Ashton Carter, the President’s nominee to be the next defense secretary, is a brilliant man. But by far the best quality he has going for him is that he seems to understand the need to rein in a Pentagon now so out of control that it is difficult to fully comprehend or even explain.The largest government bureaucracy in the world, the Department of Defense, even after billions of dollars in cuts, now spends about $600 billion a year when everything is added in – that’s more than the entire GDP of Poland. It employs 1.4 million men and women in uniform, 700,000 civilians, and another 700,000 full time contractors. The Pentagon’s accounts are so vast and byzantine that it is probably impossible to do a thorough and honest audit of them.

Still, a recent Government Accountability Office report made a valiant effort and concluded that the total budget overruns for current weapons systems stand at nearly $500 billion. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program alone is now around $150 billion over budget. In other words, the cost overruns on one weapons system are more than the total defense budget of Britain and France put together!In 1961, Dwight Eisenhower warned against the ”unwarranted influence” of the ”military-industrial complex.”Fifty years later, on December 15, 2011 – to mark the anniversary of Eisenhower’s address – a renowned defense expert argued that things had gotten much worse and far more corrupt. Congress had itself been captured by the system, he said, which should now be called ”the military-industrial-congressional complex.”

American statesmen have always experimented with the use of limited military means to support foreign policy interests that are important, and worth engaging American power, but not vital. From the Barbary wars (fought against the Barbary States, which included parts of modern Libya) to gunboat diplomacy in Asia to the many military interventions over the past few decades (Grenada, Lebanon, Somalia, the no-fly zone over Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo), the United States has often tried to find ways to use its military yet not engage in all-out war. Some were more successful than others, but in all cases, the central task was to find the balance between the goals we sought and the means we were willing to deploy. The time we didn’t ask questions about the costs and simply escalated the means, we ended up in Vietnam.