It’s May 28, and the Biden administration is scheduled to release more details about its spending requests to Congress. Foremost among the list of items is the defense budget, which is set to compose roughly 50 percent of the U.S. government’s discretionary spending in fiscal 2022. President Joe Biden’s $753 billion defense spending request, including $715 billion for the Pentagon, represents a nearly 1.7 percent increase from the previous year. Senior Defense Department officials have made it clear that a large portion of the defense budget will be devoted to great power competition, principally on countering China’s growing military capabilities.
Like most defense budgets at the time of release, the White House is sure to receive a significant amount of pushback from lawmakers who believe a 1.7 percent hike is too small. Others, including dozens of progressives in the House, oppose the budget request due to its overzealous size and are advocating for a $50 billion decrease. But as important as these concerns are, the debate over the U.S. defense budget is not simply a battle over dollars and cents. Focusing exclusively on the numbers to the exclusion of strategy is akin to missing the forest for the trees.
Budget season is the perfect opportunity for the stakeholders in Washington to review U.S. grand strategy as a whole — what the United States seeks to achieve, which missions it should eliminate or pass onto allies and partners, and whether the U.S. force posture as it now exists is actually serving core U.S. security interests.
According to the Pentagon’s own statistics, over 226,000 U.S. service members are stationed in dozens of countries around the world performing a litany of tasks, from active combat to training programs, surveillance missions and other forms of host-nation support. U.S. military personnel are spread out over as many as 800 base sites around the world. The Overseas Base and Realignment Closure Coalition estimates that 80-90 percent of the world’s total foreign military bases are U.S.-owned and operated. None of this begins to account for the constant rotation of warships, vessels and aircraft carriers the U.S. Navy operates on a daily basis, some of which have been at sea for such a long period of time that maintenance and repair are desperately required.
Some of this overstretch can be explained by the usual wear and tear of overseas deployments. A good portion of the problem, however, is more systemic: the ingrained tendency in U.S. policy circles to do as much as possible for as long as possible, in as many locations as possible. Despite a budding movement toward realism and restraint in Washington, U.S. foreign policy is still very much dominated by a reflexive activism, where wading into overseas disputes regardless of their strategic significance is seen as an example of U.S. global leadership.
However, what is often dubbed leadership is in reality a shorthand justification to saddle the U.S. military with missions that are duplicative, expensive and entirely tertiary to core U.S. national security interests. Whether it’s a perpetual training and advising mission in Iraq, maintaining a questionable force presence in northeastern Syria, adding more U.S. troops to the already bloated U.S. military posture in Germany or wearing out the U.S. Navy with symbolic freedom of navigation operations, U.S. policymakers are forcing the U.S. military to expend precious resources that could otherwise be conserved for major contingencies in the future.
The U.S. military, to put it bluntly, is doing too much when it should be reassessing its current roster of obligations, preserving limited resources, and ensuring Washington doesn’t get embroiled in the local civil wars and disputes that trap U.S. soldiers into indefinite deployments and permanent security commitments.
As it relates to the U.S. defense budget, Washington has two fundamental choices: It can go down the usual road and replay the same game, where stakeholders in the White House, Congress and the Pentagon battle over how many F-35s should be purchased or how much taxpayer money should be invested in this or that service component. Or it can do what hasn’t been done since the Cold War ended — take a good, hard, honest look at whether U.S. grand strategy is being overwhelmed by tasks that either have a marginal return or have in fact ended.
That means recognizing when U.S. counterterrorism objectives have been accomplished; cutting the cord on training missions in Iraq, Syria and Africa that are circuitous and don’t have an end date; downgrading the U.S. force posture in the Middle East; and incentivizing a wealthy Europe to take primary responsibility for its own defense. The U.S. should also elevate diplomacy as the core tool of foreign policy again and become more pragmatic in terms of when Washington engages its competitors and adversaries.
Ideally, strategy guides budgets. No amount of defense dollars can compensate for a faulty U.S. strategy.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.