By Bonnie Kristian
To hear vice presidential candidate Mike Pence tell it, the sure-fire way to guaranteed national security is cash, and lots of it.
“I believe the time has come for dramatically increased defense spending to confront the knowable and unknowable threats facing the United States and our allies in this still new century,” he said while speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2015. “Without rebuilding our military, no strategy or innovation, no matter how brilliant, will be sufficient to protect the people and sovereignty of the United States.”
In reality, just the opposite is true: Increasing Pentagon spending without first developing a prudent grand strategy makes a promise of waste, not safety—and blindly throwing cash at admittedly unknown threats is not a route to protection but danger. Defense budget priorities should never be dictated by the shock of big numbers and boogeymen, but rather by a judicious assessment of where we are and where we ought to be going.
On the first count, the picture is grim. The Pentagon has a well-established history of wasteful spending, lost money, unaccountable accounting, and doctored ledgers. The Department of Defense wastes billions on projects totally unrelated to defense, like research on fish behavior and whether men holding guns are perceived to be more masculine than those holding tools. It blows money on unnecessary equipment, nonfunctional weapons, and unused facilities.
The Defense Department’s Inspector General recently reported that the Army made $6.5 trillion in improper accounting adjustments in 2015 alone in attempt to balance its books, a truly impressive figure given that the entire DoD budget for that year was “just” $600 billion. The IG found the Army’s budget to be rife with expenditures that come sans invoice or receipt, meaning it’s not entirely certain where the money went. As a result, the report said, Pentagon financial managers can’t “rely on the data in their accounting systems when making management and resource decisions,” which means that small distortions can balloon into bigger misappropriations.
That finding captures the current state of U.S. defense spending in microcosm. Unaudited for years, the Pentagon’s finances as a whole are gigantic and in equally gigantic disarray. The United States spends substantially more than every other country on earth to maintain what is far and away the most powerful military on the globe, but a lean and efficient machine it is not. We know there’s plenty of fat—unneeded spending that wastes Americans’ tax dollars and compromises our security—but without an audit we lack a comprehensive guide of where to trim.
Thus given where we are now, the time most certainly has not come for “dramatically increased defense spending.” As any fiscal conservative worth their salt should know on instinct, you don’t give a federal agency more cash when it’s actively frittering away unknown tens or potentially even hundreds of billions each year. That goes for the DoD at least as much as for more peripheral agencies; the stakes are higher so the responsibility should be greater.
As for where we’re going—well, no one in Washington seems to have much of a clue. After years of costly, ineffective wars of choice, our foreign policy has stagnated into an expensive, and often counter-productive collection of interventions with little to no clear connection to vital American security interests.
“Our current ‘strategy’ isn’t really one,” as the Cato Institute’s Benjamin H. Friedman persuasively argues. “Strategy, by definition, requires prioritization among competing threats and methods of defending against them,” he says, whereas our government—unbound by a real budget or any inclination toward restraint—offers instead “recitations of nice things that we hope U.S. military power might accomplish, justified as security objectives. That has the effect of conflating safety with values, and promoting a sense of insecurity” while spending out the wazoo.
With an “overly capacious definition of security” and a limit-free credit card, Washington’s military spending habits are as reckless as the collection of foreign misadventures it tries to pass off as defense.
The solution this dual absence of accountability and strategy is not more cash in DoD coffers. That is at best a Band-Aid and at worst fuel for an already raging fire. Instead, we should be seeking a full Pentagon audit and the sober development of a realistic grand strategy prioritizing restraint, diplomacy, and free trade. That is a far more difficult prospect than Pence’s proposal, to be sure, but it is a surer route to the security he seeks.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on September 12, 2016. Read more HERE.