As I write this, our second blizzard this week has sidelined even the snowplows. I was supposed to be giving a speech in sunny Florida but moved to Plan B. Instead we are listening to endless silly jokes from our kids, and I am reading a good drama: the Quadrennial Defense Review  and the federal budget.
The Q.D.R. is mandated by Congress to set the military’s strategic direction for the next four years. Its simple prose masks the battle of competing interests that goes into it and its implementation. This Q.D.R. could be renamed “Plan B.” A funny thing happened on the way to U.S. military domination: After the cold war and the first Persian Gulf war, other countries did not want to fight the U.S. military conventionally anymore.
U.S. forces fight insurgents and terrorists while rebuilding states and providing humanitarian and disaster relief, but these missions are largely not the traditional tasks the troops were trained or equipped for—namely, conventional war against peer militaries. As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates notes, “We have learned through painful experience that the wars we fight are rarely the wars we plan.”
This promising Q.D.R. tries to change that, moving military strategy toward current threats and nontraditional operations. It stresses conflict prevention, including bolstering the capacity of others; working with allies and international institutions; working with civilians; carrying out what are called Stabilization, Security, Transition and Reconstruction operations; and securing materials for weapons of mass destruction through an expansion of the successful Cooperative Threat Reduction program. For the first time, the Q.D.R. officially recognizes climate change as a security threat because of the instabilities it can cause. The plan also focuses on the care of military personnel and their families.
The problem is the mismatch between this strategic document and the budget. The dirty secrets of increased U.S. military spending since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are that military spending is much higher than most Americans are aware and that most of that money does not go toward fighting terrorism or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but is wasted on unnecessary pork-barrel spending.
U.S. defense spending is now over a trillion dollars, almost a third of the budget, more than military spending in the rest of the world combined and more than our adversaries spend by many orders of magnitude. Yet that spending is not focused on the threats we currently face, but goes to expensive legacy military platforms and weapons programs (especially by the Air Force and Navy, despite the fact that neither Al Qaeda nor the Taliban has an air force or a navy). Those purchases are made on a “credit card,” with money borrowed from other countries.
Lives are on the line in these spending decisions. As Secretary Gates notes, every dollar spent on the futuristic “quixotic pursuit of high-tech equipment” is not available for today’s needs: body armor, armored tanks, care of our wounded veterans and a host of domestic needs. Who opposes this shift to Plan B to “prevail in today’s wars?” The “iron triangles” do: defense contracters, Congressional representatives and military services that profit from military spending on equipment we do not need for conflicts that do not exist.
Faux fiscal conservatives moralize against government deficit spending to get the economy moving again while hypocritically using the Pentagon budget as an inefficient government jobs program. This program does not create products, services or skills that benefit the civilian population and economy at large. And they deceive the American public into believing that this spending is somehow necessary in the fight against terrorists.
Members of Congress want defense dollars for their districts; defense companies want taxpayer money; the military services want expensive military platforms not used in warfare. As long as we shift the burden of this spending to future generations, the United States is not forced to make hard choices and give up our illusion that spending money we do not have on military hardware we don’t use somehow makes the U.S. homeland safer. As Pope Benedict XVI, among others, has noted, economic decisions are moral decisions.