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The Obama Strategy in Black and White

The first year of a new presidency is a time a of confirmation hearings, strategy meetings, introductions and overarching policy statements. Particularly in the realm of defense and foreign affairs, it is only by the end of year one in an administration that key people are in place, priorities are establised and the political parameters within with the President must operate are made clear. As 2009 comes to an end, we will soon be able to see in concrete terms what the Obama administration will be tackling in the next three years.

A key element of this whole process is the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a congressionally-mandated policy process that was authorized in 1997, which was originally designed to plan the revamp of the U.S. military following the end of the Cold War. The QDR has been done three times so far — 1997, 2001 and 2006 — and is a major chance for the Obama Administration through Secretary Gates to make important adjustments to the way Defense policy, procurement and planning is done.

Parallel to the Pentagon’s QDR, Secretary of State Clinton has mandated that a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) be performed within the State Department. This review, something new from this Adminstration, has had several false starts, as the QDDR mandate falls partially within the realm of the State Department and partially within USAID (the US Agency for International Development)– an oestensibly independent agency.

Finally, a Quadrennial Homeland Security review, also modelled on the QDR approach, will be delivered to Congress on 31 December of this year, similarly setting priorities, naming major risks and detailing what the Obama Administration and Secretary Napolitano will be up to at DHS.

The QDR from the Department of Defense and the QDDR from the Department of State will follow in early 2010, likely before the 20 January one-year mark of the adminstration.

A few key take-aways:

1. All reviews are taking an “integrated approach”: The agencies have long understood that diplomacy, development, military affairs and national security are heavily interlinked issues, requiring a interlinked approach.

However, particularly in the Defense Department, there has often been a more insular and fragmented strategy (as seen by the alienation between State, USAID and Defense in the Bush Administration). The fact that the QDR includes major segments on diplomacy, development and other issues is quite meaningful. “The Pentagon learns its own lessons through the execution of the missions it is receives from the White House,” said a senior career intelligence official I spoke to. “This is an overt acknowledgement by the US Military that a military-only strategy does not work in areas of U.S. strategy interest, including Iraq and Afghanistan.”

2. Obama and Co. will have to put their cards on the table: The Obama adminstration has talked about reform in procurement and budgeting in the Defense Department, cutting waste and lowering the influence of special interests in the sector. The recent ban on lobbyists from advisory committees across Federal agencies was his first big move in this regard. However, it is when the allocation of big defense and development contracts comes into play when we will see how far reforms will go.

3. All politics is local: At the end of the day, Defense appropriations are part of the Congressional mandate. Often, defense spending — worth hundreds of billions a year — is viewed by congress(wo)men and senators not in terms of overall coherance, efficacy or appropriateness, but instead by dollar value to their home district or state. Pet constituencies are of particular concern. In an election year, with many endangered Democrats in the majority, local considerations quickly trump national interests.

All told, these three documents will give us an important glance into the next three years in terms of strategy, reform, the relationship between agencies and the relationship with Congress. After a bruising health care battle and climate change legislation looming, how much political capital will the Obama administration be willing to spend on defense reform and refocus, especially given the unpopularity of the Afghanistan and Iraq engagements? In addition, how well will Obama be able to bridge the divides between defense, diplomacy and development in practical and political terms? We will look deeper into both questions from the political and operation lens in 2010 here at FiveThirtyEight.

—Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at sexton538@gmail.com

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