On Pentagon Spending, Will the Real Rand Paul Please Stand Up?

04/14/2015 09:47 am ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

Rand Paul announced his candidacy for the presidency last week under the slogan "Defeat the Washington Machine, Unleash the American Dream." Yet he seems to be ready to give the biggest Washington machine of all -- the Pentagon -- a free pass.

As Nick Gillespie, the editor-in-chief of Reason magazine, noted in a recent piece in Newsweek, Paul's current stance contrasts sharply with the position he took in 2011, when he proposed a budget that would reduce Pentagon spending, lower troop numbers, and close significant numbers of military bases. But most importantly, notes Gillespie, Paul "started a long-overdue conversation about what the U.S. military should look like and act like in a post-Cold War world."

This year, Paul made an about-face when he proposed a $190-billion increase in Pentagon spending over the next two years, a jump of about 16 percent. In an effort to maintain his reputation as a fiscal conservative, Paul called for offsetting his proposed Pentagon increase with cuts in other areas of the budget. But the goal of his proposal was clear: to shed the label of being soft on defense that his Republican rivals for the presidency have attempted to pin on him.

Paul's change of course has already caused him considerable grief in the media, beginning with an interview with the NBC Today Show's Savannah Guthrie. When Guthrie asked about his shifting positions on Iran, foreign aid, and Pentagon spending, he was decidedly unpresidential, accusing her of editorializing and then talking over her. It was a bad start to his campaign, to put it mildly.

When he did get around to answering Guthrie's questions, Paul split the difference on Iran, saying that "negotiation is better than war" and that "I'm one of the few people in my party who has not been beating the drums for war." But he also signed the letter to Iran organized by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), which attempted to undermine President Obama's legitimacy in the midst of the negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program.

Paul also said he wouldn't immediately end aid to Israel -- another point of contention with his Republican rivals -- but indicated that it needed to happen over time.

He never answered the question on Pentagon spending.

The old Rand Paul -- the one who criticized the president's drone policy, called for Pentagon spending reductions, and was less equivocal in his support for negotiations with Iran -- was a truly distinctive voice in the Republican field. These positions spoke to the concerns of libertarians and could also play well with other small-government conservatives, independents, and even some Democrats concerned about the hawkish stances of Hillary Clinton.

Campaigning as a pale reflection of the hawks who have dominated the discussion on the Republican side is unlikely to serve Paul well. His proposed Pentagon spending increase mirrors one made previously by Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and brings him into line with the rest of the Republican field. But as Nick Gillespie has noted, "To the extent he sounds more like every conservative Republican, he sounds less interesting to libertarians. I don't see what he picks up by being a version of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio."

In addition to returning to his prior, more restrained approach to national security policy, Paul would be well served if he were to emphasize waste and bureaucracy at the Pentagon. The Department of Defense is the only federal agency that can't pass an audit. That means it doesn't know for sure how many contractors it has, where its spare parts are located, or how much it is being overcharged for basic supplies. And its payroll system is so antiquated that it frequently underpays veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the issue of bureaucracy, the Pentagon now has over 1 million civilian employees and an estimated 700,000 private contractors. (It does not have a precise number because of its audit problem.) That's roughly one and a half times as many contractors and bureaucrats as there are personnel in the active-duty military. Tens of billions of dollars could be saved by cutting back by 10 to 15 percent in these areas.

Rand Paul can do better than simply mimicking the hawks in his party. Taking a stand for fiscal discipline would resonate with an important element in the Republican base, as well as many others who are concerned about how their tax dollars are being spent. And it would underscore the fact that the Pentagon already has more than enough money.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.