Evaluating the Obama administration’s national security budget and planning process

By Gordon Adams | April 28, 2009

In its first 100 days, the Obama administration has had to confront a series of pressing foreign policy and national security issues–North Korean missile launches, a revamping of the war strategy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s continued rise in Pakistan, and, of course, the Iranian nuclear program. As with all new administrations, the issues have come faster than the Obama administration can cope with them. Thus, improvisation has been a major feature of the administration’s response–especially with only part of the team in place.

As I’ve written before, my main concern has always been whether or not the administration is putting in place the budgets, structures, and processes that will allow them to escape the siren song of improvisation and begin to set a course toward longer-term strategic planning for foreign policy and national security.

The first 100 days of the Obama administration have been promising, but to paraphrase Death of a Salesman, ‘Attention must [continue to] be paid.'”

Clearly, 100 days aren’t enough to answer every question or quell every doubt. And while the most appropriate grade at the moment is probably an incomplete, some of the administration’s action do deserve a clear passing grade.

What are the success stories?

The foreign policy and assistance budget. As a candidate, Barack Obama promised to double U.S. foreign assistance, and while he may not reach this goal as quickly as he’d like, the International Affairs budget request of $53.8 billion–an increase of about 11 percent–is a giant step forward. The details of the foreign policy budget won’t appear until early May, but there are signs that it will include at least a couple of important steps in strengthening the civilian toolkit.

First, it will seek a major increase in personnel for both the State Department and USAID, beefing up an overstressed staff in both organizations. Second, it will fully fund major programs at State and USAID, particularly food aid and humanitarian assistance. For the past few years, both have been underfunded, with the difference being made up through emergency supplemental budget requests. But it seems honest budgeting has returned to the International Affairs budget requests, and State is asking for what it will realistically need at the start of the budget process, not scrambling for additional funding later.

The defense budget. Last September, the military services and Joint Chiefs conducted a budget drill that led to a “blue sky wish list” of a base budget for Defense (outside of war supplementals). The wish list would have expanded the Defense budget by 14 percent over fiscal year 2009. But the White House decided to hang tough, arguing that “current services” (fiscal year 2009 plus inflation, or roughly 3 percent growth) was enough. Any further increases, they reasoned, could await a full strategic review at Defense.

To the surprise of many, Defense Secretary Robert Gates didn’t fight the administration’s edict; he did seek and obtain an additional $10 billion, but those funds covered programs that had previously been funded through supplemental budgets. While some in Congress argued that Defense could have been constrained even further, this was a clear signal to the armed services that a new sheriff was in town.

Even more unexpected was the series of military hardware decisions that Gates announced in April. For years Defense’s modus operandi has been to continue buying hardware that was outmoded, underperforming, or unnecessary. Gates began to end that practice by terminating hardy perennials such as the F-22 fighter, the vehicle portion of the Army’s Future Combat System, an underperforming Transformation Satellite Program, the new navy destroyer, and the new White House helicopter program. Sure, Congress may reverse some of these decisions; but they were clear and decisive and based on strategy and future requirements, not made randomly. The forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review will tell us whether the long-term defense plan continues this trend.

In which areas does the administration deserve an incomplete grade?

Supplementals. For eight years, both Defense and State abused the supplemental process to request funding for things that clearly weren’t war related–e.g., military hardware that wasn’t being lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s unclear whether or not the administration will continue to allow this backdoor funding, which undermines planning and budget discipline, to happen. The intention of transmitting narrow, war-focused supplemental has been announced, though it applied incompletely to the fiscal year 2009 supplemental submitted by the Obama administration a couple of months ago. War funding for fiscal year 2010, however, will come to Congress with the overall budget–a good precedent.

Reforming State’s budget planning process. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began to integrate budget planning for all of State’s and USAID’s foreign assistance programs, but those changes need to be strengthened and supported by additional capacity-building. That means developing a civilian capability to respond quickly to the needs of fragile and failing states and states recovering from civil war and military operations. It also means reforming the department’s staff by recruiting, training, incentivizing, and promoting a new breed of State official who can plan and administer programs, as well as negotiate them.

Developing development policy. Here the grade is seriously incomplete. A new USAID administrator hasn’t been named, and the agency is somewhat adrift. Its future relationship with State also is in question and needs to be resolved. Similarly, staffing increases should be accompanied by a vigorous reform of USAID processes and contracting. The agency needs to become the first responder when tending to fragile and failing states. At the moment, all of these issues are still in limbo.

Balancing the military and civilian instruments of statecraft. As I’ve noted several times in this column, Defense has built up a substantial portfolio of foreign and security assistance programs that duplicate programs and activities at State. They were developed, however, because Defense lacked the faith that State could run these programs in an agile or responsive way, or that State could raise the money for them from the Congress. These doubts weren’t incorrect, but they’ve created a serious imbalance.

Today, the United States faces a major problem in civil military relations. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Michael Mullen noted at Princeton University on February 5, “You’ve hear . . . me talk about our foreign policy being too militarized. I believe that. And it’s got to change.” Gates has sent the first signal, announcing that he does not intend to seek to put these authorities into Defense’s permanent legal authorities, pending congressional action on State’s budget and capabilities. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has given voice to the need to return State to the position of preeminence in foreign and security assistance policy.

But it isn’t yet clear what State needs to do to become a more credible steward of these programs. And until it does, Congress won’t agree to give it the flexibility and funding it needs to do the job. Nor is the first step promising. In the new fiscal year 2009 supplemental budget request for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, State agreed that Defense should request $400 million in funding to train Pakistani security forces in counterinsurgency operations. If State is to become the policy steward of these programs, this was a step in the wrong direction.

So, in sum, the first 100 days of the Obama administration have been promising, but to paraphrase Death of a Salesman, “Attention must [continue to] be paid.”

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