A Fat Budget for Weapons, Thin for Diplomacy

In their first debate, Barack Obama and John McCain will audition for the role of change agent. Here’s one thing the moderator needs to ask: how they would change the military-led foreign policy of the past eight years.

It’s, among other things, a matter of money.

Even our current Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, thinks the military gets too much of the security spending pie. “Funding for non-military foreign affairs programs…remains disproportionately small relative to what we spend on the military,” he said recently.

A group of 50 retired three- and four-star generals and admirals, led by former CENTCOM commander Gen. Anthony Zinni, agrees: “Our military mission has continued to expand as funding for the State Department and development agencies has been inadequate to the tasks they have been asked to perform… It is time to rethink and rebalance our investments to create a better, safer world.”

But Secretary Gates had the power to make the change he said he wanted, and he didn’t. In his last official budget, he made the problem worse, with a 36% increase in defense spending. As General Zinni pointed out, this increase is roughly equivalent to the total budget for non-military international affairs.

Both candidates have shown interest in doing something about this imbalance, citing the need to increase foreign aid spending as an

investment in a more secure world. Both have also mentioned the other side of the equation, citing the need to cut funding for unneeded weapons systems. Obama is more specific, pledging to cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful Pentagon spending, and to create an independent defense priorities board to help take security decisions out of the realm of politics.

A new report from a task force we led can help the next president connect the dots between these two commitments — to increase non-military foreign engagement and to cut wasteful military spending. The “Unified Security Budget for the United States, FY 2009″ identifies $61 billion in Pentagon cuts that can be made with no sacrifice to our security. And it outlines $65 billion in increases for key priorities in the International Affairs and Homeland Security budgets. Cutting funds for one weapon, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which breaks down a lot and already has a functional successor, would allow us to fill most of the 1,000 crtiically-needed positions in our diplomatic corps, for example.

Speaking of our diplomats, Secretary Gates has lamented that the entire corps, about 6,500 people, is smaller than the staff of a single aircraft carrier group. And he put his finger on why: “Diplomacy,” he said, “simply does not have the built-in, domestic constituency of defense programs.”

It is quintessential “Washington business as usual” that keeps the goal of rebalancing security resources always out of reach. It is allegedly what everybody wants, but nobody does. If Obama and McCain are really serious about “change,” they must take on the entrenched interests that skew our security priorities.

Distributed by Minuteman Media

Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, writing and speaking on demilitarization issues for its Foreign Policy In Focus project.