A $700 Billion Boondoggle

One of the key initiatives that President Obama announced during the State of the Union address was a freeze on federal spending increases, and one key area of spending he made a point of exempting was the defense budget.   That reminded me of this essay on US military spending by the Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow.  He does a fine job of listing the threats the United States faces in the world and our analyzing our ability to meet them, but one statistic jumped out at me: for 2010 the Pentagon budget will be roughly $700 billion, this, Bandow notes, is only a little more than the inflation-adjusted $774.6 billion the United States spent on its military in 1945.  Let’s remember that back in 1945 the United States was embroiled in a war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, possessors of two of the most formidable military machines the world has ever known; in 2010 we are locked in battle with a collection of tribal insurgents, cave-dwelling mujahadin, fishermen-turned-pirates, and wannabe jihadis trying to blow up their underwear and shoes – the Axis Powers they most certainly are not.

Heading into our eighth year in Iraq things are decidedly better than they were in the middle of the last decade, but it’s hard to declare “victory”: suicide bombings are still occurring with disturbing regularity, sectarian violence simmers just beneath the surface of daily life and the danger remains that the Iraqi national government will fracture along ethnic lines.  In Afghanistan the situation is even worse with insurgents active across much of the country and negotiations with the Taliban, our sworn enemy for the past nine years, now being openly discussed. 

Well, if $700 billion can’t buy outright victories, it can at least make us feel safe, right?  Not if our reaction to the would-be airplane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is any indication.  Now the rush is on to install expensive hi-tech full-body scanners in all of our airports to detect any future Abdulmutallabs.  These machines would replace the hi-tech, high-cost “sniffer” machines we rushed to install after the failed attack of the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid - only to find out that they didn’t work.  So much for feeling safe. 

It’s enough to make you wonder if we’re spending our $700 billion wisely, except that to merely question American military spending opens one up to a host of attacks: that you’re a peacenik, irresponsible, naïve, ill-informed, or worst of all, a terrorist-appeaser. In the last century though among the critics of US military spending were three of our most-decorated, most-respected generals – Smedley Butler, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Colin Powell.  Butler served in the early part of the 20th century, so his may be a name unfamiliar to some, but during his Marine Corps career he was awarded the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, twice.  Gen. Butler believed in using the military for only two reasons, “one is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights.”  Butler said that war for any other reason is “simply a racket,” which was also the title of his 1934 book “War is a Racket.”  Looking back at a career of leading troops into battle in a host of Latin American and Caribbean countries, Butler argued that it was not for the two reasons he identified, but rather as he put it for “big business, for Wall Street and for the bankers.”

A generation later, just days before leaving office, President Eisenhower addressed the nation to say farewell.  But he also used his address to warn about the growth of what he termed “the military-industrial complex.”  Eisenhower explained that with the Cold War came an enormous military build-up, one that created a whole new class of industry whose sole business was in building armaments.  Perhaps because of the knowledge he’d gained in the European Theater during World War II, Eisenhower knew the dangers of a militarized society, he warned that government “must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Just a few years ago, General Colin Powell put his own spin on Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex theory, warning instead of what he termed the terror-industrial complex.  Simply put, Powell was concerned that an industry was arising to deal with terror threats, but that this industry also continually found new threats of terrorism for which it continually proposed new (and for those in the industry, lucrative) solutions.  This spurred waves of fear of terrorism that had little linkage to real-world threats, but that did succeed in getting the public to clamor for more resources to be dedicated to the fight, and advocating for increased defense spending in the face of terrorism has proved to be both good politics and good business. Amazingly, Powell’s talk of the terror-industrial complex passed largely unnoticed by the mainstream media.

Summing up the theses put forward by the three generals – that the US often uses its military for reasons that have little to do with our national interests, that a huge economy has grown up in supplying material for the military, and that the nexus of politicians/industrialists are continually searching for rationales for increased military spending – gives you a fairly accurate picture of the situation today.  And it again begs the question of if we are getting our money’s worth for our latest $700 billion investment?  Going back to Bandow’s essay, even subtracting funds spent on Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still spends five times more on its military than does our next nearest competitor, China.  Add our spending together with that of the NATO member nations and a few other close allies and you’ll account for an amazing 80% of the world’s entire military expenditures.  Yet the influential Heritage Foundation is arguing that the United States proposed $700 billion defense budget still isn’t large enough to properly fund our military and keep us safe from the threats of the 21st century.

With rhetoric like that, don’t expect President Obama to propose defense spending cuts anytime soon, no matter how much he wants to reduce the deficit.  In the meanwhile our troops will stay in Iraq, Afghanistan, and 80 other nations around the world, we’ll shake our fists at Iran, we’ll worry about places like Yemen, Eritrea and Somalia turning into the “next Afghanistan,” and we’ll continue to turn a deaf ear to generals like Butler, Eisenhower and Powell.   

US Foreign Policy, United States, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Terrorism, Taliban, NATO, Military, Afghanistan, Smedley Butler