This completes our series on the initial defense plans of the major presidential contenders for the 2016 election. Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies will keep his eye on Clinton and Trump’s campaign as we get more details (presuming we do) and analyze them. Read on. The Editor
Hillary Clinton really, really, really wants to be president. She has been working on it for most of the 21st century. As a result, she is well informed on the issues, cautious in what she says, and carefully positioned to the right of Bernie Sanders but to the left of the Republicans. She is the opposite of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who, at least until recently, seemed to say whatever came into his head and is ungoverned by polls or by what others say about him.
As befits a frontrunner who worries more about making errors than about creating excitement, Clinton’s defense program is long on rhetoric and short on specifics. From her speeches and website we can divine that she would continue the major programs of the Obama administration, take a tougher stance on foreign policy, fund a defense topline pretty close to what we have today, but continue to use parts of the defense program for domestic purposes.
Clinton’s campaign papers and utterances indicate she will be conventionally strong on defense and wants to signal continuity:
- “securing the homeland”
- “defeating ISIS”
- “holding China accountable”
- “standing up to Putin”
- “strengthening alliances”
- maintaining the all volunteer force
- supporting Israel.
Some elements of her campaign would fit comfortably in a Republican platform: “As president, she’ll ensure the United States maintains the best trained, best equipped, and strongest military the world has ever known.” There are, however, few specifics behind these policy statements. So when she says she will stand up to Putin, does that mean expanding the Obama administration’s initiatives in Europe (called the European Reassurance Initiative)? If so, how? The details matter.
As has been discussed extensively elsewhere, Clinton has signaled a tougher foreign policy than the Obama administration’s. For example, she would “sustain a robust military presence in the Middle East”, initiate “an intelligence surge”, and be more willing to use military force. Gates and Panetta, in their respective autobiographies, report that she was more willing to use force in Syria and Libya than Obama.
Clinton has not taken a position on the size of the defense budget other than to say there should be a debate. However, her tough rhetoric and her support of many current policies imply a defense budget at least as large as the Obama administration has proposed: that is, above the level prescribed by the Budget Control Act, although below what some Republicans have proposed. That’s reassuring to the national security community. The problem is that such funding may not be enough. Many commentators have argued that fully funding the Obama strategy of facing challenges from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and terrorism/ISIS requires substantially more forces and money than the Obama administration has planned.
However, the many expansions of domestic programs that Clinton has proposed (for example, college tuition, energy, early childhood education, health care, education, etc., etc.) and budget deficits that will increase in the future just to fund existing programs will put a limit on what she can spend on defense. So the strategy-resources gap in national security will likely continue.
One piece of good news for the Pentagon is that war funding, the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, will likely continue. As my colleague Todd Harrison has noted, DoD is counting on those funds in the future. The Obama administration has clearly hoped to extricate itself from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, although recent events have left it frustrated. The end of those conflicts might have implied the end of war funding. Clinton’s tougher rhetoric and greater willingness to use force clearly imply a continuing need for war funding.
Clinton signals that she will continue to use the defense budget to fund domestic initiatives. For example, she states that, “climate change is not just a moral and economic issue, it is a defining national security challenge of our time.” Similarly, she identifies infectious diseases and cyber as national security threats. When problems are defined as national security threats, that often means that initiatives to counter them will be funded out of the Department of Defense, irrespective of conventional practices. Therefore, one would expect to see more initiatives like the Obama administration’s creation of a bio-diesel industry in part in the Department of Defense.
The military regards such initiatives as diversions of defense funds to domestic purposes, but they have a long history, especially for domestically-focused Democratic administrations. Bill Clinton’s administration, for example, gave a major chunk of funding to the auto companies for advanced automotive technology to help them compete globally. The Defense Department is also the major government funder of breast cancer research, despite the fact that its military personnel are 84 percent male. That happened because in 1992 Senators Harkin and D’Amato needed deep pockets to fund their breast-cancer initiative and so created an earmark in DOD where the program has been ever since. In an environment of budget caps, where new domestic spending would have to be offset by cuts to existing domestic programs, it is tempting to use DOD money instead.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the general nature of her statements, Clinton calls for a high level commission to make the tough decisions. That’s a powerful way of acknowledging challenges but avoiding potentially controversial specifics. Unclear, however, is how such a commission would work in conjunction with the existing strategic reviews. DOD is already required to conduct a strategic review (formerly, the “Quadrennial Defense Review”, now the “Defense Strategy Review”). Also required by the same statute is a “National Defense Panel”, an independent assessment of strategy and programs by an appointed group of outside experts. So as practical policy another review may be problematic, but as a way to defer discussing specific policies, it works.
The conventional wisdom has been that Clinton would need to provide specifics later in the campaign, particularly as she moved into the general election. With Trump now the apparent Republican nominee, that may no longer be true. Trump has provided even fewer specifics than Clinton. His wildly erratic comments during the primaries have not laid the groundwork for detailed policy positions.
His recent speech on national security policy attempted to begin that process—he even used a teleprompter to read a prepared text—,but what he has provided so far, although more disciplined than his earlier statements, is still very general. So unless Trump radically changes his approach and becomes much more specific, there will be little pressure on Clinton to provide a detailed glimpse of her defense policies or funding.