A parable, to begin: in 2016, the 136 military bands maintained by the Department of Defense, employing more than 6,500 full-time professional musicians at an annual cost of about $500 million, caught the attention of budget-cutters worried about surging federal deficits. Immediately memos flew and lobbyists descended. The Government Accountability Office, laying the groundwork for another study or three, opined, “The military services have not developed objectives and measures to assess how their bands are addressing the bands’ missions, such as inspiring patriotism.” Supporters of the 369th Infantry Regiment band noted that it had introduced jazz to Europe during World War I. How could such a history be left behind? A blues band connected effectively with Russian soldiers in Bosnia in 1996, another proponent argued, proving that bands are, “if anything, an incredibly cost-effective supplement” to the Pentagon’s then $4.5 billion public affairs budget.
When the dust cleared, funding for the bands was not cut, because the political cost entailed in reducing the number of them by, say, half would have been enormous. The resulting $250 million in annual savings, on the other hand, while a significant sum for most government agencies, would have produced the almost unnoticeable difference of three one-hundredths of one percent in the Pentagon budget.
The sheer size of the military establishment and the habit of equating spending on it with patriotism make both sound management and serious oversight of defense expenditures rare. As a democracy, we are on an unusual and risky path. For several decades, we have maintained an extraordinarily high level of defense spending with the support of both political parties and virtually all of the public. The annual debate about the next year’s military spending, underway now on Capitol Hill, no longer probes where real cuts might be made (as opposed to cuts in previously planned growth) but only asks how big the increase should be.
The political momentum that drives this annual increase, disconnected from hard thought about America’s responsibilities in a transformed world, threatens to become—or may have already become—unstoppable. The consequences are huge. At home, defense spending crowds out funds for everything else a prosperous economy and a healthy society need. Abroad, it has led us to become a country reflexively reliant on the military and one quite different from what we think ourselves to be or, I believe, wish to be.
After the Korean War, defense spending dropped by 20 percent, after Vietnam by 30 percent, and after the cold war ended in 1990 those notorious softies President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell cut military manpower by 600,000 and the military budget by 26 percent. But since the September 11 attacks we have been engaged in an eighteen-year war with no fixed enemies, aims, or endpoint. Recently, congressional Democrats decided that they would no longer allow themselves to be seen as less supportive than Republicans of the military, while Republicans, once they took control of both the White House and Congress, forgot their concern for deficits. The combined result has been steep growth in the military budget.
This short-term debate aside, the underlying political dynamics are what drive the money machine year after year. The Pentagon has, by a wide margin, the best long-range planning and budgeting capability in the government. Thousands of people are involved. Even if they wanted to, Congress’s armed services committees couldn’t attempt a zero-based budget of six or seven hundred billion dollars: that is, beginning with an evaluation of asserted threats, followed by an independent assessment of the proposed strategy for meeting them and analysis of the forces and facilities needed to execute the strategy. Mostly, though, they don’t want to. They prefer to protect spending and jobs in their districts. The result is funding for weapons systems the armed forces don’t want, bases and facilities they would like to close, and bloated, inefficient back office—that is, noncombat—operations.
Tanks are a classic case. For years, the army has tried to convince Congress to stop buying new ones. They are expensive to build, maintain, exercise, and train troops to use. The army already has more than six thousand of them—far more than it needs for any conceivable future combat. More controversially, the navy remains wedded to new aircraft carriers, but at $13 billion each they are arguably more an outdated symbol of twentieth-century power than an effective weapon system for a future in which they will be increasingly vulnerable to attack by high-speed, maneuverable missiles that can be bought for a minuscule fraction of what a carrier costs.
The last ingredient in this political mix is, of course, the White House. After last year’s budget deal, Trump captured the unfortunate national mood when he tweeted, “We love and need our Military and gave them everything—and more.” This year, defending his failure to serve in Vietnam, he boasted that with his $750 billion budget, “I think I make up for that right now…. I think I’m making up for it rapidly.” Trump is not the first president to want to leave his mark on something new and bigger for defense spending. As in everything else, he is simply the least interested in the substance of his policies and the most transparently self-serving.
For many years, the United States has increasingly relied on military strength to achieve its foreign policy aims. In doing so, it has paid too little heed to the issues that military power cannot solve, to the need for diplomatic capabilities at least as strong as military ones and, in particular, to the necessity of multilateral problem-solving—as slow and frustrating as it often is—to address current threats. Sadly, it took a rash and unbelievably unwise decision by the president to throw away the Iran nuclear deal for members of Congress and the public to begin to appreciate what tough, patient diplomacy can achieve.
We are now at the point of allocating too large a portion of the federal budget to defense as compared to domestic needs, tolerating too much spending that doesn’t buy useful capability, accumulating too much federal debt, and yet not acquiring a forward-looking, twenty-first-century military built around new cyber and space technologies. We have become complacent and strategically flabby about adapting to a profoundly altered world. Major change will require a quality of leadership we haven’t seen in a long time, from men and women in the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon who are respected for their knowledge and national security experience and who are willing to pay a political price for what must be done. Even then the process will be tough, slow, and painful, but it is surely overdue.