President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are to be commended for their recent proposal to keep the FY2015 Pentagon budget within the caps established in law. This exercise in reality-based budgeting is a refreshing change from the practice of the past few years, when both the administration and Congress have put forward budgets far in excess of the limits they themselves established, and then acted shocked when those proposals went nowhere. It's always better to plan for the funds you are likely to have than to spin fantasies about what you would do if you magically had more.
Unfortunately, there is a danger that the Obama plan will be one step forward, two steps back. It was accompanied by a number of troubling efforts to do an end run around the budget caps outside the confines of the Pentagon's regular budget. The first was the "Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative" which included a $26-billion wish list composed by the Pentagon and the military services. A number of key members of Congress have declared this fund dead on arrival because it depends on raising new revenues, something Republicans in Congress have stubbornly resisted for the past several years.
More troubling than the "growth" fund, because more real, is the administration's apparent plan to inflate the Afghan war budget -- known in Pentagon-ese as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO -- far beyond what is needed to wind down that conflict. This gambit has been used to shovel tens of billions of dollars into the Pentagon's coffers over the past decade -- money that had no connection to fighting the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, but was easier to get than increases in the Pentagon's base budget.
It should be born in mind that the Pentagon budget is slated to receive a healthy $500 billion-plus in inflation-adjusted dollars every year for the rest of this decade, more than enough to provide an effective defense. Even under the caps, the Pentagon's budget will settle in at a level that is more than the next 12 countries in the world combined, including four times what China is spending and eight times what Russia is spending.
The Pentagon isn't short of funds -- it's short on strategy. In particular, there is not enough understanding of the limits of military power, which is irrelevant to many of the most urgent threats we face, from climate change to epidemics of disease to the spread of nuclear weapons. The United States cannot go everywhere and fight every battle, and its military forces should not be measured against that standard.
There are promising signs that the Obama administration may be moving in the right direction by making the use of large-scale military force an option of last resort, an approach that is far preferable to the "shoot now, ask questions later" approach that guided the Bush administration in its decision to go to war in Iraq.
In the past year, the administration has resisted calls to intervene militarily in Syria; played a leading role in multi-party talks aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear program; and stood firm in the face of laments from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and others regarding the "tragic" lack of a "military option" in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea. As Fareed Zakaria has noted, the package of multilateral political measures and economic sanctions the Obama administration has helped pull together in response to Russia's moves in Ukraine far exceeds anything the Bush administration was willing or able to do during the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia.
On the budget front, the administration's decision to stop sizing U.S. forces for "prolonged stability operations" like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is another positive step. Taken to its logical conclusion, this decision warrants reducing the Army and Marines even further than they are scaled back in the president's latest budget proposal.
It is in this context of changing threats and shifting policies that the efforts to raid the Afghan war fund to pay for unrelated, pet projects of the Pentagon must be judged. By one estimate, the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget for FY2014 was at least $20 billion more than what was needed to pay for genuine war-related activities. In fact, Congress added over $5 billion to the administration's already bloated figure of $79 billion. The result was that contingency funding dropped by only 2 percent even as the number of troops deployed to Afghanistan dropped by 39 percent.
The war budget proposal that the Obama administration releases later this year could be even more padded than the current one. The Pentagon has put forward a "placeholder" of $79 billion in contingency funding, an astonishing figure if the United States in fact winds down its presence in Afghanistan this year, or even if it ends up leaving a residual force there.
One argument that will be made in favor of keeping contingency funding high will be the need to "reset the force" after years of war. But the dirty little secret is that much of this "reset" spending has been authorized along the way. A 2011 Stimson Center study demonstrated that the Pentagon has spent over $1 trillion on procurement since 2001. The Navy and Air Force have hit all of their targets for major modernization programs that they set out at the beginning of the 2000s, and the Army consists of thousands of new and/or newly upgraded vehicles, resulting in a "fully modernized force." So if there are to be "reset" funds, they should be narrowly targeted, not used to fund new schemes that have nothing to do with what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The administration's final OCO proposal should be closely scrutinized to make sure it is for purposes of winding down the Afghan war, and nothing else. A coalition of organizations that includes Win Without War, US Action, the National Priorities Project, Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Project on Government Oversight and Women's Action for New Directions is campaigning to end the abuse of the war budget to pay for unrelated expenses. Their efforts have included petitions, public education efforts, and engagement with key Congressional offices. Their efforts are well worth supporting, as the best way to discipline Pentagon spending. It's time to end the OCO slush fund.