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.