The Realist Prism: Politics, Strategy and U.S. Defense Budgets

The Realist Prism: Politics, Strategy and U.S. Defense Budgets

On Monday, during the final presidential debate, President Barack Obama proclaimed that his defense budgets were "driven by strategy. [They’re] not driven by politics."

In theory, Obama is correct. Defense budgeting is supposed to be a rational exercise that assesses threats and needs, and then fills in the gaps. As Sean Sullivan, a leading expert on defense resource allocation issues at the Naval War College, told me in a conversation on the subject, “Defense planning processes are specifically designed to use strategy as guidance for force programming and budget decisions, thereby linking the ends with the means.”

In practice, however, the process by which American strategy is developed is in itself a highly political process. Anyone who has read the various iterations of the National Security Strategy issued by both Democratic and Republican administrations over the past two decades -- including the 2010 version issued by the Obama administration (.pdf) -- cannot help but notice how these documents provide the various wings of the Defense Department with plenty of hooks to hang their budget requests on. Indeed, as Morton Halperin and his colleagues observed some 40 years ago, government bureaucracies often seek to generate influence by setting out priorities that are easily linked to the budgetary process.

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