The Cable

Defense budget reformers strike back

Following last week’s launch of a conservative think-tank effort to argue for increased defense spending, now a non-partisan think tank has joined the grand debate over national defense budgets, taking the opposing side of the argument. The Stimson Center, a non-profit, non-partisan research center, expanded its web presence on Tuesday. As part of its "Budgeting ...

Following last week’s launch of a conservative think-tank effort to argue for increased defense spending, now a non-partisan think tank has joined the grand debate over national defense budgets, taking the opposing side of the argument.

The Stimson Center, a non-profit, non-partisan research center, expanded its web presence on Tuesday. As part of its "Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense" project, Stimson launched a new blog called The Will and the Wallet, which will address how to reconcile U.S. national security with the country’s horrid fiscal and budgetary situation.

"The Will and the Wallet is part of the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense project’s mission to offer pragmatic options for strengthening the institutions of civilian foreign policy and disciplining those of defense," Stimson said in a press release. "This perspective comes at a critical time, as concerns about the federal debt are growing and as policymakers begin to consider U.S. national security priorities after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

The project and the blog are led by Gordon Adams, a professor at American University’s School of International Service who served as head of national security spending at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget during Bill Clinton’s administration. His work at Stimson isn’t limited to this one issue,  but his views on the future of defense spending are clear.

"Now is the time to change direction and focus carefully on setting priorities to discipline defense plans and budgets," Adams told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on July 20. "Congress and the administration can no longer ignore the reality that Americans have neither the will nor the wallet for unprecedented spending that does not set priorities for our statecraft."

The Stimson effort stands opposed to another new joint think-tank effort launched last week by the Foreign Policy Initiative, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, called "Defending Defense." That initiative, which will hold its first event in Washington next week, seeks to make the intellectual arguments for more robust defense budgets despite the nation’s financial difficulties.

"By having several serious organizations raise awareness about this issue, we hope to send the message that the defense budget is not something that should be tinkered with even as some take a look at cutting overall federal spending," said FPI’s executive director Jamie Fly.

Those more closely aligned with Stimson’s side of the debate see the new effort on the conservative side as an indication that pressure is mounting to reduce the defense budget.

"For the last two weeks, the advocates of higher defense spending have shown their nervousness that the times may be changing — that the defense budget may go south after the elections," said Winslow Wheeler, head of the Strauss Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, who agrees with Adams that efficiency is what’s needed, not more money.

"Slaves to the thinking they condemn in others, that more money means more defense, they ignore what has been happening in the Pentagon’s budget: as we spend more, we become weaker," he said. The Obama administration requested a total of $708 billion for defense in fiscal 2011, including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2001, the total cost of the defense budget was $316 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

(Your humble Cable guy, as a dispassionate chronicler of world events, is non-aligned in this debate, but will be speaking at the launch event for the Stimson Center website on Friday, Oct. 15, along with the New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons, NPR’s Tom Gjelten, and Politico’s Jen DiMascio.)

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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