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President Bush has beefed up resources to combat AIDS and malaria, and of course to help Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan and one or two other key countries, but the problem remains. If Adm. Mullen’s proposal was to allocate a somewhat greater share of overall national security funding to such “soft power” tools and then protect them too, with his overall floor for national security spending perhaps at 4.5 percent to 5 percent, his argument would be stronger, since these other areas of foreign policy really do need the help.

Even then, however, there is little reason to believe foreign policy should become in effect a federal entitlement, when resources for education, alternative energy, health care research, infrastructure improvement, and other key national priorities are not - and when their proponents have to slug it out with Congress every year to get the funding they need.

The better attitude toward defense spending has been offered by the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. Though no dove on the nation’s security, and no cheapskate when it comes to arguing for resources for defense (as well as diplomacy and aid), Mr. Gates put it well when he said recently that “resources are scarce - and yes, it is a sign I’ve already been at the Pentagon for too long to say that with a straight face when talking about a half-trillion-dollar base budget. Nonetheless, we still must set priorities and consider inescapable tradeoffs and opportunity costs.”

Now is not the time to cut the military; in fact, now is a good time to beef up diplomacy and foreign aid. An Obama administration should do so (even if at a smaller scale than originally planned). But nor is this the time to straitjacket ourselves about future policy choices.

The nation’s economic and demographic strength are as crucial to long-term national security as are the armed forces, and good fiscal management should begin from that premise.

Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.