Money Pit on the Potomac

Why is the Pentagon spending billions on breast cancer research?

July was a tough month for the Pentagon. The Washington Post revealed that three U.S. special operations soldiers died in Mali when their vehicle plunged off a bridge with three Moroccan prostitutes in the vehicle at the time. The special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction issued one of his final reports on U.S. reconstruction efforts in that country and estimated that $6 billion to $8 billion of the $51 billion spent on reconstruction was likely wasted, embezzled, or misplaced. The inspector general's investigations have produced 90 indictments, 72 convictions, and $177 million in fines and other penalties, with the highest percentage of convictions coming against military officers and defense contractors. Worse still, this came not long after the bean counters at the Government Accountability Office had issued yet another damning report on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, finding that the cost estimate for developing the F-35 had jumped an additional $15 billion since 2010.

The reaction from the political class was swift and decisive, but not in the way you would think. Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney called for an additional $2.1 trillion in defense spending over the next decade and called for adding 100,000 additional active-duty military personnel -- even as the United States winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, made an impassioned plea supporting the Defense Department's foreign assistance programs. And much of Congress continues to react as if sequestration budget cuts -- a sword of Damocles that they themselves voted for -- would prove apocalyptic even though they only reduce Pentagon spending to 2006 levels.

The Pentagon has become the federal bureaucracy's version of a perpetual motion machine. Despite the fact that the military budget has roughly doubled over the last decade and the United States spends more on defense than China, Britain, France, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Germany, India, and Brazil combined, most members of Congress continue to see a vote for more defense spending as the safest vote in town.

And for good reason. But because voting for defense spending is a painless vote for members of Congress, more and more lobbyists and interest groups have pushed their activities under the broad umbrella of the Pentagon in order to find safe harbor. This has led to the Pentagon to take on more and more activities that have very little to do with traditional definitions of national security.

Take breast cancer, for example. As the Post notes, the Pentagon has received more than $3.6 billion for cancer research over the last 20 years, despite the fact that no president has ever requested this funding and that breast cancer research has nothing to do with the Pentagon's traditional limited purview in health -- battlefield medicine. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin once bragged to his constituents that he had been able to double spending on breast cancer research by putting the additional funds in the Pentagon's budget. Of course, since the Defense Department doesn't have much expertise in breast cancer research, it turns around and relies on agencies like the National Institutes of Health, where the money should have been put in the first place, to oversee its grants under these programs.

But Congress is not solely to blame for the Pentagon's ever growing mandate. The Defense Department itself has become increasingly fixated on the idea of "expeditionary economics." In a nutshell, the concept is that small teams of military professionals well versed in economics will be deployed to assist in the reconstruction of war-torn and disaster-prone countries.

Any post-conflict expert worth his or her salt agrees that getting economic life restarted after a conflict is vital. However, the idea of putting an institution that has become synonymous with billion-dollar cost overruns in charge of setting economic policy in postwar settings seems risible. Indeed, there is probably no agency in the world that has been more insulated from basic economic realities over the last decade than the Pentagon. But still, no other federal agency is willing to say that the emperor across the Potomac has no clothes.

Let us remember that Pentagon-led projects in Iraq and Afghanistan have been flush with cash but rife with problems. Just this week, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction reported that about $400 million in large infrastructure projects in Afghanistan are badly behind schedule and unlikely to make a dent in the Taliban insurgency. And this only underscores the Pentagon's power to get what it wants. When every other agency fails, Congress threatens to reduce its budget. When the Defense Department fails or makes grievous mistakes, it is automatically assumed that it went astray because it did not have enough money.

But both Congress and the Pentagon itself should recognize the fundamental long-term risk of turning America's military budget into a catchall for everything from breast cancer research to roving teams of economists in combat boots. Military officers are great at fighting and winning wars because that is what they are trained to do. It's bad enough that there are already more people in U.S. military bands than in the entire Foreign Service, but does the country really want to train fighting men and women to build swimming pools in Iraq?

The more amorphous America makes the U.S. military's purpose as an institution, the more likely the Pentagon will turn into a giant, muddled marshmallow of bureaucratic excess. Back in the 1990s, Republicans routinely wrung their hands over the idea that "mission creep" was undermining the military. Those concerns seem to have been quietly set aside as both parties acquiesce in building a military that can't say no. With major budget battles brewing, don't be surprised when people try to slip everything from domestic road building to arts funding into the behemoth defense budget.

Oh, wait, those have already happened.



Watching the London Olympics in Beijing

In 2008, China staged a lavish opening ceremony that stunned the world with its precision and pyrotechnics. Four years later, Chinese impressions of the far quirkier London Games may surprise you.

BEIJING — The opening ceremony of the London Olympics aired at 4 a.m. Saturday morning Beijing time. Despite the early hour, more than 100 million Chinese stayed up to watch the show, including Xu Jicheng, a journalist who previously worked as deputy director of media operations for Beijing's Olympic organizing committee.

Xu, a senior Xinhua reporter, said that it's difficult to compare opening ceremonies, but he was obviously proud of China's achievement. "Our system can mobilize social resources and power almost immediately," he told me. "The Chinese have become ever more confident in themselves and think they can pull off whatever foreigners can do."

Yes, China can mobilize better than any country in the world. In the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese leaders spent close to $2 billion just on building and refurbishing stadiums, expanded its subway system from 25 to 124 miles, and built a state-of-the-art airport terminal. But they also rounded up dissidents, manipulated the weather by shooting silver iodide into the sky, and drove out migrants, homeless people, and sex workers to minimize social discontent and maintain a presentable harmony.

Beijing's opening ceremony was a masterpiece of cohesion: Almost 200,000 people, mostly students and People's Liberation Army soldiers, trained together for months so that their actions would be perfectly synchronous. To showcase the Chinese invention of movable-type printing, more than 1,600 soldiers practiced more than 10 hours a day inside 897 tiny movable-type blocks -- for nine months. Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, who directed the opening ceremony, told a Chinese newspaper that he joked with his performers that only North Koreans could have put on a more uniform show.

That comment hit too close to home; one wag suggested that Zhang had borrowed the entire ceremony from the totalitarian North Koreans. But the uncomfortable reality behind the joke is even more resonant in China today, a feeling compounded by what London accomplished with its opening ceremony. In an interview on July 29, Jiang Xiaoyu, former executive vice president of Beijing's Olympic organizing committee and now vice chairman of the Beijing Olympic City Development Association, called the 2008 Beijing Games and the opening ceremony "flawlessly organized."

After seeing the London opening ceremony, however, many now feel Beijing's performance, while technically impressive, lacked soul. "Zhang's performance emphasized a collective spirit, and he wanted it to be vigorous and stunning," said Dong Wenwen, a Chengdu-based writer, adding that she preferred the London opening ceremony because "it was more sincere." The performance, which featured scenes from the Industrial Revolution, Peter Pan's Neverland, and cameos from James Bond and Queen Elizabeth, drew praise for its modest but confident portrait of Britain. "It was an extremely creative performance," said Liu Dongfeng, a professor of economics at Shanghai Sports University.

Surprisingly, the most popular segment of the London opening ceremony for Chinese people seemed to be when 300 hospital beds appeared on stage to celebrate Britain's National Health Service (NHS). "The Beijing ceremony is completely beaten when you see that every citizen there has public health service," wrote a Weibo user named Fangfangdou. "The creative ceremony showed Danny Boyle's humanitarian care for society. Especially the NHS part, the doctors, nurses, and children are all from the Great Ormond Street Hospital. Even the patients are real," tweeted Zhang Lifen, editor in chief of, a message that was reposted more than 1,000 times.

"I'm afraid only a great nation dares to show their public health system onto the Olympic stage. It should all of a sudden make some so-called 'great nation' ashamed of themselves," commented another user named GoodDadZheng.

In what seems unlikely to have been a coincidence, the day after London's opening ceremony, Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu announced to journalists that 96 percent of the population now enjoys "basic health care." Commentators ridiculed Chen, pointing to rising medical costs, corrupt doctors, and the threadbare nature of Chinese medical coverage. "The majority of the government's health budget … goes to the welfare of civil servants, out of tune with the reality in which people find it hard to see and afford a doctor. [The government] is just playing with the numbers," commented an opinion piece on the second-tier city of Wuxi's news portal.

Jiang, who formerly ran Beijing's propaganda department, carefully avoided comparing the London and Beijing games. "China's political system has its own merits. It allows the government to concentrate power to stage the event, maximizing people's support to the Olympics" he said. But it also means that it showcased China, and not its citizens. "Looking back at the Beijing Games, you no longer feel proud when you get to know more [about what really happened in China over the last four years]," said a Weibo user named Tuoni. "It's just the great party staged a globally lavish PR event and has nothing to do with its people."