Bush's blank check

Do we really need to spend more than a trillion dollars a year to defeat small groups of terrorist fanatics?

Published June 15, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

War critics are rightly disappointed over the inability of congressional Democrats to mount an effective challenge to President Bush's Iraq adventure. What began as a frontal assault on the war, with tough talk about deadlines and timetables, has settled into something like a guerrilla-style campaign to chip away at war policy until the edifice crumbles.

Still, Democratic criticism of administration policy in Iraq looks muscle-bound when compared with the party's readiness to go along with the president's massive military buildup, domestically and globally. Nothing underlines the tacit alliance between so-called foreign policy realists and hard-line exponents of neoconservative-style empire building more than the Washington consensus that the United States needs to expand the budget of the Defense Department without end, while increasing the size of the U.S. armed forces. In addition, spending on the 16 agencies and other organizations that make up the official U.S. "intelligence community" -- including the CIA -- and on homeland security is going through the roof.

The numbers are astonishing and, except for a hardy band of progressives in the House of Representatives, Democrats willing to call for shrinking the bloated Pentagon or intelligence budgets are essentially nonexistent. Among presidential candidates, only Rep. Dennis Kucinich and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson even mention the possibility of cutting the defense budget. Indeed, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are now competing with each other in their calls for expansion of the armed forces. Both are supporting manpower increases in the range of 80,000 to 100,000 troops, mostly for the Army and the Marines. (The current, Bush-backed authorization for fiscal year 2008 calls for the addition of 65,000 Army recruits and 27,000 Marines by 2012.)

How astonishing are the budgetary numbers? Consider the trajectory of U.S. defense spending over the past nearly two decades. From the end of the Cold War into the mid-1990s, defense spending actually fell significantly. In constant 1996 dollars, the Pentagon's budget dropped from a peacetime high of $376 billion, at the end of President Reagan's military buildup in 1989, to a low of $265 billion in 1996. (That compares with post-World War II wartime highs of $437 billion in 1953, during the Korean War, and $388 billion in 1968, at the peak of the Vietnam War.) After the Soviet empire peacefully disintegrated, the 1990s decline wasn't exactly the hoped-for "peace dividend," but it wasn't peanuts either.

However, since Sept. 12, 2001, defense spending has simply exploded. For 2008, the Bush administration is requesting a staggering $650 billion, compared with the already staggering $400 billion the Pentagon collected in 2001. Even subtracting the costs of the ongoing "global war on terrorism" -- which is what the White House likes to call its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- for fiscal year 2008, the Pentagon will still spend $510 billion. In other words, even without the president's two wars, defense spending will have nearly doubled since the mid-1990s. Given that the United States has literally no significant enemy state to fight anywhere on the planet, this represents a remarkable, if perverse, achievement. As a famous Democratic politician once asked: Where is the outrage?

Neocons, war profiteers and hardliners of all stripes still argue that the "enemy" we face is a nonexistent bugaboo called "Islamofascism." It's easy to imagine them laughing into their sleeves while they continue to claim that the way to battle low-tech, ragtag bands of leftover al-Qaida crazies is by spending billions of dollars on massively expensive, massively powerful, futuristic weapons systems.

As always, a significant part of the defense bill is eaten up by these big-ticket items. According to the reputable Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, there are at least 28 pricey weapons systems that, just by themselves, will rack up a whopping $44 billion in 2008. The projected cost of these 28 systems -- which include fighter jets, the B-2 bomber, the V-22 Osprey, various advanced naval vessels, cruise-missile systems, and the ultra-expensive aircraft carriers the Navy always demands -- will, in the end, be more than $1 trillion. And that's not even including the "Star Wars" missile defense system, which at the moment soaks up about $11 billion a year.

By one count, U.S. defense spending in 2008 will amount to 29 times the combined military spending of six so-called rogue states: Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. The United States accounts for almost half -- approximately 48 percent -- of the entire world's spending on what we like to call "defense." Again, according to the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, U.S. defense spending this year amounts to exactly twice the combined military spending of the next six biggest military powers: China, Russia, the U.K., France, Japan and Germany.

Despite this, like presidential candidates Clinton and Obama, the Democratic Leadership Council is pushing hard to tie the party to increased military spending. Writes journalist Aaron Glantz:

"America needs a bigger and better military," reads an October report by Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, the policy arm of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that counts Senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Evan Bayh (D-IN) among its members.

"Escalating conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the all-volunteer force to the breaking point," the report says. "Democrats should step forward with a plan to repair the damage, by adding more troops, replenishing depleted stocks of equipment, and reorganizing the force around the new missions of unconventional warfare, counterinsurgency, and civil reconstruction."

So hostile is the atmosphere in Congress to cuts of any sort in military spending that even a recent effort by traditional defense critics to suggest ways to reorient the Pentagon's budgetary priorities turned out to involve only the most modest of rebalancings. A coalition of these critics from organizations such as the Institute for Policy Studies, the Center for American Progress (CAP) and other left and left-center groups, including experts such as Larry Korb of CAP, Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives and William Hartung of the World Policy Institute, suggested cutting $56 billion from offensive weapons systems, but then proposed to shift fully $50 billion of that into areas such as homeland security, international peacekeeping and "nation building."

Why, exactly, we need to increase Pentagon spending even in those categories is mystifying, since no country is actually threatening us, and if the Iraqi and Afghan wars were settled, the problem of terrorism could be adequately dealt with by mobilizing relatively modest numbers of CIA officers and FBI and law enforcement agents. The fact that such respected defense critics feel compelled to put forward such a lame proposal is a sign of our crimped times, a sign that, pragmatically speaking, it is simply verboten to criticize Pentagon bloat, even given the current, Democratic-controlled Congress. It's not that the public is pro-military spending either. Indeed, in a Gallup Poll conducted in February, fully 43 percent of Americans said they believed that the United States is spending "too much" on defense, while only 20 percent said "too little." Rather, it's a sign that the political class -- perhaps swayed by the influence of the military-industrial complex and its army of lobbyists -- hasn't yet caught up to public opinion.

And it's important to keep in mind that the official Pentagon budget doesn't begin to tell the full story of American "defense" spending. In addition to the $650 billion the Pentagon will get in 2008, huge additional sums will be spent on veterans care and interest on the national debt accumulated from previous DOD spending that ballooned the deficit. In all, those two accounts add $263 billion to the Pentagon budget, for a grand total of $913 billion.

Then there are the intelligence and homeland security budgets. Back in the 1990s, when I started reporting on the CIA and the U.S. intelligence community, its entire budget was about $27 billion. Last year, although the number is supposed to be top secret, the Bush administration revealed that intelligence spending had reached $44 billion. For 2008, according to a recent report in Salon by Tim Shorrock, the intelligence budget will be at least $48 billion.

Again, when I first wrote about "homeland security" in the late 1990s -- it was then called "counterterrorism" -- the Clinton administration was spending $17 billion for interagency budgets in this area. For 2008, the budget of the Department of Homeland Security will be $46.4 billion.

To a rational observer, such spending -- totaling more than $1 trillion in 2008, according to the figures I've just cited -- seems quite literally insane. During the Cold War, hawks scared Americans into tolerating staggering but somewhat lesser sums by invoking the specter of Soviet communism. Does anyone, anywhere, truly believe that we need to spend more than a trillion dollars a year to defend ourselves against small bands of al-Qaida fanatics?

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.

By Robert Dreyfuss

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Afghanistan Iraq Iraq War Middle East National Security