For the sake of defense, don’t grow the Pentagon budget

By Bonnie Kristian

The federal government is funded through September, thanks to a fresh round of last-minute negotiations and the omnibus spending bill they produced. The final product includes a $15 billion boost to the Pentagon budget—not the $30 billion the Trump administration wanted for 2017, but certainly not chump change.

When the next budget battle rolls around five months from now, military spending is sure to be at issue once again. The White House has indicated it wants a $54 billion hike to 2018 defense appropriations, a demand based in President Trump’s rationale that if he successfully implements “one of the greatest military buildups in American history” to make America’s military “bigger and better and stronger than ever before,” he’ll be able to ensure “absolutely nobody is going to mess with us.”

This is a logic that might work in construction—use a bigger beam and you get a stronger house—but it doesn’t easily transfer to military budgeting, where accountability, fiscal realism, effective strategy, and public preference crowd out that sort of simplistic “bigger is better” thinking. (Arguably more important, the U.S. possesses an “overmatch” capability—an overwhelming advantage in firepower and technology—that no other country can compete with today. That means the number of ships in our fleet doesn’t tell the full story of our Navy’s strength.)

In terms of accountability alone, giving the Pentagon more money is a highly questionable proposal.

Our single-year defense budgets are in the neighborhood of $600 billion, which represents about half of federal discretionary spending, tops a third of global military expenditures, and easily outpaces the military budget of the next seven countries put together (most of which are our allies). Add in other security expenses, like Homeland Security and maintaining our nuclear arsenal, and the United States currently spends a cool $1 trillion annually on military-related expenses.

That kind of cash could be justified, but there’s no way for us to know: The Pentagon’s books have never been subject to a full audit as has been required annually by law since 1995. An audit of the largest (and perhaps most wasteful) bureaucracy in the world would be a massive undertaking, to be sure—but that’s exactly why this basic accountability measure is essential.

This is about effectively allocating scarce resources as well as cutting down on federal waste. Spending decisions should be part of defense strategy, which is impossible when we lack clarity on how current DoD dollars are spent. Such stricture is especially important as a measure of rudimentary fiscal realism and responsibility. The U.S. national debt is nearing $20 trillion, a figure so large it poses its own risk to national security. “The health of the country, the prosperity we care about, and the security we care about are just inextricably linked,” says Ret. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, and yet Washington keeps “looking away hoping it will get better.” Instead, Mullen adds, “it gets worse.”

If that is to change, government spending across the board must stop rising on autopilot. Pentagon spending must not be exempt from proper oversight and scrutiny, nor should it be a bargaining chip for domestic spending hikes.

Providing for the common defense is our federal government’s primary function. But to do so effectively, fiscal prudence is essential. The power of the purse ought to be a tool for assessment, a chance for Congress to ask whether our foreign policy makes sense, whether it is effectively defending U.S. interests, and how it can be improved. Are current missions really priorities for U.S. national defense?  Or are our defense dollars being diverted to fund nation-building, subsidize the security of wealthy allies, andpolice regional conflicts far from American shores?

This critical debate has never been more necessary than now, as the United States is entangled in undeclared, boundless wars in seven countries in the Mideast and North Africa. “U.S. forces [are] more or less permanently engaged in ongoing hostilities,” Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a military historian, writes at Foreign Affairs. “In one theater after another, fighting erupts, ebbs, flows, and eventually meanders toward some ambiguous conclusion,” while “the Pentagon accrues new obligations and expands its global footprint, oblivious to the possibility that in some parts of the world, U.S. forces may no longer be needed, whereas in others, their presence may be detrimental.”

A public debate about U.S. goals and strategy is years overdue, and budget debates provide a perfect opportunity: Congress should cast aside partisan theatrics and instead focus on representing the views of the public they are supposed to serve.

A CKI/CNI poll from February produced enlightening results: Only 22 percent of respondents said current military spending is too low, even though most believed the present Pentagon budget to be smaller than it really is.

Until Washington takes into consideration the role Americans want to play in the world; assesses vital national security interests when deciding whether to use military force; and learns the best way to promote our values abroad is through increased trade and diplomacy, U.S. foreign policy will continue to rack up debt on missions that don’t enhance American security.

President Trump rode to Washington on a promise to do things differently, but that means resisting establishment playbook calls for unaccountable, debt-funded, unstrategic, unpopular, and costly interventions abroad.

Let us hope our president can resist this wrong-headed approach and deliver the change Americans crave.

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, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

This piece was originally published by The Daily Caller on May 15, 2017. Read more HERE.