Shadow Government

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The State of the Union and the Pentagon’s influence: tips for Obama

All senior agency heads in the U.S. government, as well as second, third, and fourth tier officials, try their hardest to inject at least a sentence into the State of the Union address. It is the shortcut for ensuring that their pet policy initiatives at least see the light of day, even if they are ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

All senior agency heads in the U.S. government, as well as second, third, and fourth tier officials, try their hardest to inject at least a sentence into the State of the Union address. It is the shortcut for ensuring that their pet policy initiatives at least see the light of day, even if they are not brought to fruition. This year's address will be no different, and for those concerned about national security, what the president says, and what he does not say, will be of the utmost importance.

As senior DoD leaders are already pointing out, the upcoming fiscal year, FY 2012, marks an inflection point in defense spending. There have four such points since World War II: those after that war, Korea and Vietnam, marked the end of major conflict. The fourth, like the one anticipated for the next fiscal year, was the product of domestic economic pressures and growing deficits. How far the defense budget ultimately declines will very much depend on not only the budget levels predicted for FY 12, but for the following five years as well. The president should be cautious about specific budget targets beyond the upcoming fiscal year; a signal of further anticipated declines could send misleading signals to the United States' adversaries about the degree of her determination to confront them at any future time.

The president should, on the other hand, throw his weight behind key DoD initiatives, notably Tricare reform. Secretary of Defense Gates has made the strongest case for increasing Tricare charges; the president should back him up, and do so forcefully.

All senior agency heads in the U.S. government, as well as second, third, and fourth tier officials, try their hardest to inject at least a sentence into the State of the Union address. It is the shortcut for ensuring that their pet policy initiatives at least see the light of day, even if they are not brought to fruition. This year’s address will be no different, and for those concerned about national security, what the president says, and what he does not say, will be of the utmost importance.

As senior DoD leaders are already pointing out, the upcoming fiscal year, FY 2012, marks an inflection point in defense spending. There have four such points since World War II: those after that war, Korea and Vietnam, marked the end of major conflict. The fourth, like the one anticipated for the next fiscal year, was the product of domestic economic pressures and growing deficits. How far the defense budget ultimately declines will very much depend on not only the budget levels predicted for FY 12, but for the following five years as well. The president should be cautious about specific budget targets beyond the upcoming fiscal year; a signal of further anticipated declines could send misleading signals to the United States’ adversaries about the degree of her determination to confront them at any future time.

The president should, on the other hand, throw his weight behind key DoD initiatives, notably Tricare reform. Secretary of Defense Gates has made the strongest case for increasing Tricare charges; the president should back him up, and do so forcefully.

The president should clarify how he views the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The signals remain mixed. There is worldwide confusion over what is meant by withdrawal of forces later this year, what is planned for 2014, what the U.S. posture in Afghanistan will be subsequent to that date. At the same time the president should make it clear that the United States will continue to acquire forces that will enable it to meet any adversary, anywhere. The message to Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela and others of their ilk should be unambiguous. 

The president should also make it clear that the United States will maintain its robust forward presence, and that budget cuts will not affect that presence at all. Anything less will send the wrong message to China, and particularly to those of its hawks who keep reiterating that the United States is a declining power.

Finally, the president should propose a new structure for addressing contingencies that would render "whole-of-government" more than a mere catchphrase. Secretaries Gates and Clinton have already made this case to Congress; the president should support them forcefully and unambiguously.

The United States is still in the midst of a difficult economic crisis. It is one that worries friends and that adversaries hope to exploit. A strong presidential message that whatever the United States’ current difficulties, it is determined to maintain its leading place in the global security community, and that it is willing to expend precious resources to do so, would be one that will be welcomed by the vast majority of his Capitol Hill audience, and by the country he leads.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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