VOLTAIRE WAS No accountant, but the 18th century philosopher's observation that "the best is the enemy of the good" applies when analyzing the Bush administration's $725-billion defense request for next year.
Congress needs to be far more rigorous in scrutinizing the Pentagon's wish lists than it has been since 9/11. Because we cannot mount perfect defenses against terrorist attack -- only good ones -- and because taxes and deficits aren't limitless, choices must be made.
Wartime has proved too much of a temptation for wasteful military spending that goes unquestioned. Why, for instance, is the administration insisting that hundreds of millions of dollars be poured into the Marine Corps' glitch-plagued, tilt-wing V-22 Osprey program? It's also cheeky of the Pentagon to request funds for two F-35 Joint Strike Fighters under the "reconstituting the force" ledger that's meant to catalog the costs of replacing equipment lost in war, considering the planes won't be ready for combat until 2010.
The overarching question isn't whether the country is spending too much on defense but whether it is spending its resources on the right priorities. By modern historical standards, military leaders are quick to note, the 4% of gross domestic product currently devoted to defense spending is still on the low side. And Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates may have been right in his congressional testimony last week when he said that the nation ought to be devoting at least 5% of its GDP to defense, given U.S. commitments.
But no national wealth should be diverted to defense contractor fantasies with little value in today's world. Billions are being requested for Cold War relics of questionable use, such as Virginia-class submarines for about $2.5 billion a pop. On a more positive note, President Bush's budget request does include much-needed sums for the expansion of the Army and Marine Corps as well as the National Guard.
The U.S. remains the world's indispensable power, and until the rest of the democratic world takes more responsibility for collective security, it will be an unfortunate fact of life that defense spending soaks up about one-fifth of the federal budget. It makes no sense to deny this reality, nor to dispute the nation's need to be prepared to confront any number of potential threats ranging from Al Qaeda to a more conventional regional aggressor. The nation could hardly afford to spend less on defense; but when it comes to national security, it also can't afford to spend unwisely.