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Raiding the War Chest

It’s called “defense” spending, but how much of it is actually about defense? Here’s how we could save billions, and still have billions left to make the U.S. and the world more secure.

YES! Magazine graphic, 2008
YES! Magazine graphic, 2008

An economy slouching toward recession, or—depending on who you talk to—already there, has produced two seemingly contradictory effects. It has pushed the worst foreign policy disaster in U.S. history off the top of the list of citizen concerns. And it has simultaneously gotten those citizens, and even their members of Congress, talking much more about that disaster’s economic costs.

Leading the charge to connect these dots has been Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and his colleague Linda Bilmes. Their book The Three Trillion Dollar War walks us through not only all the war costs the Pentagon isn’t talking about, but the opportunities foregone to make the kinds of investments in, for example, infrastructure, education, and health care that would help heal a sick economy.

Their testimony on Capitol Hill has begun to sprout up in congressional speeches. Congress is exercising its power of speech on this subject, but not its power of the purse.

In addition to being unable or unwilling to cut off the funds that perpetuate the war, Congress is on track to rubber stamp the Administration’s latest, and largest, regular military budget virtually intact. At more than $515 billion, this request is 5.4 percent higher, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it was last year. Since 2001 the Administration’s military budgets have more than doubled. Congress has approved every one, sometimes even expanding them a bit.

With the license given them by the Budget Resolution, the appropriations committees will now spend the rest of the year tinkering around the edges of a spending package for the Defense Department that will include, with little or no debate:

YES number1

More than $130 billion to maintain the 800-plus U.S. military installations on every continent of the world and afloat in the liquid spaces between these continents.

YES number2

An estimated $15 billion in congressional pork projects whose purposes are often obscure and whose contributions to security are tenuous. While earmarks can be found throughout the budget, most of them are parked where they can be most easily hidden: in the budget category (the Pentagon’s) that makes up about half of the total that Congress actually votes on every year, and is “monitored” by a plethora of overlapping accounting systems.

YES number3

More than $44 billion in weapons systems whose presence in the budget has more to do with the interests of the weapons contractors and their amply-rewarded congressional champions than they do with defeating terrorists.

A half-dozen items that top this list are:

  • The F/A 22 Raptor:
    An obsolete, ever-more-costly aircraft designed to counter a Soviet model that was never built.
  • Ballistic Missile Defense:
    A system that doesn’t work for a threat that doesn’t exist.
  • Virginia-Class Submarine:
    Any conceivable mission for this new sub can be handled by the existing fleet.
  • DD(G-1000) Destroyer:
    Another cost-escalating program whose missions are well-covered by existing ships.
  • V-22 Osprey:
    This hybrid plane-helicopter is being rushed into service in Iraq despite safety, technical, and cost problems, both old and new.
  • C-130J transport plane:
    Has 168 documented deficiencies that render it unsafe.

In addition to the $515 billion defense budget, some big military tickets are in other agency budgets. Among them:

YES number4

The Energy Department’s budget contains more than $15 billion for building and maintaining our nuclear weapons arsenal.

YES number5

More than $11 billion in military aid is in the State Department budget, where it is considered an instrument of diplomacy. This aid all too often fuels conflicts, rather than suppressing them, and strengthens military control at the expense of civil society. Pakistan has diverted much of its allotment, intended for pursuing al Qaeda, to buying weapons for its tense, nuclear weapons-laden conflict with India.

YES number6

Then there’s the additional $170 billion Defense Secretary Gates estimates we will spend next year on the wars we are actually fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The total bill to date (about $700 billion) now exceeds, in real terms, what we spent during 12 years in Vietnam (about $670 billion). It exceeds our spending on every previous war, in fact, save World War II.

YES number7

The largest built-in long-term cost of all will be caring for the mental and physical needs of soldiers who will be struggling with the effects of combat for the rest of their lives.

When extra-DoD military spending accounts like these get added in, the total amount of U.S. spending on war in 2008 is closer to $711 billion. That is just shy of the total military spending of the entire rest of the world combined. It’s six times more than China, ten times more than Russia, and 97 times more than Iran.

While we’re repairing the damage to our relations with the rest of the world, we will need to put some of the money into repairing the social contract with our own citizens.

The Future of Military Red Ink

We will be electing new leaders soon, but will they do more than tinker with these numbers? There are huge opportunities to improve our real security, repair international relationships damaged by our heavy-handed foreign policy, and take on the real threats to our future that desperately need attention.

Our country has a massive international-relations repair job ahead in the post-Bush years. This job comes down to acknowledging that our military-led response to 9-11 has made us less safe by creating more terrorists than it has defeated. Furthermore, we must convince the rest of the world’s peoples that we are ready to engage with them in a different way.

Whatever is said along these lines won’t be credible unless, as the saying goes, we put our money where our mouth is. We can start by getting rid of the bulk of the $255 billion represented by items 2–6, above. Then we can shift some of the savings to such non-military forms of international engagement as diplomacy, curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, international peacekeeping missions, and the depleted accounts of our contributions to international organizations.

Much of the rest of the savings needs to be redirected to averting global climate chaos, a looming problem that the military itself acknowledges will create massive security problems that its arsenal of weapons will be unable to solve. We are spending $88 on our military forces for every dollar we are spending on climate change.

As we increase our spending on foreign aid, we will need to redirect some of this money to where it is actually likely to do some good—like helping to train 4 million new public health workers to address the burgeoning health crises in the developing world.

And while we’re repairing the damage to our relations with the rest of the world, we will need to put some of the money into repairing the social contract with our own citizens, by investing in our battered economy.


Miriam Pemberton wrote this article as part of A Just Foreign Policy, the Summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Miriam is a research fellow with the Peace and Security Project at the Institute for Policy Studies (www.ips-dc.org). She leads the group that produces the annual “Unified Security Budget for the United States” and has just released “The Budgets Compared: Military vs. Climate Security.” With William Hartung she edited the just-published Lessons From Iraq: Avoiding the Next War (Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

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