Council for a Livable World board member Daniel Wirls, a professor of politics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, published "Missing in Action: debate on military spending," in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 25, 2011.
As the president and Congress grind their way to a budgetary compromise that will do far more to further alienate the American public than solve our fiscal crisis, one thing – military spending – is all but overlooked. For all the strife over taxes and entitlements, the president and majorities in both parties agree on the following: Military spending is essentially off the table, even though it is far and away the most distorted part of the national budget, the most egregious mismatch between the country's rational needs and the commitment of national resources.
Let's remind ourselves of a few basic facts. Since 2001, the nation has spent more than $1.2 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the same period, military spending has increased more than 80 percent. That 80-plus percent increase is separate from, in addition to, the $1.2 trillion for the wars. U.S. military spending is higher than at any point since World War II, without counting the hundreds of billions for the wars. The United States spends close to half the world's total in military spending and our closest allies bring the total to more than 70 percent. At about $80 billion, the Pentagon's budget for research and development, alone, exceeds the entire military budget of any nation except China.
Moreover, the fastest growing entitlement program is not Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security – it's veterans' benefits, a separate category of spending, independent of the Pentagon budget or war spending. Over the last decade, the Veterans Affairs budget increased from $47 billion to $124.7 billion per year, or 162 percent (compared to Medicare's 109 percent, Medicaid's 119 percent, and Social Security's 61 percent).
These facts and others depict a decadelong, record-setting spending spree. And yet earlier this month, as the budget negotiations reached crisis level, the House of Representatives, run by Republicans for whom the budget crisis is so serious that they are gambling with the debt ceiling, voted 336-87 to increase the Pentagon's base budget (separate from the spending on the two wars) by $17 billion or just over 3 percent to $530 billion.
Several factors will continue to distort any attempt to bring military spending down to reasonable levels. First, it continues to be the silent (and bipartisan) economic stimulus. Second, Congress and the president will use decreases in war spending as an easy way to save money on defense, to make it appear that defense spending is taking a hit without making hard choices. Third, insofar as the $530 billion non-war Pentagon budget is negotiable, the peak of the Bush-Obama buildup, separate from the war spending, will be taken as the baseline against which all such reductions will be measured. Hawks are already portraying any cuts off the mountain top as a slippery slope to the dreaded "hollow force."
And if there is one thing worse than being accused of producing a "hollow force," it is being dubbed an isolationist. As a small number of Republicans have begun to express utterly sensible doubts about the costs of America fighting several wars at once, their critics – with the help of some rather unsophisticated media coverage – have raised the red flag of "isolationism." How removed from rationality about our national security needs are we when cautious and belated second thoughts about the sustainability of the vast and endless imperial project can be successfully disparaged as isolationist?
The conservative critics are correct that across-the-board cuts in defense would not be the best way to proceed, but given how much we are spending, such an approach could not hurt either. What should structure significant reductions is a fundamental review of national security priorities, one that recognizes the limited utility of and reduced need for military force, one that recognizes that national security is more about rebuilding education and infrastructure in this country than in others. This will not happen – for many politicians the politics of national security, which nearly always favor the hawks, are more important than national security itself.
Most Americans realize that no Churchill, reflecting on the United States at war during the last decade, would intone that "this was their finest hour." What we refuse to acknowledge, however, and at our peril, is that he might well observe instead that "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been spent for so long to accomplish so little."
Daniel Wirls is a professor of politics at UC Santa Cruz.