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“All of the Above” on Defense

Author: Greg Bruno
October 26, 2007

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U.S. defense spending, which briefly surfaced earlier this year as a source of political debate in Congress, is drawing new fire following the unveiling of President Bush’s latest supplemental funding request for overseas military operations. Also known as an “emergency proposal,” which means it involves funds above and beyond the $150.5 billion already approved this fiscal year, Bush called for an additional $45.9 billion (PDF) in funding for Iraq and Afghanistan.

If passed, the plan would bring the Pentagon’s war price tag since 9/11 to $806 billion, “more than any single U.S. conflict since World War II” (WashPost). Total costs could exceed $1.7 trillion by 2017 (PDF). Democrats responded coldly to the president’s request, with some vowing to derail the measure unless the money was linked to troop withdrawals. Such vows in the past, however, have proven politically difficult for Democrats to make good on.

Yet, line items and timelines aren’t the only questions surfacing in the budget proposal’s wake. A more fundamental concern, some say, is whether the United States is spending wisely. The answer depends on perspective. Nestled within the president’s request is $7.3 billion to fund overseas combat operations, which military analysts say, is urgently needed. There’s $1 billion to expand the Iraqi security forces; $8.8 billion to replace worn-out equipment; and $3.1 billion for armor against roadside bombs. President Bush urged Congress to consider the funding request without delay.

But other expenditures in the supplemental give experts pause. Defense analysts say the Bush administration is increasingly reliant on these “emergency” funding measures to achieve long-term weapons modernization goals, blurring what is truly related to the war on terror and what should be fully debated (Defense News) by Congress as part of the annual federal-budget process. In an editorial, The New York Times says the president’s most recent request suggests “he cannot or will not” come clean on the wars’ true costs. Emergency requests typically receive less congressional scrutiny, and Pentagon planners appear increasingly reliant on emergency budgets to fund long-term modernization, a phenomenon the Congressional Research Service noted (PDF) in September 2006 .  

Then there’s the question of need. Among the top ticket items in the latest funding plan is $11 billion for the production of 7,200 mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs). The Pentagon plans to replace soft-skinned Humvees with up to twenty thousand such vehicles over the next two years, a move widely seen as essential to protect soldiers from roadside bombs. Defense analysts say the program is a legitimate emergency request. Yet some Marines have urged Washington to scale back the aggressive procurement pace, and a recent analysis (PDF) by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent research institute, suggests military planners are “rushing ahead” despite questions about the MRAP’s performance in Iraq, and its relevance for future operations.

The larger debate may be one of military priorities and a world in which Iraq is no longer the primary focus. The Economist notes that an "increasingly contentious" discussion is unfolding in Washington over the future of the U.S. military. Richard K. Betts, director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, says overall military expenditures are out of touch with reality. “In recent years,” Betts writes in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, “U.S. national security policy has responded to a visceral sense of threat” from new and historic enemies “rather than a sober estimate of those enemies’ capabilities.” The result, Betts adds, is a defense budget that is “higher than needed for basic national security” but far too low “to eliminate all villainous governments and groups everywhere. The time has come to face the problem squarely.”

In the end, though, squabbling over the current wars’ funding may be short lived. The Financial Times notes concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions “have supplanted Iraq” as Washington’s principal foreign policy question. And some predict the Democratic fear of appearing anti-troop may mean clear sailing for (CSMonitor) the administration’s latest war-appropriations request .

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