On defense budget, Obama is more of the same

The president continues his predecessor's policies

February 01, 2010|By Nancy Langer

Today, President Obama will release his budget request, asking more for defense than any other president -- a whopping $708 billion for the Department of Defense in fiscal 2011. Also today, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will release a document known inside Washington as the QDR -- the quadrennial defense review, a four-year snapshot of our security plans. The last QDR was done under Donald Rumsfeld, with George W. Bush as president, but be prepared to wonder if Mr. Bush is still president.

Hamlet famously said, "the time is out of joint." With the threat of terrorist attacks and a stumbling economy, not only is our time out of joint, but our budget priorities are also out of whack.

President Obama has said his plan to freeze the budget for three years excludes the military and other "security" sectors of the budget. Hidden in the details will be a shocking disparity between the dollars thrown at the Department of Defense and those sent to the State Department -- money to help us talk, not just shoot. Our wacky reliance on military operations over civilian-run aid and diplomacy is getting tiresome for the world, but that's not the worst thing about it. Diplomacy at the end of a gun is very expensive.

In 2008, the Department of Defense spent $19 billion on fuel, notes Gordon Adams, the author of the new book "Buying National Security" That's more than we spent on the entire State Department, he notes. We urgently need a larger fleet of diplomats and development professionals -- Mr. Adams posits the State Department needs to grow these shoes on the ground by about 41 percent. Also needed is a significant increase in training and in the number of locally employed overseas staff. Otherwise we can't tackle such challenges as North Korea, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change and genocide.

Obama's budget doesn't answer this need, instead defaulting to more U.S. boots on the ground, even though in the State of the Union the President declared, "it's time the American people got a budget that embodies their decency." It would be more decent to fund a real jobs program at a time when unemployment is hovering at 10 percent in most U.S. cities. More pain is ahead. The Congressional Budget Office just predicted that this year the federal budget deficit will reach $1.3 trillion; going forward, "to keep federal deficits and debt from reaching levels that would substantially harm the economy, lawmakers would have to significantly increase revenues, decrease projected spending, or enact some combination of the two," the CBO said in its report.

Can President Obama afford an addiction to more and more military spending? Can the hurting American people? Send one American soldier to Afghanistan for one year, pay $1 million dollars. The cost of an Afghan soldier for that time is $12,000. Yet the president, against the advice of Karl Eikenberry (who not only once commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan but is also our ambassador there) says we need a surge of more and more U.S. troops. Here's hoping that gambit nets us increased security.

President Bush likewise grew our military overseas presence and added non-combat capabilities to DOD, on the sage advice of Mr. Rumsfeld, backed by the last Quadrennial Defense Review. President Obama's budget continues the imbalance between our military and civilian capacities, hobbling American diplomacy and emptying our coffers. We remain beholden to China, which bankrolls our debt, a more potent player in our world than Al Qaeda, and one far more likely to affect our everyday lives.

Congress and the president need to hear from ordinary Americans that we are sick of putting inappropriate additional burdens on our brave men and women serving in our military. Spending $708 billion for defense doesn't sound like change we can believe in. It would be nice if the president's budget and QDR reflected a change in priorities and a change in approach to foreign affairs -- not more of the same.

Nancy Langer is the director of external relations for the Henry L. Stimson Center, a global think tank in Washington. Her e-mail is nlanger@stimson.org.

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