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America’s politics of defence

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Paul Rogers
12 March 2009

Barack Obama's political inheritance is one of the most difficult ever faced by a new United States president. But if the agenda of major policy challenges - short-term and long-term, domestic and foreign - is lengthy, three areas in particular stand out as unavoidable priorities: the economic recession and accompanying unemployment at home, a strategy on climate change after the near-decade wasted under George W Bush, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001  The full extent of the economic crisis, as the credit-squeeze has led to a spiralling downturn in manufacturing, is evident in the extraordinary surge in joblessness: 2.6 million jobs were lost in a single four-month period (November 2008-February 2009). The predicament of rising unemployment is one the United States shares with much of the rest of the world - and is far exceeded in scale by China - but this is of no consolation to the new administration.  At the same time, Obama is seeking to make the most of tools the very severity of the situation has handed him: he is still in a position to demand much more federal intervention than would normally be allowed in US politics, can combine efforts to stall the economic decline with some welfare protection for the poorest and elements of redistribution, and carries no blame for the crisis itself.

The renewal of climate-change policy presents an equally large test. Here too the new administration is being innovative, not least in connecting the need to move to a low-carbon economy with a reduction in the country's dependence on imported oil (see "America in the Persian Gulf: a choice of futures", 5 March 2009). If the United States really is to play a leadership role in climate change, the extent of the changes that will be needed in the US economy is so great as to be potentially transformative; this also means that exceptionally strong vested interests will be ranged against the president and his cogent scientific team. But even after only seven weeks of life, his administration has already started to change the culture: in particular, linking green initiatives to job-creation is a project and an argument with considerable resonance at a time of recession and environmental crisis. 

A fluid outlook

The area of United States global-security policy, including the future of the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, is proving less amenable to decisive action that has a chance of making an early change in the political weather. In part this is because Barack Obama's proposed schedule for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq is more drawn-out than had been indicated during the presidential-election campaign; in part because - in light of an upsurge in violence that acts as a reminder that Iraqi society is far from settled - there are doubts that even this timetable will be kept.

The escalation of the war in Afghanistan is evidence that in this first theatre of the post-9/11 "war on terror", the new administration in Washington has a difficult hand to play. Its initial policy has been to match the upsurge in Taliban activity with an increased commitment of its own: Obama has already announced the deployment of 4,000 extra American troops on top of the existing contingent of 38,000, and 13,000 more will follow. All this is accompanied by a willingness to continue intense military activity - including strikes by armed-drone into Pakistan - along and across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border

The Obama administration's supporters are quick to respond to early criticism of its policy towards "AfPak". They cite both the blunt confession (made by vice-president Joe Biden as well as President Obama) of the problems faced by US forces and their Nato allies,  and the hints that negotiations with some elements of the Taliban might be considered.

Whether these doubts and signals could become the seeds of a real change in policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains to be seen. In the present fluid situation, some indication is provided by looking at the new administration's approach to global security through the prism of the rooted interests and networks that underlie defence expenditure in the United States.

A runaway train

The way the American political system works means that an incoming administration, required to present a defence budget to congress for the following year, gives a reasonably clear idea of its approach to defence policy within three months of taking office.  Moreover, the 2010 budget in the US-style tax year runs from October 2009 and requires clear proposals to be set down six months earlier. There is not much time for Barack Obama, who released a preliminary outline of his spending priorities and agency budgets on 26 February 2009, to put his imprint on this policy.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is neededObama's first defence budget will follow those under George W Bush whose administration - from a mix of practical necessity in prosecuting two wars, ideological conviction and an innately supportive attitude to the defence industries and the armed forces - made enormous  increases in defence spending.  For the current (2009) fiscal year, US defence spending is likely to total $670 billion: this would be the highest in real terms since the second world war, and roughly equivalent to the military spending of every other country in the world put together (see John T Bennett & Vago Muradian, "Obama Takes Aim at Acquisition", Defense News, 9 March 2009). 

If John McCain had won the November 2008 election, it is very likely that the budget would have increased still further - not least in terms of "supplementals" (that is, requests to congress, often within a financial year, for additional spending on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars).  The deep-seated support for soldiers at war in both houses of congress has meant that in the past such supplemental demands both tended to pass and added a lot to the overall budget. 

Will Barack Obama's approach to defence spending represent a break in these recent patterns; and if so, how?  The base budget in the published outline for 2010 is estimated at $534 billion, with the aim of no further increases above inflation for several years to come (see Christopher Hellman, "President Obama's First Defense Budget: The End of an Era", Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, 3 March 2009).  This would still be extremely high by international standards, but its final shape would still depend on whether there would be major supplemental requests and how these are answered.  If there were not, the budget would actually start to fall, although a continuation of this trend would depend on what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq (and even with a free run the budget would take years to get back to 2001 levels).  For the moment, substantial supplementals are expected. 

So far, so provisional. But the Obama approach may become both more interesting and more creative when decision-time over supplementals arrives and when the issue of contracts awarded without competition arises.  When George W Bush was president, supplemental funding often included spending on acquisition of new systems rather than the actual costs of the wars - amounting to a back-door way for defence contractors to increase their income.  In addition, cost-plus contracts and single-bid non-competitive contracts were a feature of the Bush era (the latter, regarded by critics as a licence to print money, rose by 174% in 2001-08).

Obama has been emphatic on the flaws in these budget techniques. At a news conference on 4 March 2009, he said:  "Far too often, the spending is plagued by massive cost overruns, outright fraud and an absence of accountability.  We need more competition for contracts and more oversight when they're carried out" (Ben Feller, "Obama orders overhaul of ‘broken' defense contracting", Associated Press, 4 March 2009). 

The implication is that cost-control must be a priority. Much of the responsibility for this falls on the federal-acquisition workforce, which was cut back during the 1990s and found many of its functions privatised while defence budgets more than doubled under George W Bush.  Obama plans to rebuild this body with the aim of securing greater oversight of defence contractors. 

A hard contest

The president's focus on hard choices in this area is likely to produce early results. The huge wear-and-tear of equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan carries huge costs, and flat defence budgets simply will not allow for large-scale replacement in a way that also allows other high-cost programmes to be maintained. The probable first casualty will be an end to the US air-force's procurement of F/A-18 and F-22 strike aircraft; in addition, the navy's DDG 1000 future destroyer may be cancelled, and at least one aircraft-carrier along with its carrier air-wing be taken out of service. 

But opposition to such moves among defence lobbyists and conservative commentators is already building. They acknowledge the increased size of the defence budgets under the George W Bush administration, but claim that in the context of the huge cost of the two wars this amounts to a "hollow build-up".

The real overall strength of the US armed forces is, according to this view, actually diminishing: "This significantly expanded budget only buys us dramatically shrivelled forces. The major combat units that make up our Army, Navy and Air Force are at their lowest ebb since 1946" (see Winslow Wheeler & Pierre Sprey, "Playing Defense", American Conservative, 9 March 2009).   

The thrust of this article may be on the sheer wastage of many of the major acquisition programmes, but the potent theme of a decline in US military power will be recycled in the coming months as lobbyists focus on Obama's attempts to curb defence spending. 

The background of eight lucrative years of bloated budgets, supported by the ample resources of Washington's defence lobbies, ensure that this will be an area of intensive behind-the-scenes conflict. The combatants include congressional representatives pressed by lobbyists to support specific defence contractors within their precise geographical areas, within the context of a tight electoral cycle and a recession-hit landscape where political competition for campaign funds will also be intense.  

It will not be an easy contest for even a change-minded and change-making president to win. The defence lobby will make unremitting efforts to keep the golden years going for as long as possible. Much of the outcome will depend on what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if Barack Obama's early weeks in office show a creative and decisive political streak in the areas of domestic economic policy and climate-change strategy, what happens to the defence budget is a signal test that will reverberate far beyond the United States. 

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