THE BLOG
08/16/2010 12:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pentagon Spending -- Music Goes Round, and Round...

Military spending is moving to the forefront of Washington policy prattle. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates got headlines early this week when he proposed some changes in command structures along with other organization adjustments which in aggregate could save billions of dollars over five years. Skeptics saw the initiative as a ploy to take the steam out of rising concern for the spiral in defense spending at a time of heightened anxiety over long-term budget deficits. In truth, Gates' cost cutting measures would just nibble around the edge of our vast military establishment, replenished each year by $750 - 800 billion (including ad hoc Iraq/Afghanistan appropriations). For example, he talks of a 30 percent reduction in the number of contractors but is unable to tell Congress how many the Pentagon employs in total -- even without counting the 150,000 or so who serve as hired help in our two wars. He foresees defense spending actually going up in real terms -- just by a somewhat lesser amount due to his projected cuts.

Even these very modest and qualified initiatives have the uniform services and their allied businesses bristling. For the past decade they have developed a deep sense of entitlement. Their presumed entitlement has no basis in law as do the much maligned Social Security programs funded through dedicated withholdings entirely separate from the tax revenues that keep the Pentagon machine well lubricated. There indeed does exist a defense establishment whose self-interested thinking pervades what passes for strategic planning in Washington these days. That was demonstrated when the Congress called upon the United States Institute of Peace to conduct an 'independent' review of needs and programs juxtaposed to the Quadrennial Defense Review made public this spring. The USIP project had as co-chairs Bush administration National Security Advisor Steven Hadley and Clinton administration Secretary of Defense William Perry. They led a twenty member panel chosen by DoD and Congress whose distinctive trait was that all but one had some financial stake in the Pentagon's activities.

So it came as little surprise that the panel's advisory report solemnly pronounced that the QDR understated America's defense requirements and that spending substantially above that requested by DoD was imperative. Another sterile exercise in military planning is about the last thing our impoverished national security debate needs. This latest plea for yet larger forces has the effect of making the QDR seem reasonable by comparison. Hadley/Perry is a Team A' challenge to Team A. Yes, it makes the usual noises about paying for the proposed expansion by cutting out waste and inefficiencies. Good luck! This specious line of reasoning has fallen flat for 50 years.

There is no Team B in the ring. For good reason. A meaningful alternative approach would have to contest the core assumptions about American security that are taken as fixed by of these two exhaustive yet intellectually vapid exercises. Almost nobody in the mainstream of the foreign affairs community is doing that, despite some recent frittering around the edges of the once universal consensus on the criticality of victory in Afghanistan. So what we get are variations on the overarching theme of how best to prepare the country's military for an open ended commitment to global American hegemony. Open ended in both time and space.

This is not strategic analysis; it is studied justification for projecting the status quo into the far future. To pretend otherwise is a disservice to the country's political class -- and, frankly, is less than honest. It is an approach that displays woeful ignorance of what actually is happening in the world and what is happening to the United States at home. It displays, too, a woeful inability to learn from experience -- even when that experience is personal and recent.

We no longer can afford such indulgences.