The Skeptics

A Unified Security Budget

 Americans should think about security as involving three components: offense, defense, and prevention, and the U.S. government should better align the resources allocated to each of these missions by creating a Unified Security Budget (USB) that encompasses the Departments of Defense, State (and USAID). So says a report just released by the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget.

The report has been issued annually since 2004, and I have benefited from the USB's findings over the years, especially those portions of the report that document unnecessary or wasteful weapon systems. This year's report is the first one to list me as a member of the task force, though I'm a bit embarassed to take any credit given that my contribution was extremely limited. As with the other task force members, I don't endorse all of the report's conclusions -- more on that in a minute. But I credit the principal authors, Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies, and Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, for their tenacity in pushing an idea that is deserving of serious consideration by policymakers.

Judging from the statements of key policymakers, it might be an idea whose time has come. I would like to believe that that is the case. On the other hand, as the report notes, the same Robert Gates who has professed great interest in reducing the funding imbalance between the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, has pushed through a series of increases in the DoD budget during his tenure, and speaks of fiscal discipline merely to make people believe that he is serious about cutting spending. He has fooled a number of people who should know better.

The Defense Secretary's contradictory words and actions reveal, in the report's creative formulation, an "Aspirational Secretary Gates" at odds with the "Operational Secretary Gates":

The Aspirational Secretary came to a Navy League conference...and asked, “Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?...As we learned last year, you don’t necessarily need a billion-dollar guided missile destroyer to chase down and deal with a bunch of teenage pirates wielding AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.”

[...]

But it was the Operational Secretary who responded to a question about these statements a few days later: “I may want to change things,” he said, “but I’m not crazy. I’m not going to cut a carrier, OK?”

Moving beyond Gates, the report delivers a well-deserved broadside against the Obama administration's national security policies, as articulated in the National Security Strategy and the Quadrennial Defense Review. These two documents, the USB notes:

talk of hard choices, but largely forego them. While changing some emphases in military strategy, neither seriously examines the military’s roles and missions, to evaluate, in this era of constrained choices, which missions the United States can safely forego and what kinds and level of risk are acceptable.

In short, there are ample grounds for criticizing the Washington foreign policy establishment's crabbed conception of national security and international engagement, and the USB is a worthy contribution to this end.

I am less optimistic than other members of the task force that state-sponsored foreign aid and other development assistance will do much to prevent conflict (and I doubt they'll do much to improve economic conditions, either). I find the discussion of climate change to be an unnecessary distraction, and it is oddly linked to a comment on our supposed "need for Saudi Arabian oil," which, though brief, manages to roll in all of the misconceptions about energy usage that have distorted our policies in the Middle East for over a generation. (For a contrary point of view on these issues, see here, here, and here, respectively.)

But here is not the place for an extended discussion on any of these points. I encourage people to read the USB report. I ask them to pay particular attention to the sections on our bloated military budget, and to consider with an open mind the proposals that would allow us to cut at least $75 billion from the FY 2011 budget without harming U.S. security in any way. And if readers make it that far, they can then dwell on why the United States has increasingly defined its security narrowly in military terms, and on our ability to wage war, and not often enough on the many other instruments of power that once defined this great nation, and could do so again.