02/05/2009 12:35 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Defense Budget '09: Still Fighting the Soviets, or Preventing Genocide?

Mumbai. Pirates. Civilian protection. This is what national security looks like today. What will happen with the defense budget in 2009 and beyond is a parlor game for DC wonks at the moment. Still, it is important for everyone who pays taxes to take note of any national security conversation--because it will determine the limits of change for the incoming administration. Keep in mind that the defense share of the federal budget is approximately 23% (that's when all entitlements are included) and approximately 54% of discretionary spending (that's the money available each year). These figures do not include war spending. And it does include plenty of permanent earmarks like missile defense and nuclear weapons -- that weigh us down in the past, looking for an enemy that disappeared last century. Further, there hasn't been a bona fide defense budget show down in Congress since the 1980s (former Armed Services Chair Ron Dellums convened ad-hoc reform hearings when he led the committee. That's how hard it is to be innovative in the regular congressional defense budget process).

America has not had a real security strategy since the end of "containment" and the Cold War in 1991. Soon, we must have a long overdue and unavoidable discussion among elected leaders that determines a new mission statement for our country. The gloves haven't come off, but they are being thrown down: by the defense industry, by Defense Secretary Gates and organizations left, center and right. Certainly, Obama's people are taking note of this alignment and who will either resist or welcome change. Is there a way to make sure Americans feel like they made the right choice in Commander in Chief but also pursue dramatic shifts in policy? And on Capitol Hill: will a dream coalition of fiscal conservatives and progressives redefine what it means to be strong on defense? Here's a look at the landscape:

Today, a great deal of consensus exists about the need for National Security Reform --specifically about the need to either reign in or reallocate the defense budget. Today, the nonpartisan Center for National Policy called for a two year strategic pause on new weapons spending. For a really strong draught of change, see the ideas of the dragon-slaying authors of America"s Defense Meltdown. Each chapter contains extensive criticism, along with many recommendations. The bottom line: it is our legislature's unwillingness to put our nation before selfish economic interests that makes our forces smaller, older and less ready to fight, all at dramatically increasing cost.

Last month, a Defense Advisory Board warned that weapons procurement spending is not sustainable. And, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- long an evangelist for boosting the capabilities of the other agencies, just wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs about preparing for new threats, pointing out the "baroque" weapons systems we continue to fund and stressing the need to rebalance civil-military responsibilities. "Balance" is pretty strong language for a Sec Def, mind you. So I'll just go ahead and say it bluntly: if Congress keeps funding our national security apparatus like it does today, we might as well just shoot ourselves and get it over with. We have to do something about our current situation. We're spending more and more on defense and purchasing less and less security for it.

Some other voices in the echo chamber:

The Cold War Nostalgia crowd: This coalition of pundits has even persuaded some in uniform to advocate a 4% of GDP "floor" for defense spending. The idea is just silly. The Defense Department can't even conduct an audit. It doesn't know how much of itself it has outsourced to private entities. It uses bad information to make decisions. The irony is that this 4% transfer payment is being shilled by the same folks at the conservative Heritage Foundation who hate entitlement spending. The whole idea reminds me of talking to my toddler and I ask "why" and he says "because." Because is not a strategy. Defense spending should be based on priorities, risk assessment, solid data, ends and means. Not a random percentage figure.

The set up: DoD has put forward that it will need $450 billion more over the next five years -- money that is not presently accounted for in the defense plan. In doing this, the DoD plugged in the third rail of public discourse on defense. It will make it harder for Obama to make any bold moves knowing that he'll get zapped. Congress will therefore need to take up the challenge, start the conversation and absorb the initial risks. Add to this the rationale of defense spending as a jobs program. Now that it has completely abandoned any desire to be strategically relevant some parts of the defense industry are pitching themselves just as jobs providers. What we actually might need is beside the point.

The Lefty Chorus: This crowd may be right on priorities, but its rhetoric still looks backward for inspiration. There is no more "guns vs. butter." The Army is building the schools for girls and fighting wars. Somehow Congress didn't have the all-important debate about who should do what in the 1990s, when the Army and Marines became the one-stop-shopping place for foreign policy. A much more effective strategy for the Left will be to make tradeoffs within the defense budget this year and not try to shift money around between domestic and defense spending. Take on missile defense and the F-22, but at the same time, stand up for military families, genocide prevention, body armor, Foreign Area Officers. Take on the imbalance in our policy that hands the military far too much responsibility. This is a great opportunity for the Left to gain much needed legitimacy in this debate. Don't blow the common ground that exists out there! Quit pitting the Air Force against the Department of Education. That argument doesn't work. It never has.

The military telling a new story: The military itself is moving away from high tech solutions and toward human-centered problem solving (counter-insurgency doctrine, civil support, cultural knowledge). How about those recent Navy ads on TV? They are full of humanitarian images. Indeed, the Navy refitted two assault ships last year into hospital ships (the USS Pelleau and the USS Kearsarge) --but this kind of progress will remain on the margins if there isn't a wholesale shift in strategy -- away from the focus on nation states and toward safety of people in general. Another great step forward, the Mass Atrocity Response Operations (MARO) Project -- is shared by the Army's Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute and Harvard. This project develops planning tools for responding to genocide and mass atrocity -- a move that should have the national genocide prevention crowd hollering with joy. Once an issue percolates into the planning process of the military, it has crossed a major threshold. Its' a big deal. But there's no guarantee Congress will pay attention. That will take action outside DC.

Breaking the very comforting link between defense spending and national security will be a huge psychological challenge for all of us. Yet national security is not just the military's responsibility. If we've learned anything generalizable from the soldiers and civilians coming back from Iraq, it is that most of today's threats don't have military solutions. Heck, even the New York Times uses defense spending and national security as synonyms. They are not. We have to fundamentally accept this, then new priorities will follow.