Rand Paul loves Tomahawk missiles

The great libertarian hope embraces the "Obama is weak on defense" argument

Published March 27, 2014 3:56PM (EDT)

Rand Paul                      (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Rand Paul (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Sen. Rand Paul is a Different Kind of Republican. He will drag the party, kicking and screaming, toward a new kind of conservatism that appeals more to today's youth, who embrace liberty and are skeptical of foreign intervention. The millennials will flock to him. Rand Paul also would like you to know that the Pentagon must keep buying Tomahawk missiles.

That's the thesis of Paul's column at Breitbart.com, which begins with a pledge of allegiance to "Ronald Reagan’s policy of 'Peace through Strength.'" Paul is outraged that the Obama administration's latest budget calls for the Department of Defense to buy fewer new Tomahawk missiles in 2015, and then no missiles at all after that. While the eventual zeroing out of Tomahawk procurement has yet to make much of an impact in the mainstream press, the right-wing media has been bubbling with outrage on the subject for days already.

Paul's Op-Ed makes more sense if you believe, as he implies, that "Obama" plans to "get rid of" all Tomahawk missiles, rather than that his Defense Department plans to stop buying new ones. "This is a mistake and will weaken our defenses," Paul says. "There are reportedly no plans to replace it with another comparable weapon, or any weapon, for that matter." (This is, obviously, untrue.)

Wait, isn't Paul supposed to be the libertarian anti-interventionist Republican? The only one who is actually serious about cutting the size of the government, including the bloated military budget? He is, yes, but that doesn't make him some hippie.

Nobody wants to cut spending, including Pentagon waste and abuse, more than me. I agree with former Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen who has said that the greatest threat to our national security is the national debt.

But I don’t want to cut weapons that have been integral to maintaining a strong military.

We should retain our strength and strategic advantages while looking for ways to reform the Pentagon and cut waste.

Here we see Paul trying to thread the needle by adopting a form of the "Obama wants us to be weak" argument that is compatible with his oft-stated belief that defense spending can be (and should be) deeply cut without harming our national defense. That position, along with his general dove-ishness, is what makes him a unique figure among modern Republicans, who have long been hypocrites on the subject of government spending. But that position is also what may make Paul open to attacks for being weak on national defense in a Republican presidential primary contest. So here is his bumper sticker solution: Cut "waste," not missiles.

Paul then links to Sen. Tom Coburn's exhaustive study of what Sen. Tom Coburn believes the Pentagon should not be spending money on. It's an interesting document, and worth reading. Coburn is one of the few Washington Republicans who is quite sincere in his (completely wrongheaded) belief that the national debt is a severe problem that must be dealt with by any means necessary, including the gutting of popular programs and agencies. Coburn's report finds that a lot of Pentagon research grants fund scientific studies that are only tangentially related to "defense." DARPA spends a (poorly overseen) fortune on pie-in-the-sky sci-fi research. The Pentagon is funding a few very expensive elementary schools on American soil for reasons dating back to the era of legal segregation. It operates a massive chain of domestic grocery stores and commissaries as a legacy of a program that perhaps made more sense in the 19th century.

So there is indeed a ton of non-defense-related stuff (or "waste" in Coburn-speak) in the Pentagon budget. That is because after years of conservative deficit hysteria combined with belligerent warmongering, it eventually became easier to fund stuff that our elected representatives feel the government ought to fund -- including scientific research and development in a variety of fields -- by saying it was vital to our national security and sticking it in the sacrosanct Pentagon budget. Maybe the Pentagon shouldn't fund some of these things. But many of these things also keep a lot of civilians and veterans employed, and they are funding a great deal of scientific research. Coburn says that other agencies should fund the non-defense programs the Pentagon currently funds. But in this political environment, the more likely outcome of taking these things out of the Pentagon budget is that they will not be funded at all.

And weapons are frequently in the same category -- things in the Pentagon budget more for political than "security" reasons -- as all that waste Coburn and Paul are mad about. Congress effectively forces the military to buy overpriced and broken warplanes that it does not need or want as a sort of backdoor industrial policy aimed at keeping a few factories open and constituents employed (and a few gigantic industries profitable). Tomahawk missiles are among the most expensive pieces of hardware designed solely to blow up that mankind has ever invented. The Pentagon says it has enough of them already.

The reduction reflects shifting investment to a new next-generation land attack weapon, said Lt. Caroline Hutcheson, a Navy spokeswoman at the Pentagon, who also noted that the current inventory of Block IV Tactical Tomahawks exceeds combat requirements. A recertification line for existing missiles will be established to retain effectiveness of current TacToms, she added.

The Pentagon budget, like all government spending, is an expression of priorities. Rand Paul is arguing that the Pentagon should stop spending money on low-cost grocery stores for veterans before it stops spending money on additional expensive war machines that it already has a ton of. He says that those who disagree seek to "weaken our defenses." It did not take long for this new Republican to begin sounding quite a lot like an old one.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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