The Pentagon Shouldn’t Get a Pass

Today’s Politico includes an op ed that I co-authored with Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network. It was the first time that the two of us collaborated, and I was very pleased with the end result. Most of the clever turns of phrase are Heather’s including the title, “The Wrong Manhood Test.” And I’m grateful to Harrison Moar and Charles Zakaib for helping me on Monday to sift through the gargantuan defense budget, and pull out the relevant facts.

Heather and I don’t agree on everything. We faced off at Bloggingheads.tv several months ago to discuss my book, The Power Problem, and I’m sure that we’ll continue to spar from time to time in the future. But the bottom line from the op ed is this:

…because our national security rests on our economic health as well as on the strength of our military, a liberal and a libertarian can agree that the Pentagon should no longer get a pass. Congress must stop funding projects to satisfy parochial domestic interests. The Pentagon must stop buying weapons systems that are already outdated, unworkable or both. And the administration must carefully define our vital security interests, reshape our grand strategy to more equitably distribute the burdens of policing the globe and reduce the occasions when our military will be called on to fight.

There is more than enough blame to go around. Congress is already girding for battle over some pet projects singled out for elimination or cut backs, including the C-17 transport and the additional engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Pentagon continues to plan for contingency operations around the world, and assumes that the U.S. security umbrella will remain open over Europe and East Asia for the indefinite future. And the White House has signaled (they have yet to formally produce a national security strategy) that while it would like the allies to help out, it doesn’t want them to get too capable. (See, most recently, Secretary Clinton’s remarks re: European defense.)

The governing assumption, therefore, is that, as the just-released QDR explains,

America’s interests and role in the world require armed forces with unmatched capabilities and a willingness on the part of the nation to employ them in defense of our interests and the common good. 

The time for finger pointing over the Pentagon’s budget is over. If we can’t address the obvious inefficiencies and waste in military procurement, then when can we? If we can’t today envision a time in the future when other countries will play a larger role in their own defense, then will we ever? “If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on a budget of more than half a trillion dollars a year,” in Bob Gates’s immortal words, “then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.” (h/t Justin Logan)

Amen to that. So let’s stop defining our security by the number of ships and planes that we buy, and start thinking about ways to responsibly contain, and ultimately bring down, military spending.