An interview with Gordon Adams

By Gordon Adams | April 4, 2008

Name the most significant changes to U.S. national security policy post-9/11.

Name the most significant changes to U.S. national security policy post-9/11.

The most significant change is the expansion of the military’s role in delivering national security policy. Prior to 9/11, the military wasn’t conducting any significant counterterrorism operations. The armed forces are now involved in counterterrorism operations in numerous countries throughout the world. In addition, between 1998 and 2006, the Defense Department’s share of total U.S. development assistance has risen from about 7 percent of U.S. total foreign assistance to 22 percent of total U.S. foreign assistance. That’s a huge jump.

Defense is also currently undertaking stabilization and reconstruction operations. The military is building hospitals and health clinics in Iraq and working on alternative crops in Afghanistan. These simply aren’t military missions. But in a combat setting, it’s almost impossible for the U.S. civilian agencies to safely go into those areas and implement the appropriate programs. Similarly, the military can enter a country and start building a clinic immediately because of its spending flexibility. Of course, the downside is that they build a clinic without doctors, nurses, and supplies, assuming local authorities will take care of such things, which isn’t an assumption the civilian foreign assistance agencies make.  

After the United States discontinues combat activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, how will those conflicts continue to affect the defense budget?

This is really a matter of larger strategic intent. If the United States continues to pursue preemption as a policy, which will entail the military engaging in reconstruction and stabilization operations and security assistance programs, then the defense budget will continue to go up. If we’re unlikely to invade and reconstruct a country of Iraq’s magnitude any time soon, then we don’t need as large of a defense capacity and the argument for a continuously growing defense budget becomes less compelling.

Where do State Department and Defense Department activities currently overlap in the implementation of U.S. foreign policy and foreign aid programs?

The overlap is in traditional security and strategically driven foreign assistance–training and equipping militaries, educating officer corps, subsidies for foreign governments Washington considers an ally. But in recent years, the funding for such activities has increased much more dramatically at Defense than it has at State. While the overall budget for State’s foreign assistance programs has grown, the growth has been in newer programs. For example, the last three years or so, we’ve put $4 billion annually into a targeted program that combats HIV/AIDS. There’s a similar initiative for malaria and other infectious diseases–mainly directed toward African nations.

The budget for standard State programs (namely, economic support funds for strategic partners) and the U.S. Agency for International Development has remained flat.

Describe your idealized version of U.S. statecraft.

My idealized version integrates all the civilian and military statecraft tools alike–both of which are important to achieving the country’s national security goals. At present, clear, systematic planning is lacking in the government stovepipes tasked with national security activities. The Defense planning mechanism is broken; the State Department scarcely has a planning mechanism; the Department of Homeland Security is dysfunctional; and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is still trying to figure out how to get the intelligence agencies to work together. So despite the flood of documents about counterterrorism strategy, counterproliferation strategy, and national security strategy, the day-to-day integration of U.S. statecraft isn’t done.

Ideally, some sort of interagency national security strategy should be established that chooses priority areas of national security policy, and tasks agencies with particular missions and spending objectives. More largely, we need to determine which portions of our national security policy the military will carry out and which portions the foreign assistance and foreign policy agencies will carry out. This should help improve the country’s image abroad. Right now, we’re asking the military to do most of this job, and as hard as they try and as good as they can be, in the end, that’s a counterproductive strategy.

Can defense spending be restrained?

Not without political will. There was huge restraint from 1985 to 2000. It staggered me, because Congress can’t do anything coherent or consistent for that long of a time period. But they did. It provided enormous restraint on defense. However, the restraint wasn’t about U.S. national security, it was articulated as “deficit reduction.” Better still, it forced the armed services to make choices and set priorities. Today, they don’t do that. They ask for everything. And Congress gives it to them, happily echoing the sentiment that the military is overstressed and that all of the country’s military equipment needs to be reset–mostly out of fear of appearing soft on defense and not supportive of the troops.

Now, if the economy continues to struggle and the deficit becomes overwhelming again, I can imagine a shift in political will, with Congress saying, “Enough already! Defense needs to determine how to maintain an active, capable, agile, flexible military capability with a smaller defense budget.”

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