The United States’ defense budget is out of control, lacking strategic coherence, utterly mismanaged, ruinously wasteful and yet eternally expanding. Last year, after a quarter-century of resisting, the Pentagon finally subjected itself to an audit — which, in true Pentagon style, cost more than $400 million. Most of its agencies — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps — failed. “We never expected to pass,” admitted then- Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has identified $15.5 billion of waste. But that is after reviewing only $53 billion of the $126 billion appropriated for Afghanistan reconstruction through 2017. He wrote in a 2018 letter, “[We] have likely uncovered only a portion of the total waste, fraud, abuse, and failed efforts.”
Outside war zones, there are the usual examples of $14,000 toilet-seat lids, $1,280 cups (yes, cups) and $4.6 million for crab and lobster meals. Remember when then- Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted that the Pentagon had about as many people in military bands as the State Department had active Foreign Service officers? Well, it’s still true today.
President Trump says he is a savvy businessman. Yet his attitude toward the Pentagon is that of an indulgent parent. “We love and need our Military and gave them everything — and more,” he tweeted last year. Far from bringing rationality to defense spending, he has simply opened the piggy bank while trying to slash spending on almost every other government agency. The Pentagon is the most fiscally irresponsible government agency, but the Republicans’ response has been to simply give it more.
The much deeper danger, however, is spotlighted by Jessica Tuchman Mathews in a superb essay in the New York Review of Books. Mathews points out that we tend to think about the defense budget as a percentage of the country’s gross domestic product, which is fundamentally erroneous. The defense budget should be related to the threats the country faces, not the size of its economy. If a country’s GDP grows by 30 percent, she writes, it “has no reason to spend 30 percent more on its military. To the contrary, unless threats worsen, you would expect that, over time, defense spending as a percentage of a growing economy should decline.”
The United States faces a world in flux, to be certain, but surely not a more dangerous world than during the Cold War. The United States now spends more than the next 10 highest-spending countries put together, six of which are close allies — Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. And the real threats of the future — cyberwar, space attacks — require different strategies and spending. Yet Washington keeps spending billions on aircraft carriers and tanks.
There are even more fundamental questions about the structure of the Pentagon. Why do we have an Air Force if the Army, Navy and Marine Corps all have their own air forces? Why does each service have its own representatives to essentially lobby Congress? When he was defense secretary in the early 2000s, Donald H. Rumsfeld tried to force some coherence onto the department (a legacy overshadowed by his disastrous handling of the Iraq War), but he was mostly outmaneuvered by the Pentagon and Congress. “You refer to closing unneeded bases,” Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) said to Rumsfeld. “I only have one base, and I do need it.” Multiply this response by 535 members of Congress to understand the depth of the problem.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the kind of Republican who had a pragmatic skepticism about government. He was the kind of seasoned general who understood that peace came from a combination of military strength and diplomatic engagement. That was why in his presidential farewell address he spoke about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.” Nearly 60 years later, it looks like one of the most prophetic warnings any president has ever made.