Avoiding the Toughness Trap
The most urgent short-term goal of US policy should be to secure or eliminate nuclear bombs and bomb-making materials in Russia--where there are materials sufficient to build tens of thousands of nuclear weapons--and worldwide, where smaller quantities of bombs and bomb-making material might be seized by a terrorist group. Barack Obama has built up an admirable track record on this issue.
Negotiations to curb or roll back North Korea's nuclear program should continue, and saber-rattling toward Iran should be replaced by efforts to promote a grand political and security bargain. This would include ending military threats and economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for a pledge to limit its nuclear program to civilian purposes under a strict inspections regime. Some intelligence estimates put Iran's capability of building and deploying nuclear weapons at ten years or more in the future, a time frame that allows plenty of scope for negotiations, notwithstanding the recent tough talk from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The linchpin of efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons should be an initiative to implement sharp cuts in US and Russian arsenals, which together account for about 95 percent of all nuclear weapons worldwide. In this area Democratic candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards have staked out strong, forward-looking positions in line with the views of former officials such as Nixon/Ford Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz, Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sam Nunn, who have endorsed the goal of "a world free of nuclear weapons," to be achieved by "working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal." In keeping with this movement toward nuclear disarmament, the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration should abandon plans to research and build a new generation of nuclear warheads and eliminate plans to upgrade US bomb-making facilities under its Complex Transformation plan.
The second major thrust of a new security policy must address the stark misallocation of resources in this area, which is closely tied to the persistence of cold war strategies and weapons systems that have little relevance to today's security environment. Implementing a more comprehensive security policy entails using all the tools available--not just military force but diplomacy, intelligence, law enforcement, development assistance, environmental protection and forward-looking public health policies.
The top three Democratic candidates all endorse some version of this general framework. The difficulty arises when these candidates enunciate specific policies that are at odds with this perspective.
The most detailed proposal to date on how to engage in a shift in overall security spending is the Unified Security Budget (USB), the product of a task force organized by Foreign Policy in Focus and the Center for Defense Information (author's note: I was a member of the task force that produced the USB report). The most recent task force report calls for cutting $56 billion from the Pentagon budget by eliminating or scaling back spending on unnecessary programs like the F-22 combat aircraft, the Virginia class submarine, the V-22 Osprey, missile defense and nuclear weapons. The proposal then argues that $50 billion of these funds should be invested in peacekeeping, diplomacy, development of alternative energy sources, public health infrastructure and protection of chemical and nuclear plants. John Edwards has endorsed the concept of a USB, but it is not clear whether he would therefore move significant amounts of funding from the Pentagon to other security programs.
Even with the kinds of cuts outlined above, the United States will outspend its closest rival--China--by about five to one. Expenditures by actual or potential adversaries like Al Qaeda, the Iraq insurgency, Iran or North Korea barely register on the charts compared with the US military budget. Iran, the demon du jour, spends just above 1 percent of what the United States spends for military purposes.
But advocates of higher military budgets argue that US military spending should be measured not only against the spending of other countries but against the potential missions that the US military may be asked to carry out. A progressive defense policy needs to provide answers to the question of how traditional military threats should be addressed.