The Failure of the Current DoD Budget Debates

Concepts and budgets fail when there is no coherent foreign policy driving them

The current debates emanating among policy circles within the Department of Defense and Congress have predominately focused on the scale of budget cuts imposed by sequestration and how it will be implemented to achieve the President’s defense policy guidance. As resources decrease, each service is maneuvering themselves within the budgetary-policy debates to ensure they receive both an adequate role in shaping the future security environment and the resources commensurate with such a role. A critical element missing from such discussions are how defense and military strategies are linked to the nation’s overall foreign policy. What many have articulated before is the lack of foreign policy that sets conditions for our relations with the rest of the world: both friends and potential adversaries utilizing all elements of national power.

Our lack of foreign policy is evident in our incoherent approach to numerous global problems ranging from proliferation of WMD, the Arab Spring and its consequences, and rising regional competitors. The absence of a comprehensive foreign policy that balances all elements of power usually has resorted to the least common denominator: military power even if it is the wrong tool to solve a political problem that leads to further troubles. Senior defense and military leaders have become more vocal on the disparity between the expectations and reality to execute associated with the resource allocation between the various national security elements. Former Secretary of Gates famously stressed during speeches and in congressional testimonies the need for additional resources for the Department of State and USAID to allow them to pull their weight in our nation’s foreign and security affairs, thereby reducing the burden on DoD. Further complicating matters is the NSC’s inability to remove itself from the “Crisis Management” mode rather than acting as a long-term planning tool designed to help the President formulate and articulate his/her vision for the nation’s foreign policy.

As a result of this disparity and the NSC’s inability to do long-term planning, a lack of a well articulated foreign policy by the State Department routinely results in the DoD assuming the mantle of responsibility for many non-military issues without consideration for a more comprehensive strategy that encompasses political, economic, information, and/or social instruments of power. As former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger wrote, “Successful foreign policy requires the management of nuisances in a continuous process.” This implies that all levels of power need to be exercised in relationship to their effect on the problem, the amount of risk that is acceptable, and the means that are expended while, at all cost, attempting to preserve military power as the last option. He also warns that a comprehensive foreign policy is necessary to “distinguish between what it must do, what it would like to do, and what is beyond its capacities.” To realistically accomplish this; the current model of the National Security Strategy needs to be revised to reflect priorities of effort and resource allocation, even if it has to become a classified document. Additionally, this requires Presidential direct involvement similar to Eisenhower’s national security review that challenges all known assumptions by DoD and the civilian elements of the interagency to develop a vision for the future and the need for balancing economic strength with national security.

Looking ahead as the U.S. examines both challenges and opportunities it must face or help shape, it needs to balance domestic and foreign priorities in a holistic manner that is both affordable and accomplishable. Focusing solely on individual problem sets does not allow the President and his/her advisors to approach them from a broader view and determine which instrument of power, or which instruments of power in concert, are best utilized to deter or defeat threats, or shape and influence events. This would allow DoD to focus its efforts and available resources on executing planning and acquisition strategies to deter or defeat imminent or emerging security threats in context with a larger foreign policy goal. Again, Kissinger provides insightful advice concerning our foreign policy as we continue to address a rising China, global terrorism, and other threats:

“The frozen relationships of the Cold War no longer fit a world in which there are no principal adversaries and in which the very distinction between friends and adversaries is in transition in many regions. In such circumstances, the United States needs to design a diplomacy that prevents threats to fundamental American interests and values without designating a specific adversary in advance, and above all by a policy based on the widest possible international consensus on positive goals.” — Does America Need a Foreign Policy, page 318.

If DoD is serious about changing the dialogue on national security from end strength numbers to strategic priorities, it needs to stop being its own worst enemy by highlighting potential savings to defense budgets sans a solid foreign policy that helps determine our national objectives that truly balance ends, ways, and means (especially national economic health) and underpins our national defense and military strategies. This will require more frank and honest discussion with Congress on the limitations of military power and that the human element of international relations and security cannot always be in the form of the fist. As Dana Priest points out in her book “The Mission,” when nations increasingly turn to Regional Combatant Commanders rather than individual Country Teams because of the perceived disparity in resources and the ability to get things done, then our foreign policy has failed and our nonmilitary instruments of power are left impotent.

Chad Pillai an U.S. Army strategist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect any official organization.

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