The defense priorities of the United States government have undergone several stages of development since the start of the new millennium. Over the past few months, I undertook the task of surveying the strategic priorities of the United States as articulated by the Department of Defense and the United States Congress. In order to do so, I studied the three most recent Quadrennial Defense Review Reports (those published in 2001, 2006, and 2010) and examined the twelve most recent National Defense Authorization Acts of the U.S. House of Representatives (Fiscal Years 2001-2012).
As researchers and government observers know quite well, it is not uncommon for the Congress and the President of the United States to fundamentally disagree. A legislative body of 535 elected representatives of the people understandably behaves and prioritizes differently than does the nation’s chief executive authority. When I undertook my investigation of U.S. defense priorities, therefore, I expected to examine the respective evolutions of two very different sets of priorities.
What I found, however, was a remarkable level of agreement. While the DOD and the Congress focused their predominant attention on different areas, the overall strategic priorities of both organizations were closely in line with one another throughout the past twelve years. At the turn of the century, both Congress and the Department spoke of the need to modernize the U.S. Armed Forces and maintain a sufficient level of readiness to respond to unexpected future threats. After September 11, 2001, both organizations shifted their priorities to include offensive victory against al Qaeda and its supporters, as well as effective defense against future terrorist assaults against the territories, people, or interests of the United States. Both Congress and the Department of Defense acknowledged the need for interagency, intergovernmental, and international cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Congress, furthermore, had begun to push for defense acquisition reform by the middle of the decade, emphasizing the need for fiscal accountability while supporting the needs of the armed forces. The Department of Defense similarly undertook defense acquisition reform, and it dealt with the subject extensively in its most recent QDR Report. Congress and the DOD also agree on the appropriate defense strategy moving forward: continuing to deter and protect against terrorist and asymmetric attacks against our nation while ensuring the U.S. military has the full range of capabilities and flexibility to face future challenges.
The level of agreement between the two branches of government regarding defense priorities is remarkable in light of the discord which typically characterizes inter-branch relations in Washington. Additionally (and more amazingly), this agreement existed even during the years of spilt-party governance. In the area of overall U.S. defense strategy, the officials in Washington, D.C. seem to have stayed above the usual inter-party rivalries and inter-branch tensions. In this area, remarkably, there is agreement.