Cut Deficit, Increase Militarization?

budget axThe recent deficit deal includes potentially deep cuts in U.S. security spending. One likely but perhaps counterintuitive outcome would be staffing reductions in foreign development programs and in diplomatic missions. The deal will also hit the budgets of domestic security programs like border patrols, the Coast Guard, and the Secret Service. These are not the sort of security cuts decried by hawkish lawmakers — such as Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), former Gov. Mitt Romney, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — who fear that potential cuts to the military will hollow out the U.S. armed forces and cripple the military industry.

Although the focus has largely been on the defense budget, the budget deal’s legislation defines security for the first round of cuts as including defense programs but also Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Nuclear Security, intelligence, and international affairs. Furthermore, the final compromise produced a bill extremely light on details. Savings will be achieved through spending caps, so only the outcome of future legislative wrangling will determine what programs survive the axe. Without a strong base of interest group support — in the form of industry lobbyists, right-wing think tanks, and the aforementioned hawkish lawmakers — civilian programs that support non-military foreign engagement such as the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are in great danger.

International engagement means a great deal more than military power. Development initiatives, diplomatic missions, nuclear security programs: these are all important security and foreign policy tools as well. However, because many lawmakers believe only force can secure U.S. foreign policy interests, the programs the debt deal puts in jeopardy are disproportionately on the civilian side.

Fleshing Out the Deal

The legislation that came out of the high-drama deficit debate will cut an estimated $2.5 trillion from the federal government’s projected outlays over the next 10 years. The deal consists of two bulk cuts, both achieved through spending caps on discretionary programs. The initial cuts totaled $1 trillion, and a bipartisan super committee will decide the remaining $1.5 trillion in cuts by November 23.

According to an administration official, “[f]rom the discretionary caps in the first tranche of the bill, there is approximately $420 billion in security savings. Of that, $350 billion is from defense (function 050) savings.” If Congress fails to pass the agreement reached by the bipartisan super committee by the deadline, a trigger mechanism will slash both defense and non-defense discretionary spending. The security cuts will total $534 billion, and unlike the first round will come solely from the defense budget. However the legislation sets no limits on either the legislative or executive branches’ ability to appropriate money for “Overseas Contingency Operations [or the] Global War on Terrorism” — Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.

But the projected defense cuts are not as guaranteed as the agreement would make it seem. Indeed, the initial $350 billion figure is misleading for several reasons. First, the figure assumes that the barrier between security and non-security spending persists over the next 10 years when in fact the distinction will be removed after 2013. Second, the estimate entirely discounts Congress’ likely predilection to look for cuts in non-defense accounts. Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information reports that actual defense reductions from the first round of this bill will almost certainly be less than the $350 billion figure and will ultimately “be decided by Congress in the future.” He warns against “[reading] precision and certainty into a political deal specifically designed to be uncertain and indistinct.”

This level of uncertainty essentially leaves the debate where it was before the deal was struck. According to Byron Callan, a senior defense analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, based on the final shape the deal took, “we […] see no net change for defense, as we have believed that most defense stocks have discounted a DoD budget cut between $400 to $800 billion over the next 10 years.” That range, while above the figure called for by the president’s forthcoming fundamental review of the military, is consistent with the numbers proposed by several defense reduction plans.

What to Expect

Most of the budget cuts are backlogged, meaning that unpredictable political dynamics will determine their future outcome. For the coming year, the only number that can be reported with any certainty is the $684 billion cap on security spending for fiscal year 2012 — that’s security in its more expansive sense. The total of all the budgets falling under the security umbrella for fiscal 2011 totals $689 billion, meaning there will only be a mandatory $5 billion cut in 2012 security spending. There is nothing to prevent lawmakers from increasing Pentagon spending and paying for it at the expense of other security programs. A similar battle can be expected for 2013, but after that the contours of the fight will shift because the distinction between security and non-security spending caps disappears.

Broadening the definition of security was a tactic of several House Armed Service Committee members to spread the pain to other programs beyond defense — and it will probably work. Gordon Adams at the Henry L. Stimson Center speculates that to get the votes for passage, there was “probably an understanding that defense was not going to pay the minus $5 billion dollar price tag” and therefore cuts of “$10 or $15 billion in other parts of the security function” are quite possible for 2012.

Although lawmakers compete to determine the budget for fiscal 2012, an equally important battle will be fought in the super committee as its 12 members try to find $1.2 billion in savings by the November deadline. Everything will be on the table including military spending and the other programs falling under the security umbrella. If the committee can strike a deal, their outcome will determine the future of all these programs.

If they fail, the trigger mechanism will go into effect, slashing $534 billion from defense over 10 years. Of course, any legislation stretching so far into the future is subject to change. There is really no telling what lies beyond the horizon of the 2012 election. The bottom line is the cuts most likely to go into effect are those nearest in the future, and the way the legislation is structured, the near-term “security” cuts will fall disproportionately on civilian agencies.

If the trigger mechanism really goes into full force, expect that $534 billion figure to be an absolute maximum for defense cuts: Democrats have sold this second round of defense cuts as a doomsday scenario that Republicans must avoid through compromise. Thus, Democrats have positioned themselves poorly to ask for more defense reductions after the cuts go into place.

What’s at Stake

Congressional officials told the Washington Times that the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security would likely face the greatest cuts. Consistent with this prediction, the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill passed by the House Foreign Affairs committee on July 20 cut $6 billion from the president’s request. The passage of this bill demonstrates that House republicans are more than willing to cut support for several key State Department and USAID initiatives.

One such cut would be for U.S. support of the United Nations. This support, argues Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, helps the UN respond effectively to humanitarian crises, coordinate efforts to prevent the outbreaks of infectious diseases, and helps maintain U.S. legitimacy among the international community. The bill will also paradoxically “eliminate the budgetary office at USAID geared to improving aid effectiveness.” Gordon Adams also believes Congress is unlikely to adequately fund personnel related costs at USAID and the State Department, like hiring and training, that he views as “critical” for the success of many programs.

Unlike the “defense” cuts in the budget deal, these security cuts have received significantly less media attention and have been the subject of far less political outrage. Although the Democrat-controlled Senate may still modify this bill, the passage of the budget deal has made the work of those who wish to preserve civilian foreign policy capabilities much more difficult.

Homeland Security (DHS) faces the prospect of cutting recent staffing increases in the Coast Guard and the Secret Service. Though many DHS programs are problematic, many others, like those that secure airports and incoming cargo shipments against terrorist activity, serve vital security interests. Moreover these programs address potential threats without the inevitable collateral damage of military operations.

The Trend Toward Militarization

Although agencies like the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security have received some increased support over the last 10 years, their resources remain miniscule compared to the military’s behemoth budget.

Foreign Policy In Focus’s annual report, A Unified Security Budget for the United States, finds that due to this imbalance in resources, the military has taken on many of the roles previously held by the State Department. Diplomatic work has historically been instrumental in efforts at “threat prevention, ‘environment shaping,’ and the reassurance of allies.” But today the United States depends heavily on demonstrations of military might to fill these roles. Military-to-military contact, meanwhile, often dwarfs the scope of civilian diplomatic relations, meaning bilateral relations between the United States and other countries are tinged with a predominantly military perspective. And the military has an increasing role in determining where foreign aid allocations go and directly oversees a growing share of total aid money.

Finally, the military consistently “overshadows” civilian programs in many countries. This is problematic as “[a] necessary prerequisite of stability is genuine national accord and balanced economic development. There is a serious disconnect between these prerequisites and a U.S. policy that emphasizes large-scale foreign military intervention and action, while relegating development to a distinctly subordinate role.” Long-term success for operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan will only materialize with balanced economic growth and the emergence of strong democratic institutions. The military has its role in this process, but the State Department and aid agencies have a unique capacity to support initiatives that fall outside of a security framework.

There is no lobby for a rational allocation of security resources, only lobbies for this weapons system or that army base. The big picture thinkers invited to the policy table more often than not believe that that U.S. security and economic vitality can only be assured through global military dominance. Few offer alternative paths to those laudable goals.

The debt deal security cuts will likely further the trend of militarization in U.S. foreign policy, especially in the near term. In the ongoing debate over the appropriate U.S. global orientation, those advocating the importance of civilian policy tools must make their voices heard.

Keith Menconi is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.