Shadow Government

Democrats Face a Defense Spending Conundrum

The U.S. foreign-policy establishment shouldn’t balk at pledges to roll back national security commitments.

The stage for the first U.S. Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, on June 26,
The stage for the first U.S. Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, on June 26, Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday and Thursday, 20 of the two dozen contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination will converge on stage in Miami to make their case to the American people. As candidates navigate the political reality show, they will face two major pressures: to differentiate themselves from the crowd of fellow travelers and to align on virtuous moral stands that set them apart from the sitting president.

Foreign-policy and defense wonks tend to bemoan the lack of emphasis on their specialties during election season while panicking about the results these two priorities incentivize. Standing out in foreign policy and defense typically demands a bold step away from the safe, technocratic “Blob,” as Obama administration advisor Ben Rhodes called the Washington foreign-policy establishment. And aligning against Trump means pressing to reverse his policies cold turkey. Foreign-policy experts tend to get spooked by these approaches because they seem to ignore complicated nuances.

Black-and-white calls to end wars, blow up budgets, close detention centers, or sign idealistic agreements have routinely run into the brick walls of entrenched realities that stand in the way of election promises. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all campaigned on some variation of rolling back the tides of war, nation building, and intervention. Each entered into, stayed in, or expanded conflicts, and none achieved the defense budget savings or Defense Department reforms they’d sought and promised.

Candidates this week and throughout the campaign season will be tempted to outdo each other in calls to roll back national security commitments. Two such pledges are already circulating and drawing increasing attention. Seven candidates—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Beto O’Rourke, Mike Gravel, and Andrew Yang—have signed on to a pledge to “end the forever wars,” and a coalition of 22 progressive groups have put out a call to cut the defense budget by $200 billion annually. Both are likely come up on the debate stage over the next year. These pledges deserve serious attention from the candidates—because, not in spite, of past failures in keeping national security commitments made during elections.

The natural tendency of national security professionals is to condemn such commitments as naive or not strategic. They would prefer a 60-day review informed by military commanders and contributing allies before devising a redeployment plan for Afghanistan and Syria or to complete a congressionally mandated defense strategy ahead of a reprioritization of the defense budget.

But these textbook answers disregard the grief and frustration that drive absolutist election pledges—strong emotions that campaigns would be wise to hear. After many a strategy review, the United States has taken a succession of misbegotten paths in Afghanistan, losing nearly 3,000 service members and nearly as many U.S. contractors along the way. Today, the Pentagon and the president alike scarcely acknowledge that the conflict persists, refusing even to admit the number of Americans at risk on the ground. The United States has undertaken decades of bottom-up reviews, quadrennial reviews, efficiency reviews, defense transformations, comprehensive reviews, peace dividends, and congressional commissions on what experts routinely call the best-trained, best-equipped force in the world. Yet today, the country finds itself with a military using a historically high level of resources, certainly more than the last two administrations originally intended, but still falling short of the capabilities it requires. Successive administrations have found themselves hamstrung by political and structural commitments to legacy systems, unable to modernize the military to face future challenges, and still shaking off the self-imposed wringer of sequestration. Experienced politicians and technocrats call for deliberative, careful processes because these dynamics are so complicated, but despite or because of that, the United States continues to tread water.

Defense rollback and war-ending pledges open the door to a hard road rather than easy solutions or talking points. Candidates may pledge sincerely to cut the defense budget or withdraw U.S. forces from wars that lack objectives, for good reason. But a $550 billion defense budget is as easily misspent as a $750 billion one, and the definition of war has been watered down and manipulated to the point that military interventions go by other names, or no name at all. This is no reason to avoid pledging to spend less on the Defense Department or to avoid commitments to peace, but it does mean that candidates need to spend more time on the secondary questions that these pledges raise. What is the purpose of reducing the size of the military? Where might interventions be warranted? From a national security policy perspective, such commitments are merely a starting point.

But dodging questions on avoiding war or reducing defense spending by arguing that the situation is more complicated than sweeping promises make it out to be is just as bad as committing to such promises without fully thinking them through. Debate moderators will rightfully ask about U.S. defense commitments, and candidates owe the American people a sense of the personal responsibility they would take as commander in chief. After decades of Jekyll and Hyde defense budgets, almost 20 years of wars that no one wants to talk about, and two years of chaotic policy under Trump, candidates have to start the conversation and be willing to continue it, whatever their stance. They can pledge only to authorize military intervention as a last resort and with transparency of resources, risks, and objectives. They can promise to consider and account for the full costs of any intervention—immediate and long term, military and civilian. They can promise to pursue options beyond military intervention. They can commit to constrain U.S. objectives to ones that are politically and financially sustainable, to invest in the full range of tools necessary for success, and to withdraw responsibly when such are no longer possible. They can promise to develop a military that is suited to the strategic challenges it faces. And they can swear to treat failures responsibly, holding accountable those liable and changing course when necessary.

Candidates should acknowledge that defense policy is complicated—and that they are responsible for the complexities. Whether or not they commit to hard-line pledges on spending or war-making, they owe the American people a sense that they have considered the questions that such pledges only begin to address.

Loren DeJonge Schulman is the deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served in several senior staff positions at the National Security Council and Department of Defense. Twitter: @LorenRaeDeJ

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