percent since 2000.
If it was Obama who vowed to cancel “Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use” and to quit funneling U.S. dollars into Iraq, why is Pentagon spending still on the rise?
The reason is quite simple. President Obama and members of his defense team plan to end the use of emergency supplemental bills to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. War spending under the Bush administration was largely requested in “off budget” supplementals that were excluded from White House deficit projections and long-term plans. By integrating war budgets into the regular Pentagon budget, the Obama administration will make war funding part of the normal budget process and therefore subject to budget oversight laws.
Since war funding is going to be shifted from emergency supplementals into the regular Pentagon budget, however, the regular Pentagon budget will increase in the years ahead due to the infusion of war funds. The United States will most likely spend less on defense overall; the money will just be presented up front in a single large chunk. This integration process will take time – there will still be a separate war supplemental next fiscal year – but the $534 billion Pentagon budget in fiscal year 2010 already includes some of the spending that used to be included in war supplementals.
While the overall size of the budget still may disappoint opponents of stratospheric defense spending, there are reasons to be optimistic. For those who believe that America’s defense spending was dangerously misallocated over the last eight years, the good news is that national security spending under the Obama administration will be markedly different than under President Bush. Three big policy objectives in particular highlight the changes President Obama is poised to begin implementing this year.
#1: CUT BUDGETS FOR UNNECESSARY WEAPONS PROGRAMS
During the Bush administration, annual spending on big-ticket weapons programs increased by 160 percent, from $66 billion in 2000 to over $170 billion in 2008. Some of these funds paid for badly-needed equipment such as mine resistant vehicles that protect our military members from roadside bombs. Much of this money, however, was wasted on weapons systems that ran way over budget, years behind schedule, and are not even being used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Obama administration will invest only in weapons programs that are absolutely necessary to keep us safe and that help our troops achieve their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama does not believe that writing blank checks to defense corporations is patriotic, as the allocation of defense budgets over recent years has implied. “I recognize the real choice between investments that are designed to keep the American people safe” – such as for military personnel – “and those that are designed to make a defense contractor rich,” President Obama said in March.
A typical example of Pentagon waste is something known as Future Imagery Architecture. Before it was canceled, this satellite program violated every principle of responsible development and procurement. The contractor proposed a technologically risky design with an unrealistic budget. Then the Pentagon bit on the low-balled estimate. Finally, Congress failed to exercise oversight to ensure that money was being spent productively. Before it was all said and done, American taxpayers had invested at least four billion dollars in a system that never got off the ground. That money would have paid for a year’s worth of health care for one million Americans.
More will be known about which weapons systems made the grade after the administration’s detailed budget is released in April, when an exhaustive line-by-line review is complete. What is clear already, however, is that the Obama team broadly prefers people over costly and unneeded machines. This brings up the administration’s second policy objective.
#2: GIVE OUR TROOPS THE BENEFITS THEY DESERVE
The Obama administration’s national security motto appears to be “relevance to the current missions.” While it recognizes the importance of preparing for future threats, the new administration regards operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as the top priority. This focus on current challenges requires investment in military personnel, who are carrying out the hard work on the ground.
The Obama administration’s budget provides a 2.9 percent pay raise for men and women in uniform, a relatively small benefit for their dedicated service. The budget also accelerates planned increases in the size of the Army and Marine Corps. By paying for more soldiers and Marines, the Obama administration hopes to alleviate stress on the more than 1.8 million service members that have served in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001.
In a demonstration of its commitment to easing the strain on U.S. troops, the Obama administration announced in March that it also would begin phasing out the unpopular stop-loss program. Often compared to a “backdoor draft,” stop-loss forces troops to remain in the military after their commitments have ended. “When somebody’s end date of service comes, to hold them against their will…is just not the right thing to do,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said about stop-loss in March.
These military personnel benefits are long overdue. Yet as most experts know (and the Bush administration seemed to ignore), there are many foreign policy problems that are only exacerbated by a military response. These problems require a lighter touch, which leads to President Obama’s third policy objective.
#3: INVEST IN SMARTER POWER
Looking at the bigger picture, the Obama administration seems to have embraced the concept of “smart power” in its budget outline. Smart power refers to the belief that the United States concentrates too narrowly on military-centric solutions to foreign policy problems and ignores other options in its toolkit such as diplomacy, foreign aid, intelligence, economic development, and homeland security.
One obvious example is the imbalance between the Department of Defense’s budget and the State Department’s budget. The Pentagon receives approximately 10 times more funding than the State Department each year, even though their respective functions are equally important to successful foreign policy.
The chronic lack of investment in non-military foreign policy tools led an October 2008 joint report by the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Henry Stimson Center to conclude that the State Department is facing a crisis in resources that “cannot continue without serious damage to our vital interests.” Perhaps David Kilcullen, a senior advisor to General David Petraeus, put it best: “There are substantially more people employed as musicians in Defense bands than in the entire foreign service.”
The Obama administration has moved swiftly to rectify this gross imbalance between the Pentagon and the State Department. State is slated to receive a 7.5 percent inflation-adjusted increase over last year’s budget. President Obama also announced his intention to double U.S. foreign assistance, hire more Foreign Service Officers, and fully fund the United Nations and other international organizations.
As April’s detailed budget release approaches, look for the Obama administration’s national security strategy to be guided by a desire to meet current challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan and to halt the creeping infiltration of the American military into all elements of U.S. foreign policy.
President Obama’s first defense budget appears surprisingly large at first glance, especially in this economic climate. Yet there is reason to be optimistic that he will institute critical foreign and defense policy reforms that will make us safer and spend our money more wisely.