The Corner

Defense Is Different

“Death is different.” Do you remember that bumper sticker? It was an anti-capital punishment sticker. Well, defense is different. I will tell you what I mean.

I appreciate the Simpson-Bowles proposal as a good-faith effort, I really do. And I do not think that national defense should be immune to budgetary considerations. I know that money is not unlimited. I know all about “Pentagon waste”: thousand-dollar toilet seats and the rest of it. Still, defense is different. And if it should not enjoy immunity to budgetary considerations, it should be given great leeway.

Caspar Weinberger was an unusual kind of defense secretary. Remember, he had been OMB director, and had earned the nickname “Cap the Knife.” He was not a waster. But he knew the importance of defense, and he knew the place of defense in the governmental scheme of things.

Traditionally, defense secretaries presented to Congress an inflated budget, in the expectation that Congress would come back with a much lower number, whereupon a compromise was reached. The Pentagon would get just about what it needed in the first place.

In other words, the game worked like this: Defense officials would decide that they needed three-quarters of a zillion dollars. So, they would submit a budget for a zillion. Congress would say, “That’s ridiculous. We have a duty of oversight. Half a zillion.” Defense would say, “No way, we’ll get eaten alive by the Reds.” Congress would say, “Okay, three-quarters of a zillion.” Defense would respond, maybe with pouts, “Fine.”

Weinberger was different. As defense secretary, he would figure out exactly the budget required, to carry out the administration’s defense strategy. And he would submit that number: not a penny more, not a penny less. Congress would be nonplussed, grousing that Weinberger was not playing the game.

Ours is a very rich country, even in straitened times. We can afford our defense, whatever those needs are. In Britain, Cameron and the Tories, and their Lib-Dem partners, are gutting defense. Some “traditional” Brits are howling. But, you know, Britain is not the indispensable nation. A Britain disarmed is one thing, an America disarmed, or armed too lightly, is another.

And we get to the fundamental question, What is the federal government for? What is Washington for? It is certainly for the physical protection of the nation — not necessarily for “free false teeth” (as WFB would say) and similar things, which are gravy, luxuries, at best. Are we rich enough to figure out what our defense needs are and then go find the money for it? I think so. Moreover, we’d better be.

I could sermonize on — but you get my point.


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