Irrational Security: The Politics of Defense From Reagan to Obama; Buying National Security: How America Plans and Pays for Its Global Role and Safety at Home

In This Review

Irrational Security: The Politics of Defense from Reagan to Obama
By Daniel Wirls
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010
256 pp. $60.00
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Buying National Security: How America Plans and Pays for Its Global Role and Safety at Home
By Gordon Adams,Cindy Williams
Routledge, 2009
368 pp. $44.95
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Instead of reaping the peace dividend anticipated at the end of the Cold War, the United States now spends as much on defense as the rest of the world put together, even though its current enemies are insurgents and much weaker states -- not another superpower. Wirls provides a brisk and highly critical account of how this happened, starting with Ronald Reagan, noting the caution of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the face of dire warnings about the dangers of assuming that the world had become a safer place, and then dwelling on the profligacy of George W. Bush. Wirls' target is what he sees as a built-in bias for spending on the military without any proper debate over whether the money is well spent. After a decade of frustrating military campaigns, and with the country facing such a staggering budget deficit, Wirls gives ammunition to those who believe that the Pentagon's budget is a prime target for cuts.

Anybody seeking to get a grip on defense budgets and the associated expenditures on diplomacy, foreign aid, intelligence, and homeland security should start with the authoritative description by Adams and Williams of how these budgets are put together. It is hard to imagine that anyone will ever do a more thorough job making sense of the bewildering complexity of the relevant processes. When it was formed in 2003, the Department of Homeland Security, to take one example, brought together 22 disparate agencies, all with their own approaches -- a challenge with which it is still struggling. Alarmingly, this is just a snapshot of a system that is, as Adams and Williams regularly remark, "in flux." They are aware of the strains on the process and have suggestions for improvement and reform, but with such complexity there will always be opportunities for parochial influences.