Lost in the shuffle about competing budgets and the evaporation of sequester hysteria is the issue of defense spending. The left always wants to cut defense. The right, unfortunately, takes the generals and admirals too literally and always wants more for defense without ever getting rid of the fat, fraud, abuse and unnecessary spending. As to the latter, conservatives of all people should know that like any government bureaucracy the Pentagon has plenty of all of those.
So what to do? We could mindlessly cut spending, waiting for the next crisis when we’ll suddenly have to restore defense expenditures. We could vainly call for spending to derive from the QDR (Quadrennial Defense Review), which is supposed to analyze our threats and our needs, thereby providing justification for the Pentagon budget. And let’s be blunt, no one serious about defense has much confidence in our current secretary of defense to do this task.
Let me propose something different: A final, important task for our greatest living military leader, Gen. David Petraeus. He would conduct a top to bottom audit of the Pentagon, analyzing our unmet needs and recognizing long-overdue reforms. Not unlike the base closing commission (BRAC), he’d generate recommendations for an up or down vote by Congress. He’d present not simply a number (which would perpetuate the current problem of crafting defense spending to an artificial number rather than letting our needs guide budgeting) but structural reforms on everything from civilian personnel to military medical care to procurement. Even if Congress were to reject his findings, we’d at least know from a credible source where the problems are and what savings can be derived within the current budget that will not impact military readiness.
I can hear the howls already. The left would fear voting against the general’s findings if they tell us more spending is needed; the right would be wary of the entire exercise, which might reduce favored programs. But I see no other mechanism by which we would bring discipline and sanity to our defense budgeting. Hawks and doves have both proved to be unreliable and indiscriminate in their demands (either to cut or to increase). So, unless we are committed to wasting tax payer dollars and/or underfunding national security (both are possible) why not call Petraeus back for one more tour of duty? It might be his greatest contribution to his country yet.