Trillions for Defense, But Not One Cent for Waste

The pending fiscal cliff legislation poses a problem for both liberals and conservatives.

Jill Lepore, who is a Professor of History at Harvard, wrote a piece in the Jan. 28 issue of The New Yorker entitled "The Force," with the sub-head “How much military is enough?” In it, Lepore points out that when the House Armed Services Committee met in the fall of 2011, the representatives of the military who appeared in reaction to the proposition in the fiscal cliff legislation that would sharply cut the defense budget took the position that no matter what the budget deficit, the military should be allowed to spend what they thought necessary.

One congressman put the alternative this way: "What if all of a sudden, we don’t have troops in Europe, we don’t have troops in Asia? We are just, frankly, like pretty much every other country in the world?" It was a hypothetical question.

Lepore goes on to point out that the Founding Fathers opposed a standing army and that, in fact, no standing army existed in peacetime in the United States until after the Second World War. As late as Eisenhower’s presidency, the opposition continued. Eisenhower, who had been the World War II Supreme Allied Commander, warned not only against the “military industrial complex,” but also understood the real cost of the military. In a speech, quoted by Lepore, he said:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This is a world in arms. This world in arms is not spending money alone; it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children... This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."

The fiscal cliff law, which has been postponed until March 1, was based on the notion that Congress or the administration would find the mandatory cuts imposed on the military so unpalatable that concessions to the Republican debt  reduction proposals would have to be made. So far this has not happened, although time is running out.

The fiscal cliff legislation poses an almost insoluble problem for liberals and conservatives. Both groups really have an interest in reducing the national debt, but for liberals it is essential to preserve the social services that the conservatives would cut (health care, food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc.). For conservatives, the reduction of the debt is so important that almost everything else could fall by the wayside in the process. The “almost” in the previous sentence refers to the Department of Defense budget, which now roughly accounts for half the total federal government spending. Conservatives have often been heard to say that the United States should stop policing the world. However, most of them take great pride in the military and insist on a level of preparedness necessary to defeat China, Russia, the Arab militants and any other country that presumes to threaten us at the same time. To do that requires not only constant production of new armaments, but the maintenance of bases throughout the world and the training of millions of personnel. That doesn’t come cheap, and that makes the reduction of the DOD budget extremely difficult.

Liberals, from the end of WWII to now have been pretty much opposed to military spending, although there was some abandoning of the ranks after 9/11. Nevertheless, military spending is not currently popular with most liberals. Cutting that budget would, of course, be a huge step in reducing the national debt. But that means that our ability to intervene in places like Syria, Libya, Palestine, Afghanistan and the Korean Peninsula would be severely limited. How might we fight the war against Muslim extremists? In short, if the DOD budget was severely cut, enough to make a difference in effectively paring the national deficit, our status as an international policeman and reliable ally of democratic states would be sharply reduced.

Presently we have the largest military force of any country by far. Despite the injunction by our founders, we have bases on foreign soil throughout the world. Germany, Italy, South Korea and various places in Africa are examples. While we are engaged in a continuing war with Muslim extremists, there is no nation in the world that truly threatens us. While the world is still very much a dangerous place because there are so many nuclear powers around, a mistake is more likely than an attack. But any country that actually launched a nuclear attack on the United States would surely end up as a hole in the ground.

There is one criticism of the DOD that is certainly valid, and that is the failure of the DOD to understand that the money it spends is the hard-earned money of the taxpayers. Cost control seemingly is a lost art in the Department of Defense.

Frequently, the DOD has purchased systems that were then still under development. The most notable example is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter which will cost more than a trillion dollars, and did not even receive a test flight until three years after it went into production. That program has since been abandoned as being too costly to operate. A Harvard Business School analysis in May 2012, said:

“With respect to contractors, the Defense Department customarily does business with an inverted system of rewards and penalties. Contractors are often rewarded for higher than planned program costs with increased sales, higher contributions to overhead, and higher profits. The system also encourages government and industry managers to place higher priority on gaining congressional approval to begin new acquisition weapon programs or obtain additional funding for ongoing programs than it does on controlling cost. The U.S. Government Accountability Office as well as other defense analysts have observed that the acquisition cost overruns of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s are not aberrations; they are the result of many government and industry participants reacting in perfect accord with the distorted rewards and penalties inherent in the acquisition process.”

Congress too has not been beyond fault. In the last Ryan budget proposal, Congressman Ryan added much more money to the DOD budget than the administration had requested. That sort of practice has been going on for sometime and is not limited to Republicans. Indeed the DOD has often complained that Congress has insisted on expenditures that the DOD thinks are unwise or unnecessary. 

Given this situation, the only way to ensure defense spending that makes sense is to reduce the DOD budget. That will impose discipline on the department and perhaps lead us out of unnecessary foreign commitments that do not add to our security. This is not to suggest the kind of isolationism that vastly added to Hitler’s early success and led to America being unprepared when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

As a nation we cannot be all things to all other nations. Intervention abroad may, on occasion, be necessary to contribute to our own defense. But in the end, the Department of Defense would make a great contribution to the safety of our country by contributing to the reduction of the budget by better managing its resources.


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