How Do You Justify A $750 Billion Budget?

missiles
Missile Envy

W.J. Astore

I grew up on a steady diet of threat inflation.  Before I was born, bomber and missile “gaps” had been falsely touted as showing the Soviet Union was ahead of the U.S. in developing nuclear-capable weaponry (the reverse was true).  But those lies, which vastly exaggerated Soviet capabilities, perfectly served the needs of the military-industrial complex (hereafter, the Complex) in the USA.  Another example of threat inflation, common when I was a kid, was the Domino Theory, the idea that, if South Vietnam fell to communism, the entire region of Southeast Asia would fall as well, including Thailand and perhaps even countries like the Philippines.  Inflating the danger of communism was always a surefire method to promote U.S. defense spending and the interests of the Pentagon.

When I was in college, one book that opened my eyes was Andrew Cockburn’s “The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine.”  James Fallows’s “National Defense” was another book I read in those days, together with Helen Caldicott’s “Missile Envy.”  Early in the Reagan years, I recall those old charts that displayed Soviet ICBMs as being bigger than American ICBMs, as if missile size was everything.  The message was clear: the Soviets have more missiles, and they’re bigger!  Yet what really mattered was the accuracy and reliability of those missiles, areas where the U.S. had a decisive edge.  U.S. nuclear forces were also far more survivable than their Soviet counterparts, but such details were lost on most Americans.

Throughout my life, the U.S. “defense” establishment has consistently inflated the dangers presented by foreign powers, which brings me to the current Pentagon budget for 2020, which may reach $750 billion.  How to justify such an immense sum?  A large dollop of threat inflation might help…

With the Islamic State allegedly defeated in Syria and other terrorist forces more nuisances than existential threats, with the Afghan War apparently winding down (only 14,000 U.S. troops are deployed there) and with Trump professing a “love” fest with Kim Jong-un, where are today’s (and tomorrow’s) big threats?  Iran isn’t enough.  The only threats that seem big enough to justify colossal military spending are Russia and China.  Hence the new “cold war” we keep hearing about, which drives a “requirement” for big spending on lucrative weapons systems like new aircraft carriers, new fighters and bombers, newer and better nuclear warheads and missiles, and so forth.

Which brings me to the alleged Russian collusion story involving Trump.  As we now know, the Mueller Report found no collusion, but was that really the main point of the investigation and all the media hysteria?  The latter succeeded in painting Vladimir Putin and the Russians as enemies in pursuit of the death of American democracy.  Meanwhile Trump, who’d campaigned with some idea of a rapprochement with Russia, was driven by the investigation to take harsher stances against Russia, if only to prove he wasn’t a “Putin puppet.”  The result: most Americans today see Russia as a serious threat, even though the Russians spend far less on wars and weaponry than the U.S. does.

Threat inflation is nothing new, of course.  Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized it and did his best to control it in the 1950s, but even Ike had only limited success.  Other presidents, lacking Ike’s military experience and gravitas, have most frequently surrendered to the Complex.  The last president who tried with some consistency to control the Complex was Jimmy Carter, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian hostage crisis, and his own political fortunes drove him to launch a major military buildup, which was then accelerated by Reagan until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the early 1990s, I briefly heard about a peace dividend and America returning to being a normal country (i.e. anti-imperial) in normal times, but ambition and greed reared their ugly heads, and U.S. leaders became enamored with military power.  Rather than receding, America’s global empire grew, with no peace dividends forthcoming.  The attacks on 9/11 led the Bush/Cheney administration to double down on military action in its “global war on terror,” leading to disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that further served to engorge the Complex with money and power.

Today, faced with a debilitating national debt of $22 trillion and infrastructure that’s aptly described as “crumbling,” you’d think U.S. leaders would finally seek a peace dividend to lower our debt and rebuild our roads, bridges, dams, and related infrastructure.  But the Complex (including Congress, of course) is addicted to war and weapons spending, aided as ever by threat inflation and its close cousin, fearmongering about invading aliens at the border.

And there you have it: a $750 billion military budget sucking up more than sixty percent of discretionary spending by the federal government.  As Ike said, this is no way to live humanely, but it is a way for humanity to hang from a cross of iron.

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.”