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Foreign Policy In Focus » Article / Commentary

Budget Makes No 'Sweeping Shift' in Security Spending Yet

February 26, 2009 ·

The Obama administration's preliminary budget figures show a modest course correction to our highly militarized foreign policy.

In December, The New York Times reported that Obama's Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and Defense Secretary had all "embraced a sweeping shift of priorities and resources in the national security arena…a rebalancing of America's security portfolio after a huge investment in new combat capabilities during the Bush years."

The budget released today does show signs of a modest course correction. A "sweeping shift" will have to wait. The main cause: While the new administration has slowed the rate of increase in the base military budget, it has still requested more money for the Pentagon than the Bush administration ever did. Its request of $534 billion is $20 billion more than the amount Congress appropriated for FY 2009.

The administration has, commendably, included projected war spending in their preliminary budget. This brings the total budget for engaging the world militarily to $663.7 billion.

The Task Force on a Unified Security Budget has been monitoring the overall balance of security spending on offense (the military), defense (homeland security) and prevention (non-military foreign engagement) since 2004. The preliminary budget information released today gives us the first indicator of the new administration's overall security priorities.

Proposed spending for the State Department and other International Programs has increased slightly, by $4 billion over the FY 2009 appropriation. This money would fund, among other things, a down payment on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's goal of hiring the 1,000 diplomats her department has been doing without. Yet these gains are outstripped by the Pentagon's gains.

If President Barack Obama gets the budget he requested today, we'd be spending 13 times the money engaging the rest of the world through the military as by any other means. And under his budget request, the Department of Homeland Security would receive a slight increase of $2.6 billion over the FY 2009 appropriation. We would be spending $16 on military force for every dollar we spend on homeland security.

Overall we would be spending seven times as much on military force as on international affairs and homeland security combined.

Fulfilling the promise of a "sweeping shift" will require actually cutting the Bush-era base military budgets, which grew higher than any since World War II, rather than just slowing the rate of their climb.

The new administration has indicated that when President Obama talks about "scouring the budget for things to cut," he does mean to include the largest portion of discretionary spending that goes to the Pentagon. In recent weeks Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asserted that "the spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing." He has talked frequently in recent weeks about "hard choices" for his department. On Meet the Press in January, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel talked about tackling the $300 billion in military procurement cost overruns. Obama said this week in his speech to a joint session of Congress that he intended to "reform our defense budget so that we're not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don't use."

But as Gates himself said recently, "it is one thing to speak broadly about the need for budget discipline and acquisition reform. It is quite another to make tough choices about specific weapons systems and defense priorities based solely on national interests."

When the full budget is released in April, we'll find out the extent to which they have taken that crucial second step. The Unified Security Budget for FY 2009 outlined $60.7 billion in cuts. Early leaked reports indicate the Obama administration's request may have followed a few of these recommendations, including cuts in the budgets for missile defense and Future Combat Systems.

The administration's announced commitment to cut the nuclear arsenal to 1,000 warheads, when completed, will bring $14.6 billion in savings. Other systems to watch include the F-22 fighter jet, whose value Gates has questioned but which has been the subject of an unusually intense lobbying campaign, and the DDG-1000 Destroyer.

A military budget of titanic proportions — larger than the next 14 countries put together, and 45% of the world's total — can't be turned around on a dime. But nor can a "sweeping shift" in security priorities be delayed.