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.
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.”
A few items I’ve been saving up for quick comments:
Remember when civilians were supposed to control the military? Not in Trump’s White House. Besides putting retired generals in charge (e.g. Defense Secretary James Mattis), Trump is throwing money at the Pentagon while empowering “his” generals to do what they wish. As FP:Foreign Policy put it today:
Frustrated by lack of influence and disheartened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, Department of Defense civilians are heading for the door, leaving key positions unfilled in a Pentagon increasingly run by active-duty or retired military officers, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman writes.
Described in interviews with a dozen former and current DOD officials, the exodus has insiders and observers worried that civilian control of the military is being undercut.
“The Joint Staff and the [combatant commanders] are having a field day,” said one Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They don’t answer any requests, they feel emboldened, and Policy is really struggling.”
As commander-in-chief, Trump has largely been AWOL. When things go bad (like the Yemen raid early in 2017), he blames his generals. Instead of “The buck stops here,” the motto of Harry S Truman, who knew how to serve as commander-in-chief, Trump’s motto is “The buck never stops here — unless it’s a literal buck I can add to the Trump empire’s balance sheet.”
The U.S. military’s commander-in-chief has deserted his post, but the Pentagon doesn’t seem to mind.
Meanwhile, even with roughly $700 billion in yearly budgetary authority, with more billions on the way, the Pentagon is warning it may not be able to win a war against China or Russia unless it gets even more money! Here’s a quick report from CNN:
Could the US lose a war against China or Russia? It might, according to a new report from a bipartisan panel of military experts. The report warns that the Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy doesn’t have enough resources, which puts the country at greater risk of losing a military conflict with the Chinese or the Russians.
I’m shocked, shocked, the U.S. might lose a war against China or Russia! When the U.S. can’t even win a war against the lowly Taliban in Afghanistan after 17+ years.
The “solution” is always more money and resources for the Pentagon. How about this instead: Don’t fight a war against China or Russia … period. Or for that matter against any other country that doesn’t pose a real and pressing threat to the United States.
You have to hand it to the Pentagon: the generals know how to launch preemptive attacks. Not against foreign armies, mind you, but against what is perceived as “the enemy within.” The military-industrial complex knows the Pentagon budget could conceivably shrink in 2020, so they’re already claiming “the world’s finest military” is in danger of slipping a notch … unless it gets more money.
The only “war” the Pentagon is clearly winning is the war for money and influence in the American “Homeland.”
Finally, there’s the grim news the Trump administration is pulling out of the INF Treaty with Russia that eliminated intermediate range nuclear weapons in 1987. That treaty was a remarkable achievement by the Reagan administration: it got rid of nuclear weapons such as the SS-20 on the Soviet side and the Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) on the American side, weapons which were considered “first-strike” and therefore destabilizing to nuclear deterrence. The Trump administration wants to “invest” in more nukes, including intermediate-range ones, supposedly to deter the Russians, who can already be destroyed dozens of times over by America’s current crop of nuclear weapons.
Cost of nuclear modernization to the U.S.? At least $1.2 trillion (yes–trillion) over the next thirty years. Weapons that, if they’re used, will only make the radioactive rubble bounce a little bit higher. More MADness indeed.
An unchecked Pentagon promises ill not just for America but for the world. Ike knew this. So did many other U.S. presidents. Trump is too busy tweeting and making a buck to care.
Though it’s unconfirmed that Congressman Everett M. Dirksen ever uttered perhaps the most famous words attributed to him: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money,” the sentiment surely needs to be updated for America’s profligate military moment. Replace “billion” with “trillion” and you have the perfect catchphrase for today’s Pentagon.
Consider the following facts:
The F-35 jet fighter is projected to cost $1.45 trillion over the life of the program.
Modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is projected to cost $1.2 trillion, though some estimates suggest $1.7 trillion as the more likely sum.
America’s Afghan War has already cost $1 trillion. Add to that another $45+ billion to support war ops for this year, and perhaps the same amount of spending each year for the next decade.
A low-ball estimate for America’s Iraq War is $1 trillion, but when one adds in veterans health care and similar long-term issues, the cost rises into the $2-3 trillion range.
Each year, spending on the Pentagon, Homeland Security, wars, nuclear weapons, the VA, and interest on the national debt associated with previous military spending approaches $1 trillion.
We’re talking about real money, right?
Yet all this spending is scarcely debated within Congress. Together with the Trump administration, Congress is a rubber stamp for the Pentagon. Meanwhile, Congress will fight tooth and nail over a few million dollars to support the arts, humanities, and similar “wasteful” programs. Planned Parenthood is always under attack, despite the paltry sum they receive (roughly half a billion) to provide vital functions for women’s health. Even the $200 billion promised by Trump to support infrastructure improvements is a trickle of money compared to the gusher of funds dedicated to the Pentagon and all of its exotic WMD.
People laughed at Bernie Sanders when he proposed health care for all and free education in state colleges. That socialist fool! America can’t afford that! Indeed, much better for people to go into debt as they struggle to pay for health care or college. That’s private enterprise and “freedom” for you. Own the debt and you can own the world.
No — Bernie Sanders wasn’t crazy. America could easily afford universal health care and virtually free education at state colleges and universities. Our elites simply choose not to consider these proposals, let alone fund them. But more nukes? More wars? More jets and subs and tanks? Right this way, my boy!
All these trillions for weapons and wars — one thing is certain: “freedom,” as they say, sure isn’t free.
Update (2/27/18): At TomDispatch.com, Bill Hartung goes into greater detail on the Pentagon’s massive budget for 2018 and 2019. As he notes: “The figures contained in the recent budget deal that kept Congress open, as well as in President Trump’s budget proposal for 2019, are a case in point: $700 billion for the Pentagon and related programs in 2018 and $716 billion the following year. Remarkably, such numbers far exceeded even the Pentagon’s own expansive expectations. According to Donald Trump, admittedly not the most reliable source in all cases, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reportedly said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we got everything we wanted’ — a rare admission from the head of an organization whose only response to virtually any budget proposal is to ask for more.”
The title of Hartung’s article sums it up: The Pentagon Budget as Corporate Welfare for Weapons Makers.
Put succinctly, it’s warfare as welfare — and wealth-care — for the military-industrial complex.