In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, former House majority leader Dick Armey combines with his FreedomWorks partner Matt Kibbe to suggest “What Congress Should Cut” in order to reduce the deficit and debt.

The piece has many strengths. In particular, Armey has long been a student of the domestic discretionary portions of the federal budget – that is, domestic programs which require annual congressional appropriations. Thus, he’s able to rattle off an impressive list of departments and programs that merit the budget-cutting axe. And he and Kibbe recognize the expertise that Rep. Paul Ryan, of Roadmap for America’s Future fame and who as chairman of the House Budget Committee will write the most politically significant piece of legislation this year, possesses on the need and ways in which to rein in the growth of entitlement programs.

But Armey is noticeably non-specific in discussing what might be cut from Pentagon budgets. On defense spending, he merely allows that “it should not be exempt from scrutiny,” defers to Defense Secretary Robert Gates whose “proposed savings” (or, more accurately, “cuts directed by the White House”) make “a start.” And, echoing unchallenged conventional wisdom, the piece insists that “with such dramatic increases in appropriations, it is not plausible that all resources are being spent prudently.”

This amounts, in effect, to a confession of ignorance in national defense matters.

To begin with, there’s no one who thinks that defense should be “exempt from scrutiny,” regarding both whether federal dollars are being rightly spent or whether they’re buying the military capabilities the nation needs. And it’s this second question – quite different from any issues of “waste, fraud and abuse” – that is infinitely more important. 

Take, for example, the case of the Navy’s new Zumwalt class of destroyers, which is not in fact a traditional destroyer but a new class of battleship (in part fulfilling a 1996 congressional mandate – a year in which Armey was majority leader – to provide naval fire support to troops ashore). The Zumwalt is, without question, the best battleship ever built. It has a stealthy hull design and an amazing gun that can shoot upwards of 80 miles.  When first designed, the Navy and Marine Corps were in the throes of their “From the Sea” obsession with littoral power projection and operations close to shore. Alas, the developments of recent years and especially the modernization of the Chinese military have severely limited the value of such a ship. And so the Navy has chosen to build just three Zumwalts rather than 32, and upgrade the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class, a true destroyer with superior air and missile defense and antisubmarine warfare capabilities.   This won’t “save” the Navy any money, nor is it an “efficiency” move. The cancellation of the Zumwalt and the revival of the Arleigh Burke program is a matter of military effectiveness.  In defense “prudence” mostly measures what we buy, much less how we buy it.

Further, the whole idea that there must be a lot of wasted defense spending itself deserves scrutiny. That scrutiny should begin with a realization that America is fighting two wars and that the American way of war is to be profligate with dollars and parsimonious with lives. In fact, the greatest “procurement scandals” of the post-9/11 years reflect the bureaucracy’s tendency to false economies; believing for too long that the wars would be brief affairs and not wishing to be embroiled in “nation-building,” the Bush administration was slow to recognize the requirement for improved soldier body armor or protective vehicles like the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) trucks. Those MRAPs have little use beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s even the case that the monster models used in Iraq can’t easily be used in Afghanistan. To an economist, the $25 billion spent looks like an investment that will never be fully recouped. To a commander in battle, it’s an essential tool. For many soldiers and Marines, it’s been a life-saver. To an American citizen, it might be regarded as a moral obligation to the few who fight from the many who don’t.

And why should the U.S. military be simply indistinguishable from any other federal bureaucracy? If anything, the Pentagon is perhaps the sole example of an agency that accomplishes its mission. If the Department of Education taught our children as well as the Department of Defense does our fighting, then surveys of student achievement would find very different results. If Alan Greenspan had been as good at his trade as Gen. David Petraeus is at his, perhaps unemployment might be lower.

Resolving our government’s fiscal crisis is a question of political choice, not an accountant’s balancing of the books. It’s even more, as the Roadmap makes clear: it’s a moral question. Paul Ryan’s call is not simply for freer economic enterprise, but for the public virtues of limited but energetic government. This is a Whiggish argument about the purposes of government, not a libertarian argument about the size of government.

In a time of war but also when America’s military preeminence is in question on a variety of fronts – from Iran’s nukes to China’s missiles – those who believe that defense spending should be “on the table” in budget-cutting debates have an obligation to be specific about what they’re willing to do without. Gaseous appeals to waste, fraud and abuse are intellectually irresponsible and strategically myopic.