A year ago, the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified before Congress that the military was facing a readiness crisis. "What to do about it?" asked members of the armed services committees. The Joint Chiefs' predictable answer: more money. They cited astonishing figures, topping $150 billion over the next five years. Of course, this call ignored the spending targets the Defense Department had accepted just one year earlier in its Quadrennial Defense Review, which comported with the terms of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.

Some believed the chiefs were exaggerating the scope and intensity of readiness challenges in order to lay claim to ever-burgeoning projections of federal budget surpluses. Others perceived it as a way of exerting bureaucratic power with a president who was facing the ultimate political test: impeachment hearings before the House of Representatives.

But what surprised observers of the defense budget the most was the first priority the Joint Chiefs identified. It was not weapons modernization, which had been their number-one complaint the previous three years and for which Congress had added about $20 billion. It was not spare parts, the lack of which had forced equipment cannibalization. It was not the health care system, which many feel has devolved into a bureaucratic morass.

Rather, the Joint Chiefs top priority for remedying their described readiness crisis was increasing troops' pay and repealing the landmark 1986 military retirement reform act, commonly known as Redux. It was a moment reminiscent of the late 1970s, when the Joint Chiefs decried a hollow military and responded by raising pay a whopping 11.7 percent in 1980 and 14.3 percent in 1981.

As then, the chiefs shrewdly seized an issue that no one could argue against--showing appreciation for our overworked troops by giving them a raise--however disconnected it may be from the primary objective of improving military readiness.

They recited recruitment shortfalls, although much of this problem was subsequently alleviated by hiring more recruiters and adjusting the advertising budget. They highlighted declining reenlistment rates, particularly among pilots and computer specialists, who opted for high-paying jobs in the booming U.S. economy.

Analyses from the Congressional Budget Office, the General Accounting Office, Rand and the Center on Strategic and Budgetary Assessments showed that giving across-the-board pay raises and boosting retirement benefits were not cost-effective means of addressing these issues. This made sense: If a company has trouble attracting and keeping mid-career accountants, does it give everyone in the entire company a raise, or does it use such targeted tools as signing and end-of-the-year bonuses?

Caught flat-footed and preoccupied with the task of defending the president in a Senate trial, the Clinton administration bowed to the Joint Chiefs. As part of a $112 billion increase in the Pentagon's budget over the next six years, the president last February proposed raising base pay by 4.4 percent (roughly double the inflation rate), offering additional bonuses to reward performance instead of longevity and modifying Redux.

Not to be outdone, the Republican-controlled Congress upped the ante. After holding only scant hearings, it sent the president a bill (which he signed) increasing pay by 4.8 percent, giving even more generous bonuses for certain personnel and repealing Redux outright. It represents the failure of the civilian leadership in both the Pentagon and Congress to control the military's spending priorities.

A study by the Army Times points out that much of the additional pay increases will not benefit those who need it, including many enlisted personnel. A new GAO report sponsored by Republican Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) finds that while our troops believe their pay and retirement benefits are inadequate (who doesn't?), they are more concerned about travails in health care, inadequate spare parts, frequent and extended deployments that separate them from their families and a military leadership oblivious to their problems.

Unfortunately, the horse is already out of the barn. The taxpayer is stuck with a bill that will exceed $40 billion over the next 10 years. Readiness and these other issues still need to be addressed. Texas Gov. George W. Bush's September speech at the Citadel advocating even further pay raises does not bode well for refocusing our attention on these pressing matters.

If this military compensation episode represents our capacity to budget in an era of fiscal plenty, projections of surpluses are surely illusory. The security challenges facing our country--the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, state failures--require real changes in policies and programs. The Pentagon and Congress cannot afford imprudent measures that distract resources and attention from meeting those threats.

The writer is an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.