November 03, 2010

Defense Policy and the New Congress: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss (Updated)

I wrote earlier that this blog is not the go-to place for analysis on what last night's election results mean for defense policy, but it then occurred to me that my office is right next to that of Richard Fontaine, who until last year served as Sen. John McCain's principal advisor on defense and foreign policy issues. I walked approximately two meters from my desk and asked Rich what we should expect from the new Congress. His response:

My take on what the Republican takeover of the House means for U.S. defense policy: not a dramatic shift. Secretary Gates has pushed for real increases in the defense budget throughout the Obama years, and while he is not the sole determiner of that budget within the administration (see OMB, among others), you can expect him to work with Republicans in the House to build support for it. Some of the Republican leadership will support defense expenditures above the president’s request; incoming House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon said this morning that “one percent real growth in the base defense budget over the next five years is a net reduction for modernization efforts which are critical to protecting our nation’s homeland.” That’s not the only part of the budget story, however, as the wave of new Republicans includes a number of fiscal conservatives who will push for across the board cuts, including in defense. Look for a fight on that front, which I’d expect the Republican leadership to win. You’ll probably also see the Republicans push for full – or greater – funding of some of their key priorities, such as missile defense.


The Republican majority will support keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but this can’t really be a determining factor. I’ve read news articles asserting that Republicans will “pressure” Obama not to withdraw troops. That may be, but there is no way they can force the President to keep troops in the field if he wants to withdraw them. During the debate over withdrawal from Iraq, the Democratic majority in the Congress couldn’t force President Bush to withdraw troops, which is easier to do as a legislative matter.


Finally, I’d note that there is an issue still on the table before the new Congress is seated. The National Defense Authorization Act has passed the Congress every year for more than four decades. It has run aground this year and whether it passes between now and December 31 is uncertain, to say the least.


Look for greater implications in other foreign policy spheres: trade, development assistance, etc. But not for great drama on the defense front.

Rich made me promise that I would not use "No Drama, Obama" as the title of this post. Too obvious, he felt.

Update: Rep. McKeon released a pretty unsurprising statement today with which I have only one big gripe. Rep. McKeon says he wants a defense budget "not weighed down by the current majority’s social agenda items." That's a pretty obvious dig at the administration's attempt to end the ban on gays in the military. But if Rep. McKeon supports the current Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, he should say so in less coded terms. Because the current policy also reflects a social agenda (in this case, a social agenda now out of step with the American people). In fact, everything about the defense budget reflects a social agenda: what kind of military we have and how we fund it says a lot about Americans as a society -- our norms, our values, our priorities.