How Do You Justify A $750 Billion Budget?

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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 Budget: Aim High!

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Those old Dreadnought battleships were expensive.  Let’s build more!

W.J. Astore

As a candidate, Donald Trump occasionally tossed a few rhetorical grenades in the Pentagon’s general direction.  He said America’s wars wasted trillions of dollars.  He said he was smarter than the generals on ISIS (“Believe me!”).  He said the F-35 jet fighter cost way too much, along with a planned replacement for Air Force One.  He said he’d be much tougher on companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and other major defense contractors.

Instead of toughness, Trump as president has proven to be the Pentagon’s lackey.  Recently, he opined the Pentagon’s budget was out of control (“crazy”), and he suggested a 5% cut in fiscal year (FY) 2020.  That trial balloon was shot down quickly as Trump directed Secretary of Defense Mattis to submit a record-setting $750 billion budget for FY 2020.  This is roughly $50 billion more than the FY 2018 budget for “defense.”

Trump’s big boost in spending put me to mind of a famous quip by Winston Churchill in the days of “Dreadnought” battleships.  Prior to World War I, Britain was squabbling over how many of these very expensive battleships needed to be built to deter Germany and to keep command of the seas.  Churchill’s famous quip:

“The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight.”

In this case, the Pentagon had postured they needed roughly $733 billion in FY 2020, Trump had suggested $700 billion, and they compromised on $750 billion.

Once again, Trump proves his mastery of “the art of the deal.”  Not.

Trump Is Hurting the Pentagon!  (By Giving It Too Much Money)

Pentagon-Money
Throwing money at the Pentagon is never a good idea

W.J. Astore

Anyone who’s been in the military knows what happens as the end of a fiscal year approaches: wild spending.  Any money that’s left in your budget must be spent, if only to justify next year’s budgetary appropriation.  Woe to any unit with leftover money!  Not only is there no incentive to economize at the Pentagon: there’s a negative incentive to save money, and a positive one to spend as much as possible within your yearly allotment, while complaining to anyone within earshot that you never have enough.

Trump has already promised to enlarge Pentagon funding by 10% next year, or roughly $54 billion.  According to Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, Trump’s budget is all about “hard-power,” a signal to “our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration.”  At $54 billion, that is indeed a very expensive signal.

Forget about the global fight against ISIS: The big focus at the Pentagon is now going to be on spending that windfall of taxpayers’ dollars.  And, unlike the ISIS fight, which is expected to last for at least another generation, the “fight” to spend lots of money quickly is one that the Pentagon will surely win.  Believe me, the military-industrial-Congressional complex knows how to spend.

Want to make the Pentagon a better, more effective, place?  Cut its budget by 10%.  And keep cutting, year by year, while downsizing its mission.  Force it to economize – force it to think.

Let me give you a few examples.  How does the stealthy, super-expensive, F-35 jet fighter contribute to the war on terror?  It doesn’t.  Does the U.S. Navy really need more super-expensive aircraft carriers?  No, it doesn’t.  Do U.S. nuclear forces really need to be modernized and expanded at a cost of nearly a trillion dollars over the next few decades?  No, they don’t.  More F-35s, more carriers, and more nukes are not going “to make America great again.”  What they will do is consume enormous amounts of money for little real gain.

Throwing cash at the Pentagon is not the way to greater security: it’s a guarantee of frivolous military wish lists and “more of the same, only more” thinking.  In case you haven’t noticed, the Pentagon’s record since 9/11/2001 is more than a little mixed; some would say it’s been piss-poor.  Why is this?  One thing is certain: shortage of money hasn’t been the problem.

Want to send a signal about “hard-power,” President Trump?  Go hard on the Pentagon by cutting its budget.  Spend the savings on alternative energy development and similar investments in American infrastructure.  That’s the best way to put America first.