The most refreshing aspect of this week’s Republican presidential debate was the clash between Rand Paul and Marco Rubio over the appropriate level of Pentagon spending. As my colleague Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies has noted in her analysis of the debate, the United States already spends three times what its closest adversary, China, spends. And if there are truly unmet needs within the Pentagon budget, they can be more than made up for by trimming spending on overpriced and under-performing systems like the F-35 combat aircraft. So the real question is how much is enough for defense, and what should it be spent on.
Paul’s position, as expressed at this week’s debate, is clear. To be a true fiscal conservative, it is necessary to look at reining in Pentagon spending as well as domestic expenditures. This marks a welcome return to basic principles after Paul’s proposal to increase Pentagon spending that was announced earlier this year, presumably to “keep up” with his opponents on that score. But his statements in Milwaukee get it right. There should no special treatment for the Department of Defense. Marco Rubio struck back by labeling Paul as an “isolationist,” and implying that American global leadership should be measured by the size of the Pentagon budget, not whether we are spending the resources wisely.
In reality, there is no guarantee that more Pentagon spending will make us safer. The recent revelation that the Pentagon spent $43 million on a gas station in Afghanistan that should have cost $500,000 is just the latest example of runaway spending. Overpaying for spare parts, buying duplicative equipment, and accepting massive cost overruns on major weapons programs has become business as usual at the Pentagon. One of the biggest drivers of this waste, fraud and abuse is that the Pentagon cannot pass a simple audit, nearly 20 years after Congress required that it do so.
Sloppy spending practices are just part of the problem. The Pentagon also needs to take on more realistic missions. It is currently engaged in substantial counter-terrorism missions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and the Philippines, among other places. In fact, research by Nick Turse has revealed that U.S. Special Forces were active in an astonishing 133 countries in 2014. And the Security Assistance Monitor has identified 163 countries that receive military and police aid from the United States. Many of these assistance efforts are provided through Pentagon-funded programs that are little known to the public or most members of Congress.
Beyond the military missions mentioned above, the Pentagon is also engaged in counter-narcotics, disaster relief, and economic development programs. In short, the Pentagon is the go-to agency for all manner of challenges in the realms of foreign and economic policy, many of which could be better handled by other agencies using other tools.
Meanwhile, as the Pentagon gobbles up missions like a binge eater who has gone off his or her diet, the civilian instruments of statecraft have been neglected. The Pentagon $600 billion-plus budget is 12 times as high as the budget of the State Department, and there are more personnel in one aircraft carrier task force than there are trained diplomats at State.
There is much talk of a lack of military “readiness,” much of which ignores the fact that any gaps in training and logistics suffered by our military services could be easily made up by shifting funding from wasteful and unnecessary programs. But we have a true deficit in “diplomatic readiness,” a situation that puts us at risk of being behind the curve on crucial developments in key regions, often resulting in the use of force in situations that would be better addressed via diplomatic and economic approaches. A robust diplomatic corps can and should be part of an “early warning system” that puts the United States in a position to help prevent conflicts before they get out of hand.
There are also major areas of nonmilitary investment that can make a huge difference in making people more secure. The United States should spend more in helping the millions of refugees of the wars in Syria and Iraq; invest in alternative energy efforts that can help curb climate change even as they reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources; and increase investments in global public health efforts that can stem the spread of infectious diseases.
Our current approach to security lacks balance, to put it mildly. Restricting the Pentagon to its core missions, rooting out waste in the department, and using force as a tool of last resort is an approach that conservatives and liberals alike should be able to support. Rand Paul deserves credit for putting this issue on the agenda. Let the debate begin.