Is This Any Way to Secure a Country?

This is what passes for a security debate in the halls of Congress these days. The House and Senate Armed Services committees are on track to hand the president the 460-odd-billion-dollar military budget he asked for, give or take a billion or two.

His political troubles are emboldening them to raise a few objections along the way. The House committee expressed “strong concerns about the escalating costs of military platforms” (planes, ships, tanks).

Such platforms would clearly include the V-22 Osprey helicopter, which, despite two decades and $18 billion already spent in development, is not yet operational. The Army no longer wants it. The Armed Services committees don’t seem to care; they noted their concerns and fully funded the program anyway.

Some members, mostly Democrats, have raised a few other objections, wondering, for example, why we are spending nearly 20 percent more than last year on missile defense, a so-far unproven effort to protect against the least-likely method for delivering weapons of mass destruction and 10 percent less on the cooperative threat-reduction program that secures weapons stockpiles in the former Soviet states so that they can’t be stolen and delivered. These objections are likewise noted, but then set aside. And there will be no debate on whether it makes sense to spend more on deploying these unproven missile defenses than on the entire Coast Guard, because that question falls outside these committees’ jurisdiction.

Outside Congress, the security debate is more interesting. It was recently shaken up considerably when leading neoconservative Francis Fukuyama declared that his movement’s problem lies mainly with its overly militarized approach to foreign policy.

“We need to demilitarize what we have been calling the global war on terrorism and shift to other types of policy instruments,” he wrote in The New York Times Magazine.

This abstract question of military versus nonmilitary policy instruments is now in fact concrete and urgent as the administration weighs a bombing campaign versus diplomacy to address Iran’s nuclear program. But in the committees deciding on funding for these instruments, the debate barely registers.

This year though, the Senate opened the door a crack on this debate. It voted to strip $1.9 billion from a $70 billion “emergency” war-funding bill and apply it to border control.

This of course can only be viewed as a drop in the bucket of the half-trillion-plus the United States spends annually on military operations, but it does provide a minor illustration of the way a more serious debate over security priorities could unfold.

Congress could consider the range of security tools we have–tools of offense (primarily the military), defense (primarily homeland security) and prevention (diplomacy, nonproliferation, foreign aid)–as a whole. This is hard to do because this spending is spread all over many departments and handled by many committees. A constructive first step would be to add a unified security spending plan to the budget documentation Congress now receives, bringing all these categories together in one place.

A unified security budget would allow the members to weigh the relative proportions of spending on, for example, securing our ports and building more Ospreys. Canceling the Osprey would allow us to double the amount we spend on port security.

Currently, the tools of offense–just in the regular defense budget, not counting the billions in additional money the government is spending on the war–absorb six times as much of our budget as all other security tools, including homeland security, combined. Add in the war spending and the imbalance becomes 8-1.

As we show in a new report, “A Unified Security Budget for the United States, FY 2007,” a shift of just $60 billion from the budget for unneeded programs like the Osprey could double the proportion of the budget devoted to security tools like nonproliferation, diplomacy and homeland security. Such a rebalanced security strategy would put new emphasis on cost-effective preventive medicine, reducing the need for expensive military cures.

Pemberton is a research fellow with Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Korb is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information.