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Imperial Overreach: Forces Driving Pentagon Spending and US Asia-Pacific Military Strategies

(Photo: Official U.S. Navy Imagery / Flickr)

While US foreign and military policy focus on preserving US Asia-Pacific hegemony, the US government forgets that military strength ultimately depends on economic strength, educational achievement and social cohesion and tests the limits of popular tolerance for the military-industrial-Congressional complex.

At the height of the Cold War, Rev. Ulises Torres, a political exile from the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, was asked when you know if you have a military government. He answered: “Look at your national budget.” Then, the US military budget, not counting secret intelligence spending, was $221.1 billion (just over $500 billion in today’s dollars.)

Today, excluding veterans’ benefits and interest for past wars, US military spending is $711 billion. It consumes 60 percent of US discretionary spending, compared to 6 percent for education and 1 percent for transportation. The Pentagon budget equals the combined total of the world’s next 14 greatest military spenders and is four times greater than the combined spending of its most likely adversaries, including China and Russia. Projected US military spending over the next decade is $5.77 trillion in 2013 dollars, a number that is almost beyond comprehension.

Why such a commitment to military might and to nationally self-destructive military spending? The widespread acceptance of US “manifest destiny,” the belief conveyed by the title of Joseph Nye’s book that the US is Bound to Lead, provides the ideological underpinnings. But the structural answer lies in President Eisenhower’s last public speech as president, when the former general and World War II hero warned that,

“… We 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. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

The original draft of Eisenhower’s speech decried the “military-industrial-Congressional complex,” but Eisenhower removed the reference to Congress, thinking it unseemly for an outgoing president to criticize an incoming Congress.

Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex Budget

Unfortunately, US citizens have not been sufficiently alert, knowledgeable or powerful to contain the influence of the military-industrial-Congressional complex. Instead, adjusted for inflation, Pentagon spending has grown from just over $300 billion in 1960 to today’s post-Cold War $711 billion.

What does the Pentagon’s base budget, excluding funding for actual wars, purchase? On an annual basis it pays for an estimated 1,000 foreign military bases costing at least $170 billion, depending on how you count; preparing for nuclear war at $60 billion; 1,419,000 warriors at $136 billion; new weapons and weapons systems for $114 billion; research and development at $61 billion; and new construction, military family housing and much much more.

In fact, we don’t know how much the Pentagon really spends. Estimates, including “black box” secret budgets, run as high as a trillion dollars. The Pentagon concedes that it cannot account for hundreds of billions of dollars, and in desperation, one member of Congress has introduced legislation (doomed to fail) requiring an audit of Pentagon spending.

In addition to the imperial imperative of ensuring that the United States has the weapons needed to enforce “full spectrum dominance” – from modernized nuclear warheads and drones to cyber warfare and Prompt Global Strike (an effort to deliver a conventional weapon strike anywhere in the world within one hour) – two other dynamics have been at play: military Keynesianism and the armament industry’s cunning strategy of subcontracting new weapons systems’ production to a majority of Congressional districts.

Military Keynesianism? Unlike today’s European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), during the Great Depression the British economist John Maynard Keynes argued that increased government spending could provide the needed stimuli to restore economic growth. Thus President Roosevelt’s New Deal spending put a bottom under the US economy, but it was massive World War II military spending that actually ended the depression (and which laid the foundations for the military-industrial-Congressional complex). While only roughly 4 percent of US Gross Domestic Produce (GDP), it remains a driving force for the US economy.

More subversive are the ways that the mega-armaments corporations – Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and others – have corrupted our political system to the point that Congress insists on maintaining redundant military bases and funding production of weapons systems that the Pentagon doesn’t want. Many in Congress fear that they will be charged with being “soft on security” if they don’t vote for every war and weapons systems that comes their way. Equally important, members of Congress are expected to bring investment and jobs into their districts. Failure to get Pentagon contracts can create election day vulnerabilities. With the Pentagon’s annual budget the largest share (60 percent) of government discretionary spending, it is the most easily accessed feeding trough for those anxious to “bring home the bacon”.

A case in point is the F-35, the most expensive weapons system in US history. Each of the advanced fighter-bombers – plagued with technological difficulties – the Pentagon is to buy costs in the range of $90 million, including the pilots’ helmets, at $2 million each. Even if the so-called “sequester’s” 8 percent budget cuts are implemented, as The New York Times reports, the Pentagon plans to spend $396 billion, including research and development,” and $1.1 trillion for their long term operating costs.

Why? Because F-35 parts are being produced in 45 of the 50 US states and in nearly all congressional districts.” The F-35 equals jobs. Providing jobs helps win elections. So, in a world in which money equals, or at least contributes to, influence and power, the Pentagon has the resources to function as a government within the government. It is no accident that the Pentagon twice vetoed President Obama’s efforts to rescind the country’s first-strike nuclear war fighting doctrine or that during Obama’s first year in office the generals “rolled” him, leaving him no political alternative to more than doubling the number of troops sent to Afghanistan.

There are, of course, also unalloyed militarists among Senate Republicans including those who extorted $185 billion to modernize the US nuclear arsenal and its delivery systems as a condition for ratifying the New START limited arms reduction treaty with Russia or who are now pressing for US military intervention into Syria’s catastrophic civil war.

Challenges of Increased Burden-sharing

Questions abound about whether the United States can sustain such levels of military spending and if the country really has the resources to implement its “pivot” to Asia and the Pacific. Twenty-five years ago, economic globalization and the resulting hollowing out of US industrial strength began to take hold. Now combined with the massive Bush-Cheney national budget deficits caused by the multi-trillion dollar wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and by massive tax reductions for the richest among us, the existential question of spending on guns or butter has become unavoidable.

It is in this context, and the recognition since the 1890s that US economic strength and stability depends on privileged access to Asian and Pacific markets and resources, that the Pivot to Asia and the Pacific has become one of two US strategic priorities. As Joseph Nye has written, “markets and economic power rest on political frameworks,” and “American military power provides that framework.”

Even with its Full Spectrum Dominance doctrine, the US military is not omnipotent, and in this era of budget frugality, Washington has increasingly turned to burden-sharing to augment its power, pressing its NATO, Japanese and other allies to assume greater regional and global responsibilities. As US National Security Advisory Thomas Donilon told the Asia Society, The “first pillar” of US Asia-Pacific strategy is to “continue to strengthen our alliances . . . Our alliance with Japan remains a cornerstone of regional security and prosperity. . . . there is scarcely a regional or global challenge in the President’s second-term agenda where the United States does not look to Japan to play an important role.”

Since the United States began transforming Japan into what Prime Minister Nakasone termed “an unsinkable aircraft carrier for the United States” the secretly imposed US-Japan military alliance has served as the “keystone” of US power in Asia and the Pacific. Thus, following the Hatoyama government’s challenges to the alliance, Nye’s long-time partner in designing US Asia-Pacific strategies, Richard Armitage, joined him in issuing the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report, “US-Japan Alliance: Anchoring Stability in Asia,” last August. Deeply concerned that the alliance had suffered “a time of drift,” their report issued the challenge that, “For Japan . . . there is a decision to be made. Does Japan desire to continue to be a tier-one nation,” allied to the United States,” or is she content to drift into tier-two status?”

Continuing Washington’s decades-old efforts to reverse course on Article 9 (clause in Japanese constitution prohibiting an act of war by the state), Armitage and Nye described Japan’s Self-Defense Forces as “the most trusted institution in Japan . . . poised to play a larger role . . . if anachronistic constraints can be eased.” Their additional prescriptions to revitalize the alliance included Japan joining the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, becoming “natural resource allies” – including greater reliance on the production and export of nuclear power generation, and of course expanded military cooperation, the latter now being negotiated with the revision of Japan’s defense guidelines.

The report must have been music to Prime Minister Abe’s ears. Japan’s most militarist prime minister since the Fifteen Year War responded directly to the Armitage-Nye challenge during his February summit with President Obama, saying that “Japan is not, and will never be, a tier-two country.”

Beyond Japan, Donilon has explained that “with the Republic of Korea, the United States is building on our joint vision for a global alliance . . .” which, if the so-called “history problem” can be contained, Washington hopes to transform into a trilateral US-Japanese-South Korean alliance. Elsewhere, the United States is revitalizing its alliances with Thailand, the Philippines and Australia and “forging deeper partnership with emerging powers.” Thus Obama began his presidency with the pledge that that US-Indian ties are “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century . . . we don’t just accept India’s rise, we fervently support it.” The US has also increased its military collaborations with Indonesia, Vietnam and New Zealand.

Imperial Overreach

Burden-sharing alone will not suffice to reinforce US Asia-Pacific hegemony. It is said that the United States is one grand budget agreement away from reinforcing its position as the world’s dominant power for decades to come. That grand bargain has eluded Congress for the past year, resulting in the so-called “sequester” coming into force, with an 8 percent across the board reduction in Pentagon spending and 9 percent for human needs and other nonmilitary spending. Despite President Obama’s election victory, based in large measure on reducing the national deficit by tax increases for the wealthiest 2 percent and preserving social services, a deal will likely be cut to restore most Pentagon funding, while reducing Social Security and cutting many essential services for the poor and middle class.

In 1987, the historian Paul Kennedy wrote The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, which described how, like a balloon expanding until it pops, earlier empires overextended their ambitions and resources to the point that they lost their vitality and passed into history. Kennedy’s study was written as a warning for the US elite. While the US will likely long remain a major power, its imperial reach appears to have passed its apex. Military strength ultimately depends on economic strength, educational achievement and social cohesion, but with the rise of China and BRIC (countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations, the US share of global GDP and educated workers have been steady declining.

And, on election day this past November, Massachusetts voters sent a significant signal that it’s time to invest in people and to reverse our domestic decline rather than for the wars, profiteering and waste of the military-industrial-Congressional complex. By a 3:1 margin voters favored a Budget for All referendum – calling for preserving social services, investing in job creation, cutting military spending and taxing the rich.

Massachusetts is known to be a liberal state, but popular tolerance for the military-industrial-Congressional complex has reached its limits.

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