The Cable

Conservative think tanks oppose Republican efforts to trim defense budget

As Republicans are increasingly looking to the Pentagon to trim costs, three leading conservative think tanks are forming an alliance to combat rising pressures to cut the defense budget, which totaled $663.8 billion this year.

The new project, called "Defending Defense," was launched Monday as a joint venture between the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), and the Heritage Foundation. The aim is to defend military funding and separate defense spending from the efforts to cut overall federal spending in light of the country's miserable fiscal situation.

"We should be vigilant against waste in every corner of the budget. But anyone seeking to restore our fiscal health should look at entitlements first, not across-the-board cuts aimed at our men and women in uniform," reads an op-ed in Monday's Wall Street Journal co-written by AEI President Arthur Brooks, Heritage President Edwin Feulner, and FPI Director Bill Kristol.

The conservative establishment sees a rising tide inside the Republican Party in favor of looking at the defense budget for savings. The Cable has reported on the struggle within the Tea Party on that very question, but even in "mainstream" Republican circles, the debate is heating up.

"It is definitely aimed at conservatives as well as liberals, particularly with the prospect of a Republican majority in at least one of the chambers of Congress in November," said AEI's Thomas Donnelly, who is heavily involved in the project.

He pointed to a range of Republicans who have publicly questioned the wisdom of ever-rising defense budgets, including the deficit commission's Alan Simpson, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul, and prospective GOP presidential candidate Mitch Daniels.

"Mitch Daniels is much more concerned about the balance sheet than about strategic priorities," Donnelly said about the former White House budget director who is rumored to be a potential Republican nominee in 2012. "In a narrow sense, our project is very much a discussion to remind conservatives what their core beliefs are."

FPI Executive Director Jamie Fly said the project will include fact sheets, briefing materials for officials and Hill staffers, as well as events in the near future. The group issued its first fact sheet, which argues that the huge increases in defense spending since 2001 aren't as significant as they appear -- and why further increases are necessary, despite rising domestic debt and deficit.

"By having several serious organizations raise awareness about this issue, we hope to send the message that the defense budget is not something that should be tinkered with even as some take a look at cutting overall federal spending," said Fly."In part it's to show a united front on defense to those involved in the debate, especially those who are concerned about runaway spending."

The three think tanks are not alone in their call for more defense spending. An independent high-level panel created to examine the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review concluded that defense spending must rise if the U.S. is to fulfill its worldwide security commitments.

Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates' drive to find $100 billion worth of savings in the next five years isn't about cutting the defense budget. Under Gates' plan, the military can keep what it catches, meaning if they find waste they can spend the savings on other things. Gates is arguing that overall defense spending levels shouldn't go down even after efficiencies are found.

Still, as Congress grapples with how to eventually construct next year's budget, there's no doubt that defense funding is on the table, as illustrated by the $2.1 billion cut in the defense budget the Senate Appropriations Committee proposed for fiscal 2011.

"Were the Republicans to win control of the House in November, there is no guarantee at all that they would grant Secretary Gates' wish to spare defense," wrote Gordon Adams, former head of national security spending at the White House during the Clinton administration.

Adams argues, in direct opposition to the conservative think tanks, that the way to square America's huge overseas commitments with the declining spending power of the U.S. government is to reevaluate what national security priorities Washington can actually afford.

"It is time for a more fundamental look at America's overseas engagement and role, for setting priorities among military missions that support our role, for parsing acceptable risk in setting those priorities, and for reducing the force, investments and budgets at DOD to fit the new design," he said.

The Cable

Shah: QDDR coming this month, for real this time

Now that the White House has released portions of its sweeping review of global development policy, the development community is looking hard for the State Department to follow suit and release its own comprehensive policy review, the first ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR).

The long delayed review was first planned for March, then April, and finally promised by the end of September. Now, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah says it will be out this month. "The Secretary said 30 to 60 days, but well inside 30 is my guess," Shah said in an exclusive interview with The Cable. "We had hoped to have it out by the end of September, but we'll have it out soon."

The Cable heard that near-complete drafts of the QDDR had been sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but were then sent back to the staffs for revisions due to some lingering disputes over how authorities were being divided up. Shah said that wasn't completely accurate, but that the individual working groups were now in the processing of revising their drafts, hopefully for the last time.

"We've sat down and we've made decisions across a range of issues, including how to elevate development, include some modern diplomacy aspects, including procurement and human resource reforms, and including how we do complex crisis response," Shah said. "It's back in the hands of those writing it up."

For USAID, the results of the QDDR are already pretty much understood and will codify what Clinton has often called the "elevation" of development as well as its "integration" with diplomacy at State and USAID.

Shah said the recent reforms at USAID, which include formalizing its new policy shop and its new budget bureaucracy, are parts of what the QDDR is set to announce.

"We've rebuilt our budget and policy groups, and having a strong, accountable, and responsible USAID is a major deliverable of the QDDR," Shah said. "For USAID, [the QDDR] is pretty consistent with the reforms we are already putting in practice."

USAID's development focus is on growth and good governance, prioritizing health and food investments where governments are taking ownership, doing things that support U.S. assistance efforts, and rebuilding its humanitarian assistance and complex crisis portfolios, Shah said.

Inside the State Department, however, there is less certainty about the repercussions of the QDDR with regard to organizational matters. For example, the office for the coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization (S/CRS) will continue to exist but will not be designated as the lead State Department agency for crisis response.

The tumult inside S/CRS is hard not to notice. The head of S/CRS, John Herbst, recently departed quietly to take a post over at the National Defense University, as first reported by Wired magazine last week. The office, which was created as a Bush administration initiative but never really given full funding support, has been slow to fulfill its mission to create a rapid reaction force of civilian experts who could be deployed abroad in a crisis.

On the State Department's website, S/CRS is called "the embodiment of Secretary Clinton's concept of smart power to enhance our nation's institutional capacity to respond to crises involving failing, failed, and post-conflict states and complex emergencies."

But despite National Security Presidential Directive 44, which directs the secretary of state to lead and coordinate government-wide reconstruction and stabilization efforts with the aid of S/CRS, we're told that the QDDR won't give the office that role.

"They decided as a government, when there's a crisis we're just going to keep winging it," one State Department source said.

According to our sources, the debate over S/CRS is one of a series of issues that has caused friction between the State Department, where Policy Planning Chief Anne Marie Slaughter has taken the lead on the QDDR, and the White House, which is led on development by the NSC's Gayle Smith.

The QDDR is a State Department process but still needs to be cleared through the interagency process, and Smith is said not to be satisfied with the level of involvement State is giving to other agencies as it finishes the review.

While Clinton is the ultimate decider when it comes to the QDDR, there are several instances where the White House has prevailed over State on overall development issues. For example, the White House included the establishment of a development policy committee outside of State in its review, something that has support on Capitol Hill but that the State Department had opposed.

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