05/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Progressive Defense Budget

Since coming to office Gates has discussed the need for the military to move in a dramatic new direction, but action had been limited - until now. The budget laid out by Gates gives a clear indication that the Obama administration is serious about finally shedding the legacy of the Cold War and building a military that is suitable for the 21st century. In fact, this budget closely resembles what many progressives have been calling for on defense over the last few years.

First, this budget represents a clear move toward a more balanced strategy and is a dramatic departure from the strategy of "transformation" that the Bush administration blindly pushed under the leadership of Secretary Rumsfeld. The U.S. military after the Cold War remained heavily focused on developing its conventional forces to fight a conflict with a modern enemy that did not exist. Following 9-11, The Rumsfeld Pentagon under the catch-phrase of "transformation" was given free rein to invest in the high-tech conventional capabilities that they thought would be crucial to modern warfare. They were wrong. One of the main lessons of Iraq was that even though our conventional military capabilities were so powerful that we could destroy an enemy regime rapidly and with few troops, this still did not ensure a peaceful or stable aftermath - in fact so few troops and so much firepower severed as a handicap. Therefore it makes little sense for the military not to prepare for stability and COIN operations. Since even if our forces are called upon to undertake a conventional fight, our forces will still likely have to engage in stability and COIN operations following any successful conventional operation. Investing more in stability and COIN is therefore about making the military more balanced so that our forces can engage in the entire spectrum of operations, not just conventional operations.

Second, this budget makes the hard choices that the Bush Pentagon didn't make. Under the Rumsfeld Pentagon almost no weapons systems were cut. This was the case even though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed a fatal blind spot in our military capabilities. This budget actually goes through and makes the hard choices and trade offs that needed to be made. For example, the Future Combat Systems, - the Army's modernization program - has been paired back dramatically. While FCS makes sense in principle, it has morphed into a monstrous program that has not been informed by the lessons of Iraq. The budget also does a lot of other good things, such as reining in government contracting and cutting back a missile defense program that has little utility.

Third, conventional programs are NOT being neglected. Conservatives will criticize the cuts in the big weapons programs, as evidence that Obama is "weak on defense." But this budget has not come with cuts in overall defense spending. Base spending on defense this year rose by more than $20 billion. What Gates and Obama are doing is shifting money away from needless programs that are either outdated, redundant, or simply not cost effective (i.e. the F-22). The budget instead increases investments in a number of conventional weapons program such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Let's be clear: the vast bulk of defense spending will remain focused on conventional priorities. And that amount of spending is massive.

Fourth, this budget is not overly focused on the "last war," There have been criticisms from conservatives (and some progressives) that this budget excessively embraces and institutionalizes the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. Conservatives, like Kori Schake, who was an adviser on the McCain campaign, insist that this budget has gone too far in that direction:

Gates's emphasis on institutionalizing counterinsurgency sounds remarkably like fighting the last war, and too little effort has been directed toward redressing those vulnerabilities in U.S. military power most likely to produce losses in future wars. The United States is already reasonably good at counterinsurgency, as a result of the Iraq war, and the equipment has adapted relatively quickly despite a balky Pentagon bureaucracy...Rumsfeld denigrated the human element of warfare to focus on high-tech innovation. His successor is about to make the reverse mistake.

There are a number of problems with this. First, we are still fighting both these wars. This budget is not focused on the "last war" it is focused on the current wars. It would seem wise to maintain a focus on the wars we are actually fighting, especially since there is a possibility we may be fighting them a while. Conservatives like Schake are the ones focusing on the "last war" - namely the "Cold War." Second, Schake assumes we have figured out COIN. We have not and there are a number of capabilities that we need to improve upon. Third, this budget does not denigrate "high tech innovation," it simply does not view building high tech systems as a panacea or that these systems are worth building no matter what the cost. Finally, we are still building the weapons systems needed to maintain conventional dominance, believing otherwise is foolish.

It is worth noting that some progressives also share this fear - that by investing in COIN capabilities, we will be more inclined to engage in COIN operations in the future. This is a legitimate fear but I think it is misplaced. The military's job is to be prepared as possible for future contingencies and to improve its capabilities. This does not mean that we should be engaging in continuous COIN operations around the world - these operations are exceptionally challenging and have a very low success rate. But it is the job of political leaders to make these decisions, not the military.

This budget is an effort to move the military in a new direction that is more focused both on the wars that we are in and on the irregular contingencies that we will likely face in the future. In doing so it is a dramatically positive step in creating a more balanced force.