Military Spending: Threats and Priorities

The Bush administration has made many of its major priorities clear through the selection of the president’s foreign policy advisers.

No one in the nomination process has been greeted with such celebration, not to say relief, as the Bush foreign policy team. Once the president made it clear in the campaign that foreign policy was “Grecian” to him, people were very worried about what kind of team he would assemble and clearly he has staffed himself with adults. His vice president is a former secretary of defense; his secretary of defense is a former secretary of defense; his secretary of state is a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and his national security adviser is a former staffer on the National Security Council. And you could tell during the Senate hearings of all these people that there was widespread relief on both sides of aisles that, in fact, adults would be minding the store.

The problem with this, of course, is that the military cast of Bush’s national security cast is resolutely and expertly versed in the problems of about two decades ago. No team could give you a better argument about the various strategies needed to keep the troops of the Warsaw Pact from coming through Fulda Gap. However, there is no Warsaw Pact. The problems of today—and particularly the problems of tomorrow—are in some ways foreign to the brief and wonderful experience and the extraordinary capabilities of these national security advisers.

Then you start thinking of the emerging threats that the United States and the world faces: growing inequality in a global economy where half the world lives on two dollars a day or less; financial instability in a deregulated global market that only two years ago created the greatest financial crisis since the great depression; global warming that scientists warn is coming faster and will have greater effects than anyone could ever imagine; pandemics that are sweeping through Africa—AIDS and other diseases—that threaten to, as the intelligence community reports, destabilize governments, wipe out a generation of leaders, and set living standards back decades; and the catastrophe visited on Russia as its embraced unfettered free markets, resulting in gangsterism rather than capitalism. All of these are fundamentally threatening to the country and to the world and are remarkably divorced from the portfolio of the Bush leadership team.

This is important because the United States already has very skewed priorities regarding foreign policy. The one bipartisan agreement you can get on Capitol Hill today other than “we’ll spend more money on education” is that we will spend a lot more money on defense. The Clinton administration started that process over a year ago. The defense budget is now over $310 billion a year and will continue to go up. The military is organizing rather rapidly to put increased pressure on the Bush administration to add to its top line. The United States spends a greater percentage of its GNP on national security and international affairs than most industrialized countries. However, we spend a smaller percentage of our gross national product on civilian, economic aid, and other nonmilitary international affairs uses.

We spend about 95% of our international affairs dollar on guns, with the balance on economic assistance, on the State Department, on diplomacy, and on international institutions. This leaves us with a State Department that has communications technology that’s about 25 years old and has embassies around the world that are a disgrace. Many of them so disgraceful that they are dangerous to the people who work within them. On top of this is a foreign service professional core that is enormously demoralized—cheered, finally, by having Colin Powell as their head in the belief that surely the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can get more money for the civilians. Powell has committed to doing that, and a test of his leadership will be how successful he is in his efforts. But this bipartisan consensus that we should spend more—coupled with the skewed priorities we already have—suggests the real problems the Bush team faces.

Looking at the defense budget, it strikes me as an enormous irony that we spend this much money on defense and have a consensus that it’s not enough. If you are a Clintonista, the defense department was the place where “reinventing government” had to be applied: because no bureaucracy is in greater need of reinvention, particularly at the end of the cold war. If you are a conservative and opposed to big government, the Defense Department is big government. This is an organization that employs more than one-third of the non-postal foreign employees; it maintains a $310 billion annual budget; it has one trillion dollars in assets; and it has 247,000 troops abroad in over 137 countries and territories, on 500 bases. It is the great big spender in the federal government—in fact, in the world, among public bureaucracies. And it is a total financial catastrophe.

Every year the General Accounting Office (GAO) produces a report on agencies at risk, detailing management problems in different bureaucracies and the risk they pose to financial mismanagement. Every year the GAO reports that the Defense Department has inadequate strategic planning, its financial management is out of control, contract management cannot track its contracts, inventory management cannot track its inventory, and human capital management has failed to fit its needs. Not one major service branch or program of the Pentagon can pass an audit because the books are in such an incompetent state. What the GAO reports (and it is not a partisan organization) is that the Pentagon cannot plan to find out what it needs, cannot tell you how much it thinks its needs will cost, cannot tell you how much money it has, cannot tell you what it has spent its money on, and cannot tell you what it has purchased or where it is. It is rife, as the GAO reports, with fraud, waste, and abuse.

A seemingly logical step to take at the end of the cold war—when you are the preeminent military power, when there is no global rival, when the U.S. is safer from military threats than it probably has been since the defeat of the British after the Revolutionary War (probably even safer than that, since the British came back in 1812)—is at least to put a lid on the defense budget and force the Defense Department to make the financial, administrative, and bureaucratic changes necessary to get its systems into shape. So, I suggest to you that we’ve seen the military cast of Mr. Bush’s priorities and the military core of his team, and they do disservice to the real problems the country faces.