Obama administration officials fanned out over Washington, convened conference calls, and took to the airwaves in May to sell the new National Security Strategy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her pitch at the Brookings Institution. Foreign Policy magazine identified the nugget of actual news in her remarks, which came, not in the speech, but at the tail end of the Q&A session that followed.
Answering a question about how she planned to realize her ambitious goals in an atmosphere of budgetary restraint, she said, “We have to start looking at a national security budget. You cannot look at a Defense budget, a State Department budget, and a USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] budget without Defense overwhelming the combined efforts of the other two.”
This was music indeed to the ears of the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget. We have been playing variations on this theme for the past six years. The idea, as Clinton said, is that, with such a unified budget, “you can see the tradeoffs.”
Most experts, for example, believe it is far more likely that a nuclear device will approach our shores smuggled in a ship than delivered by a missile. A unified budget would allow ideas like these to come into play in decisions about whether to concentrate additional resources on missile defense or on the Coast Guard and the inspections of container ships. It would allow the size and costs of new fighter jet programs to be weighed against the costs of expanding, say, the diplomatic corps.
Currently, the budgets for what we on the task force call offense (our military forces), defense (homeland security), and prevention (nonmilitary international engagement) are considered separately. This makes it hard to do integrated thinking about the security challenges we face and the best applications of our resources to address them.
And, as Clinton also said, with a unified budget, “it’s not us going and making our case to our appropriators and DoD going and making their case to the appropriators” – a contest the State Department habitually loses. It’s a whole-of-government approach to security budgeting.
Her partners at the top of the national security team, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, she noted, are on board with the idea.
Now they just have to do it. And mean what they say about shifting resources.
Since 2008, Gates has been lamenting that “America’s civilian institutions of diplomacy and development have been chronically undermanned and underfunded for far too long, relative to what we spend on the military.”
In a speech in early March, Mullen noted that “Secretaries Clinton and Gates have called for more funding and more emphasis on our soft power, and I could not agree with them more. My fear, quite frankly, is that we aren’t moving fast enough in this regard. U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military.”
But the budgets they draw up for the Pentagon keep on growing, and the cuts in defense programs they support are almost exclusively designed to be plowed back into other defense programs. This is, in other words, overwhelmingly Defense Department rebalancing, not security budget rebalancing.
If the Obama administration proceeds with the unified security budgeting its top security officials say they want, there will inevitably be pushback from some quarters in Congress. As Foreign Policy noted, the Project on National Security Reform, a key proponent of unified security budgeting, had its government funding zeroed out last year. The main reason, apparently: The late Rep. John Murtha, then chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, was worried that a unified security budget would weaken his extraordinary budget-setting power.
Fortunately, the members of the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget don’t take government money. So we’ll keep talking.