Smarter National-Security Spending: What a Concept

Striking the right balance

The nation's approach to national security is warped by the way the different pieces of it - military, diplomatic, economic, development - are funded. Washington is a series of funnels and tubes - congressional committees, Pentagon rice bowls (a way of saying I'm keeping what's mine!), and institutional inertia. It keeps the money flowing, for sure, but doesn't allow it to be put where it would do the most good. Imagine if you maintained your car the way we fund national security: you'd spend $1,000 a year on tires, for example, but only $200 on gasoline, brakes and spark plugs.

That may have been affordable in the 20th Century, but no longer. The nation's niggardly funding of the State Department was a drum former defense secretary Robert Gates never tired of banging. And it's not only guys like him: when you speak to officers serving in Afghanistan, they bemoan the lack of civilian help the U.S. (and its allies) provide: most will take an agricultural expert over an artilleryman any day of the week.

But you get the impression that red-blooded lawmakers believe that military spending is more American, and - dare I say it - more manly than money spent in the diplomatic and development arena (an unspoken theme: if we're going to waste money, let's waste it at home on weapons we don't need, or that don't work, instead of trying to replace Afghan poppies with saffron).

There's a growing sense in our increasingly interdependent world that we should break down the budget pipelines that separately fuel Defense, Homeland Security, State and other international agencies, and reallocate their funding more smartly. But that's hard to do - the armed services committees on Capitol Hill, for example, won't give up their control of $700 billion a year without a fight. Lawmakers view defense contracts as jobs programs, slathered with a patina of national-security need. And many Americans, alas, detest the idea of foreign aid, even as they support increased levels of defense spending - without noting that a squirt of foreign-aid dollars can often replace a far more costly squadron of troops, jet fighters or warships.

There was an interesting conversation on precisely this topic Wednesday by Thomas Nides, the deputy secretary of state for management and resources. He - and the Obama Administration - are pushing for what they call a unified security budget for the nation. Pentagon, State and DHS monies should be put into a single pot, he told the Center for American Progress, and then allocated more rationally than we've been able to do when each has been funded in isolation. You don't have to agree with what he says to acknowledge he's asking the right questions. Think of it as giving you the freedom to spend $1,000 on gas and $100 on tires.

Some excerpts:

Few things are more important than making sure that Washington appropriates funding in a rational way…

The reality is that State and USAID and the military are working more closely together in places around the world than ever in our history…

Around the world, you will find representatives from across the interagency and the security establishment working together on joint missions on behalf of the country. They don't think about which subcommittee funds them or what respective budget allocations are. They really just don't care. All they know is that they work together with a common purpose and often in dangerous and deadly environments. We need a budget that reflects this reality…

In the Fiscal 2011 budget, which has now been finished, State and USAID took a massive hit, a 13.6% cut from what the Administration believed we needed in 2011. And although it's unclear what's going to happen in 2012, we could face more catastrophic cuts…

There is a real risk that Congress could decide to shield defense spending and other categories of spending by cutting everything else, and that, my friends, is the bad news…

The House Appropriations Subcommittee approved a bill that provides just $36.9 billion of our core budget, which is an 18% cut…

I've said this until I am blue in my face and I'll repeat it again: The State Department and USAID make up about 1% of the federal budget…I understand that most Americans think that the foreign assistance makes up 25% of our budget, even though, as I said, it's only about 1%. The positive side, however, is that when asked how much we ought to be spending on foreign assistance, people say between 10 and 15%, which I'll take.

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