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Spending Toward Strategic Overreach

The pathologies of the next military budget

Words: Jordan Cohen, Eric Gomez, and Brandon Valeriano
Pictures: Our Life in Pixels

The opportunity for strategic change in US foreign policy following the Trump administration and the end of the twenty-year war in Afghanistan marched headfirst into the wall that is the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Congress sets the stage for a continuation of the strategic pathologies that have plagued the United States since 9/11 including a foreign policy dependent on military force that predicts threats everywhere.

The annual authorization bill, which greenlights $768 billion in defense spending, demonstrates a total disregard of defense prioritization and a misreading of the real threats to US security and prosperity. The challenges of climate change, a still raging pandemic, and the rot of bureaucratic processes require immediate attention. There is a need to move beyond the politics of the moment that feeds into gross overspending on defense.

The end of the military mission in Afghanistan was an opportunity to rethink defense spending, narrow the list of threats that the military is expected to defend against, and bring defense budgets under control to properly fund other tools of US engagement. The FY22 NDAA’s most notable feature is an authorization of $25 billion over the Biden Administration’s initial request. Throwing money at the already bloated military will not make the US safer and instead pushes away difficult questions about strategic prioritization that are long overdue.

To be sure, the story of the FY22 NDAA is not entirely negative. The legislation includes some measures to restrain US arms sales and establishes a commission to investigate the failures of the war in Afghanistan. Moreover, the FY22 NDAA does away with the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, which Congress repeatedly used to get around spending caps created by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Unfortunately, the end of OCO, which was nominally a funding mechanism to support active military operations, has not led to a reduction in defense spending. It was clear that OCO had to go, but overall defense spending is still set to increase.

Like a massive game of international Jenga, the FY22 NDAA only rearranges the tilting game pieces away from Afghanistan and Iraq but toward China, Ukraine, and Yemen, inching the entire system closer to collapse.

Sadly, the positive aspects of the FY22 NDAA pale in comparison to the problems associated with US defense spending and strategy. The United States is still wedded to maintaining military overmatch in all areas around the globe and trying to do too much with its military without a clear theory of victory. This is a recipe for ever-higher levels of defense spending that keep failing to achieve national objectives because the military has an impossibly high bar to clear.

The main problem with the NDAA is its position on military spending. Congress continued to steadily increase military spending despite the Biden administration’s lower requests. Unless legislators engage in serious strategic self-reflection, future NDAAs will continue to authorize funding to compete against every possible threat, real and imagined without clear priorities. A time of domestic challenge and relative international peace should offer a prime opportunity for the United States to shorten its list of threats. Yet the recent global force posture review indicates that continued refusal to make difficult choices is more likely.

The prime reason why the FY22 NDAA continues to exhibit an exorbitant budget is the growing threat perceptions of Russia and China. For example, the FY22 NDAA includes spending over $10 billion in total on the European ($4 billion) and Pacific ($7.1 billion) Deterrence Initiatives, directing the Defense Department to write reports on Chinese technology development, and providing $300 million in military aid to Ukraine. Since the Biden administration has yet to articulate an alternative vision, Congress is still working off the Trump administration’s strategy that prioritizes the ability to simultaneously tackle both fronts. It should come as no surprise then that the FY22 NDAA has a grab bag of initiatives aimed at countering Russia and China with little clear sense of what the United States is trying to stop or prevent. Without a clearer strategic vision from the White House, the NDAA will continue to advance short-term posturing rather than long-term strategy.

The FY22 NDAA also continues US involvement in peripheral conflicts that are damaging to US image and interests such as the Saudi war in Yemen. An amendment introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) in an earlier version of the bill passed by the House in October that would have ended American support for the Saudi war effort did not make it into the final NDAA. Continuing US support in a conflict that has seen widespread civilian targeted by the Saudis demonstrates Congress’ desire to keep the United States mired in Middle East conflicts.

Like a massive game of international Jenga, the FY22 NDAA only rearranges the tilting game pieces away from Afghanistan and Iraq but toward China, Ukraine, and Yemen, inching the entire system closer to collapse. Reconsidering US global military commitments and moving toward a strategy based on restraint instead of primacy is the best way to avoid disaster. The United States must use the strategic transition brought about by the end of the war in Afghanistan to rethink the ends of US military strategy and the budgetary means of accomplishing our goal.

Jordan Cohen is a policy analyst, Eric Gomez is the director of defense policy studies, and Brandon Valeriano is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

Jordan Cohen, Eric Gomez, and Brandon Valeriano

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