By Daniel R. DePetris
Now that President Donald Trump’s $4.7 trillion budget request has been released, much ink will be spilt over the coming days about numbers. The administration’s blueprint calls for $2.7 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years while seeking to balance the budget in 15 years. Nearly every agency of the federal government will get a 5 percent cut with the exception of the Defense Department, which will receive an increase to $750 billion (thanks in part by using the Overseas Contingency Operations account to skirt mandatory budget caps set by law).
Unfortunately, less attention will be spent assessing the underlying strategy of the administration’s proposed defense budget. The Washington habit of obsessing over pork and leaving discussions about policy for a later date should change—and change fast. Without an honest appraisal of U.S. foreign policy, the American people are susceptible to watching their hard-earned taxpayer dollars spent on peripheral priorities that are totally out of sync with keeping the American people safe.
Because nothing in Washington moves at a rapid pace, U.S. policymakers should start small. Fortunately, there is plenty of low hanging fruit.
The war in Afghanistan, now in its 18th consecutive year, costs the U.S. Treasury $45 billion a year with little to show for it other than a military stalemate, enhanced Afghan dependency on Washington for its security, and a conflict whose end-game remains elusive. The Taliban controls more territory in the country than the group has ever had since the insurgency started in 2002. The Afghan national security forces are almost totally reliant on external support for its survival (the U.S. has spent over $80 billion since 2002 on keeping the Afghan army afloat). And despite countless efforts to improve the performance of the Afghan government, the country remains one of the most corrupt in the world. The social science experiment in Afghanistan—a colossal mistake after achieving the military victory we sought after 9/11—has drawn out American military involvement and economic investment for no strategic purpose at great cost, including the massive erosion of our national power.
If Washington wants to save taxpayer money and terminate a mission that is disconnected from American security, ending the endless war in Afghanistan would be a perfect place to start.
Another defense program that should be on the chopping block: the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI). EDI was first established in 2014 by the Obama administration as “reassurance” to Europe following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But in the ensuing years, the EDI has ballooned from the original $1 billion request to $6.5 billion in FY2019. For a president who rightly demands that wealthy European allies do more for their own security, spending U.S. taxpayer dollars to deploy more U.S. manpower and equipment on the continent undermines the administration’s legitimate burden-sharing objectives. Europe already possesses a security blanket, formally known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (a military alliance that could use “a reappraisal” itself, as Barry Posen argued recently in The New York Times). EDI is an unnecessarily duplication and provides European governments with even less reason to reinvest and rebuild their own militaries up to NATO standards.
Finally, the Washington national security establishment should acknowledge and shed the costs of maintaining excess military infrastructure. In a study published in May 2017, the Defense Department Comptroller reported that the four services have a combined 20% additional infrastructure than what is required to sustain the military’s needs and operations. Closing these facilities down would save $2 billion a year. While such savings would be a drop in the Pentagon’s large bucket, a new Base and Realignment Closure (BRAC) round makes imminently more fiscal sense than allocating billions of dollars on buildings the military doesn’t need.
All of these are sound strategic decisions that would go a long way toward rebuilding America’s strength by reducing our greatest national security threat—our $22 trillion national debt.
Like all countries, the United States lives in a world with finite resources. We are still the wealthiest, most secure country on the planet. Rather than compounding our fiscal challenges by papering over them with even more borrowing and spending, the federal government should rethink U.S. grand strategy. We should abandon peripheral missions and focus on strengthening our nation and our military. We should right-size our military and prepare for modern military combat—that means ending our focus since 9/11 on policing permissive environments in the Middle East. We should end unnecessary missions, like Syria and Afghanistan, and focus instead on deterring great power conflict in Asia and elsewhere.
By becoming more restrained in our foreign policy, prioritizing between what we need and what we want, and prudently allocating our resources based on matching means and ends, the U.S. can keep the American people secure and safeguard the country’s prosperity at the same time.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a D.C.-based foreign policy organization focused on a strong military to ensure security, stability and peace.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on March 13, 2019. Read more HERE.