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Highway Robbery

Why do Mitt Romney and Barack Obama want to hand over so much of your money to men with guns?

In August 2003, some colleagues and I were held up by armed bandits on the highway in Fallujah, Iraq. (Don't ask why I was dumb enough to be wandering around Fallujah.) My bandit -- there were quite a few of them, but I like to think of the guy who stuck a gun in my face as my bandit -- was straight out of central casting, complete with a red kerchief around his mouth and nose to disguise his facial features.

I doubt he knew much English, but he knew enough to say the magic words. "Money, money, money!" he demanded with a guttural, heavy accent, waggling his gun unnervingly around my head.

I handed him my wallet. He took out the cash and handed the empty wallet back to me.

"Shukrun," I said, using my sole word of Arabic. "Thank you."

"You are welcome," he said, and sprinted off to wherever bandits go when they're not robbing people. (This was in the good old days of 2003, when gunmen in Fallujah just robbed you.)

In some ways, this story is a reasonable metaphor for the current debate about the defense budget. Men with weapons intone, "Money, money, money"; we hand it over and say "thank you," even though much of the time we don't really know who they are or what they plan to do with our money.

At least, that's how it can look from the outside. The presidential candidates seem to be competing over who is more dedicated to ensuring a steady supply of funds to the Pentagon. And we're not talking about chump change: the United States spends more on defense than any other nation. In fact, it accounts for 41 percent of global defense spending: annually, we spend almost five times more on defense than China with its 1.3 billion people, and nine times more than Russia. We spend more on defense each year than the next 15 biggest spenders combined.

Obviously, some of this money goes to important programs -- salaries for soldiers, equipment, training -- but the Pentagon, with its vast budget and complex accounting system, is also an infamous money pit. Every couple of years, the inspector general or the Government Accountability Office discovers that large sums of DOD money have been spent on mysterious, never-accounted-for purposes.

I wrote last week about DOD's difficulty tracking humanitarian assistance projects, but the problem isn't unique to such efforts. DOD's a big place, and stuff gets lost: money, programs, people, organizations, the occasional small war. I spent far too much time, during my stint at the Pentagon, telling irritable twenty-somethings on the Hill that the Pentagon was Very Sorry for certain apparent budget discrepancies. Mistakes have been made.

Even many easily understood costs seem to be spiraling out of control: health care already accounts for nearly 10 percent of the defense budget, and DOD spending on health care has grown twice as fast as health care spending in the civilian sector. In a goofy-but-illuminating exercise, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments concluded that if the defense budget increases only in line with inflation each year while health care costs continue to increase at their current rate, virtually the entire defense budget would go to health care costs by 2039. To say that the defense budget could use a long, hard look would be the understatement of the decade.

Notwithstanding that backdrop, Team Obama and Team Romney are eager to assure us that they'll give the Pentagon plenty of money. How much money? Obama: A lot. Romney: A lot, plus even more. "Supporting our troops" always plays well with voters, and the current threat of budget sequestration offers extra opportunities for campaign trail posturing.

"Mitt will begin by reversing Obama-era defense cuts," Romney's campaign website assures potential voters. President Obama, complains Romney, has "repeatedly sought to slash funds for our fighting men and women." (He ignores the fact that the few "cuts" so far have involved reductions to the budget for Overseas Contingency Operations, reflecting the end of the Iraq War, rather than from cuts to the base defense budget.) Right now, the DOD base budget accounts for about 3.6 percent of GDP. Romney promises that he'll set the base defense budget at a floor of 4 percent of GDP.

How much money is that? Larry Korb of the Center for American Progress Action Fund estimates that the Romney proposal would "result in $2.3 trillion in added spending over the next decade compared to the plan presented to Congress by the Obama administration." Boiled down, the Romney defense budget plan is simple: Give the guys with guns money money money.

As a strategy for dealing with Iraqi bandits, this approach makes sense. As a strategy for dealing with the Pentagon, it does not. For one thing, as noted above, "hand over the money" isn't a helpful approach to tough issues such as waste, fraud, or runaway health care costs. Romney promises to address such problems with "proper management," which is surely unobjectionable. But his pledge to get rid of "byzantine rules" and "wasteful practices" is remarkably short on detail.

It's also not clear that Pentagon leaders want all the money the Romney campaign and its Republican congressional allies are so eager to throw at them. Unlike Iraqi bandits (and more than a few Beltway Bandits), Pentagon leaders keep trying to turn down some of the money dangled in front of them. For every hour senior Pentagon officials spend apologizing to Congress for waste and inefficiency, they often spend another hour trying to fend off congressionally mandated waste and inefficiency.

When I was a newly minted Pentagon employee, one of the things that astounded me most was how hard it was to get Congress to stop funding stupid stuff. This should not have surprised me, since funding stupid stuff is one of Congress' constitutional functions, but it surprised me nonetheless. I recall, for instance, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' so-called "heartburn letters" to congressional appropriators. Most of his complaints related not to proposed funding cuts, but to Congress' insistence on giving DOD money for programs the military did not want or need, such as extra VH-71 helicopters or C-17 Globemaster IIIs.

How about President Obama's defense budget proposals? Obama rightly points out that sequestration -- which he says would "endanger" the military -- was not his idea. At the moment, both Republicans and Democrats are contentedly blaming each other for the sequestration threat, but both parties know that draconian defense cuts can -- and almost certainly will -- be avoided in a last-minute compromise.

President Obama, who has presided over several years of continued growth in the DOD base budget, is now proposing to shave about 1 percent from the base defense budget in fiscal year 2013. Adjusting for inflation, the Obama defense budget proposal would more or less maintain current levels of military spending over the next decade.

Back in March, senior military leaders testified that this miniscule future trimming of the defense base budget was an appropriate way to increase efficiency while protecting core needs. Republican congressman Paul Ryan -- now Romney's vice-presidential running mate -- responded sulkily, saying that he didn't "think the generals are giving us their true advice." (General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded more politely than might have been expected: " I think there's a difference between...having someone say they don't believe what you say versus ... calling us a collective of liars.")

Unlike Romney's arbitrary floor of 4 percent of GDP, Obama's budget proposal has the virtue of sanity. With the U.S. defense budget still larger, in real terms, than it has been at any point since World War II, the burden should be on those who want to increase DOD's budget to explain why more is so urgently necessary, particularly at a time when the economy is so weak and the federal deficit so high. Romney offers no explanation, just the kind of sententious posturing that generally substitutes for strategy: "The cost of preparedness may sometimes be high, but the cost of unpreparedness is almost always higher." (Preparedness for what, exactly?)

President Obama's proposed defense budget is less irresponsible than Mitt Romney's, but his approach to defense spending, which essentially hews to the status quo, is also unsatisfying.

With the election just months away, neither party is inclined to take on the hard questions: how should we understand the emerging security landscape? What are the real threats we face, and what are the opportunities? What does U.S. security mean, in a globalized and interconnected world? What kinds of risks are unavoidable, and what kind of trade-offs are inevitable? Is the military, as currently constituted, the right institution to respond to the most plausible threats and seize emerging opportunities? How might the military need to change for it to do what we'll need it to do? And then, finally: does our budget reflect our strategy, or drive our strategy?

If we don't start having a more serious discussion of those questions, we risk having a military with more and more money, but less and less ability to use it well.

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