When the Pentagon asked for $686 billion for 2019, its math at first seemed a little fuzzy. A sum of $20 billion appeared to be in two places at once: the base budget and the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds. The confusion was soon resolved by the revelation that the $20 billion started in the OCO but was moved to the base budget. Putting it into OCO in the first was a tidy accounting trick that allowed the Pentagon to get around the spending caps which limit the base budget. (Not for nothing, the OCO known as a military slush fund.)
It is difficult, at this point, to muster much surprise at fiscal shenanigans in Washington, including those in the Department of Defense, the world’s largest bureaucracy. The record of Pentagon waste and excess is long and well-documented, and it has drifted far into the realm of “dog bites man.” On this grand scale — when the Pentagon’s total budget will top $1.4 trillion for this year and the next — what’s another $20 billion?
To paraphrase Eisenhower, every drone launched in Iraq or every rocket fired in Afghanistan is, in the final sense, a bill that is paid by Americans. That $20 billion is a smudge in the Pentagon’s ledgers, but no one — neither Washington nor those whose money she spends — is well served by letting it go unexamined.
But the $20 billion should also remind us of the desperate need for accountability and prudence in military finances. More money does not mean more safety, and fiscal responsibility at the Department of Defense is itself an issue of national security.
Absent reform and “smart cuts,” the Defense Department “will just get fatter, not stronger,” according to Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Too often overlooked in assessments of defense spending is the question of strategy, and specifically whether our foreign policy adequately distinguishes between defending U.S. interests and futilely attempting to manage the global order with military intervention.
Thus our government’s addiction to expansion partners with sincere public concern about national security to push military spending ever upward, but bigger is not necessarily better. “It’s really hard to argue that our military is underfunded,” Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulDemocrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Journalist Dave Levinthal discusses 'uptick' in congressional stock trade violations McConnell vows GOP won't help raise debt ceiling in December after Schumer 'tantrum' MORE (R-Ky.) writes in a recent op-ed, “so perhaps our mission has grown too large.” Today that mission involves “combat operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Niger, Libya, and Yemen,” Paul notes, plus “troops in over 50 of 54 African countries.”
With a mission like that, the Pentagon’s problem is not a lack of funding. It’s our bipartisan foreign policy’s besetting lack of judgment and realism in decision-making, which creates a dangerous feedback loop in Washington.
At the start is our government’s belief — despite very compelling evidence to the contrary from the last 17 years of misadventures abroad — that U.S. military intervention is an all-purpose tool for global engagement. “Rather than adhere to a principled strategy, successive administrations [have] succumbed to opportunism, cultivating a to-do list of problems that the United States was called on to solve,” says Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a military historian.
As the list grows, so do the expenses, so the Pentagon gets a budget bump. But as the military’s budget increases, its use as an all-purpose tool does, too. The to-do list gets longer. The expenses multiply. The budget increases, and — well, you can see where this is headed.
Thus far, it’s gotten us all the way to combat operations in seven countries, U.S. military activity across nearly the entire continent of Africa, and a costly web of hundreds of military bases around the globe, many of them unnecessary by the Pentagon’s own account. “[A]s if on autopilot,” Bacevich writes, “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.”
This is not strategic defense. It does not set appropriate defense priorities based on vital U.S. interests. It’s not sustainable. And it’s not advancing America’s best principles or ensuring anyone’s security. It’s sprawl — sprawl that just got $20 billion worse.
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, USA Today, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.