08/28/2012 12:42 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2012

What if Republicans Had a Debate on Military Spending?

David Carr of the New York Times has rightly described the major party conventions as extended infomercials with little controversy to draw viewers away from reality TV or, this week, from dangerous weather. But there may be one exception. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has pledged to use his speaking slot to call for cuts in Pentagon spending if and until the department can pass an audit. As Paul puts it, "one of the messages that I will give to them [convention delegates] is that Republicans need to acknowledge that not every dollar is well spent or sacred in the military and we have to look for ways to make every department accountable."

Rand Paul's message is consistent with the position that his father Ron Paul took during his presidential campaign. In fact, the elder Paul stood together with liberal Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank in endorsing up to $1 trillion in Pentagon cuts over the next decade, a figure comparable to what would be called for under the allegedly disastrous implementation of automatic cuts under the process known as sequestration. In a significant example of counter-programming, Republican Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and John McCain of Arizona have been touring the country on a misleading scare campaign that has been suggesting that cuts at the level called for under sequestration would devastate the economy and hollow out our military.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (D-SC) joined Barney Frank in promoting a successful amendment to cut Pentagon spending, a refreshing switch from the hysterical calls for high Pentagon outlays by members such as House Armed Services Committee chair Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, who never met a weapons contractor he didn't like.

This all brings us to the Republican ticket itself, where Mitt Romney and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) have historically been far apart in their proposals for how much money to throw at the Pentagon. After initially endorsing the Obama administration's approach, Ryan's most recent budget road map calls for increasing Pentagon spending by $400 billion above what the Pentagon is currently asking for, spread out over the next decade. But Ryan's proposed increase is pocket change compared to Romney's longstanding call for setting the Pentagon budget at 4 percent of Gross Domestic Product, an approach which would increase Pentagon spending by an astonishing $2 trillion over the next 10 years. When confronted with the question of how he would pay for this huge increase without raising taxes, Romney mumbled something about eliminating waste in the Pentagon -- a nonsensical statement given that he has already committed to spending 4 percent of GDP on the Pentagon, come hell or high water. Under this plan, any waste Romney identifies would simply be plowed back into the Pentagon budget to pay for other programs.

Given this wide range of views -- from a real cut, to a moderate increase, to an irresponsible and massive infusion of new funds -- one might ask which position on Pentagon spending represents the true Republican party. Given that he is the nominee, one would assume that Romney's plan would carry the day. But it is so out of line with reality that it's hard to believe he could carry it out in full if elected.

What if the Republican Party had a real debate on Pentagon spending that addressed the underlying issue of what our military is for? Should we be poised to fight major wars of occupation and/or counterinsurgency like those in Iraq and Afghanistan? Do we need 700-plus foreign military bases? Why are we investing in new nuclear bomb facilities, bombers and submarines at a time when maintaining the U.S. arsenal at current levels serves no useful purpose? It's probably too late for that to happen this year, on the verge of a presidential election, but it would be both refreshing and responsible if it were to happen in the years to come.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.