The Pentagon’s $733 Billion “Floor”

$1.6 trillion to “modernize” this triad?  Doesn’t sound like a “peace dividend” or “new world order” to me

W.J. Astore

In testimony last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “longtime diplomat Eric Edelman and retired Admiral Gary Roughead said a $733-billion defense budget was ‘a baseline’ or a ‘floor’ – not the ideal goal – to maintain readiness and modernize conventional and nuclear forces,” reported USNI News.

Which leads to a question: How much money will satisfy America’s military-industrial complex? If $733 billion is a “floor,” or a bare minimum for national defense spending each year, how high is the ceiling?

Part of this huge sum of money is driven by plans to “modernize” America’s nuclear triad at an estimated cost of $1.6 trillion over 30 years.  America’s defense experts seek to modernize the triad when we should be working to get rid of it.  Perhaps they think that in the future nuclear winter will cancel out global warming?

Also last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a foreign policy speech that  addressed military spending in critical terms.  Here’s an excerpt:

The United States will spend more than $700 billion on defense this year alone. That is more than President Ronald Reagan spent during the Cold War. It’s more than the federal government spends on education, medical research, border security, housing, the FBI, disaster relief, the State Department, foreign aid-everything else in the discretionary budget put together. This is unsustainable. If more money for the Pentagon could solve our security challenges, we would have solved them by now.

How do we responsibly cut back? We can start by ending the stranglehold of defense contractors on our military policy. It’s clear that the Pentagon is captured by the so-called “Big Five” defense contractors-and taxpayers are picking up the bill.

If you’re skeptical that this a problem, consider this: the President of the United States has refused to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia in part because he is more interested in appeasing U.S. defense contractors than holding the Saudis accountable for the murder of a Washington Post journalist or for the thousands of Yemeni civilians killed by those weapons.

The defense industry will inevitably have a seat at the table-but they shouldn’t get to own the table.

These are sensible words from the senator, yet her speech was short on specifics when it came to cutting the Pentagon’s bloated budget.  It’s likely the senator’s cuts would be minor ones, since she embraces the conventional view that China and Russia are “peer” threats that must be deterred and contained by massive military force.

Which brings me to this week and the plaudits being awarded to President George H.W. Bush before his funeral and burial.  I respect Bush’s service in the Navy in World War II, during which he was shot down and nearly killed, and as president his rhetoric was more inclusive and less inflammatory than that used by President Trump.

But let’s remember a crucial point about President Bush’s foreign and defense policies: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bush could have charted a far more pacific course forward for America.  Under Bush, there could have been a true “peace dividend,” a truly “new world order.” Instead, Bush oversaw Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-91 and boasted America had kicked its “Vietnam Syndrome” once and for all (meaning the U.S. military could be unleashed yet again for more global military “interventions”).

Bush’s “new world order” was simply an expansion of the American empire to replace the Soviet one.  He threw away a unique opportunity to redefine American foreign policy as less bellicose, less expansionist, less interventionist, choosing instead to empower America’s military-industrial complex.  Once again, military action became America’s go-to methodology for reshaping the world, a method his son George W. Bush would disastrously embrace in Afghanistan and Iraq, two wars that proved a “Vietnam syndrome” remained very much alive.

In sum, defense experts now argue with straight faces that Trump’s major increases in defense spending constitute a new minimum, Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are content with tinkering around the edges of these massive budgets, and the mainstream media embraces George H.W. Bush as a visionary for peace who brought the Cold War to a soft landing.  And so it goes.

Note: for truly innovatory ideas to change America’s “defense” policies, consider these words of Daniel Ellsberg.  As he puts it:

“neither [political] party has promised any departure from our reliance on the military-industrial complex. Since [George] McGovern [in 1972], in effect. And he was the only one, I think, who—and his defeat taught many Democratic politicians they could not run for office with that kind of burden of dispossessing, even temporarily, the workers of Grumman, Northrup and General Dynamics and Lockheed, and the shipbuilders in Connecticut, and so forth.”

Kicking the Vietnam Syndrome

President George H.W. Bush, fist clenched, ready to smack down the Vietnam Syndrome
President George H.W. Bush, fist clenched, ready to smack down the Vietnam Syndrome

W.J. Astore

The Vietnam Syndrome refers to an alleged reluctance on the part of the United States to use military force after the disaster of the Vietnam War.  In a recent article, Tom Engelhardt reminds us that President George H.W. Bush referred to the success of Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-91 (which evicted Iraq from Kuwait) as helping America to overcome its reluctance to fight wars (a laudable achievement, right?).  In Bush’s words:

“It’s a proud day for America. And, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

Indeed, let’s give thanks to God for overcoming our reluctance to engage in wars of choice thousands of miles from American shores.  Wars that debilitate the U.S. even as they spread destruction among the peoples of foreign lands.

Let’s return to President Bush’s phrase and deconstruct it.  “It’s a proud day for America.”  Proud because the U.S. military, aided by coalition forces, defeated an Iraqi opponent that possessed a third-class military?  To use a sports analogy, would the New England Patriots football team be “proud” of defeating a Division III college football team?  “By God.”  Does God really march solely with American troops?  Did America win because its god is bigger than the Iraqi “idol” god, as Christian soldiers like General William Boykin have suggested in the past?  “Kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”  So it’s a good thing America has “kicked” its reluctance to engage in costly wars of intervention, not only in the immediate aftermath of Desert Storm, but for “all” time?

Following the example set by Engelhardt in his article, let’s play a game of role reversal here, and imagine Bush’s quotation coming from the mouths of others:

“It’s a proud day for Germany.  And, by God, we’ve kicked the Hitler/Nazi syndrome once and for all.”  Said by a newly unified Germany after invading Poland in 1991 to reclaim territory ceded in the aftermath of World War II.

“It’s a proud day for Russia.  And, by God, we’ve kicked the Afghan War syndrome once and for all.”  Said by Vladimir Putin after Russia’s invasion and conquest of Ukraine.

Now, imagine how U.S. leaders would respond to such statements.  Would they not be denounced as bombastic?  Propagandistic?  Delusionary?

One might argue that Desert Storm was an international “police action” in response to Iraqi aggression.  OK.  How about America’s ongoing war in Afghanistan?  The invasion of Iraq in 2003?  The destabilization of Libya?  An open-ended, and apparently never-ending, “global” war on terror?

The real “Vietnam Syndrome” was not a reluctance by the U.S. to use military force in the aftermath of that war.  It was a reluctance to face the legacies and lessons of that war, a failure truly to learn from its violent excesses, a failure to say “no, never again” and to mean it.

By continuing to wage unwinnable wars in regions of marginal interest to the American people, the country is slowly succumbing to this syndrome.  The cure is simple: put an end to these wars.  Only then can an American president truly speak of taking pride in kicking the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.