Just Don’t Call It “Defense“

Just Don

The Pentagon “base budget” request for fiscal year 2011 (beginning on October 1) calls for about $549 billion, an increase of $18 billion over the appropriation for the current fiscal year. That’s nowhere near the whole story. The administration is also requesting about $160 billion for “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO) that goes to pay for wars and occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. There’s also $25 billion or more in military spending outside the “Department of Defense,” much of that for nuclear weapons included in the Department of Energy’s budget. (This $25 billion could be much larger, depending on what is included.) The grand total – and it is grand – comes to at least $734 billion. There is an additional $33 billion “emergency supplemental” appropriation to pay for the Afghanistan escalation; it’s said to cost $1 million to maintain one soldier there for a year. That $33 billion would be counted as part of FY 2010 spending, and, of course, there may be a supplemental in 2011 as well. The total has more than doubled in the last decade and continues to rise.

How can we understand such numbers? It’s usual to consider how many schools, clinics, or other necessary things could be built with some of that money, how many teachers and doctors could be paid or hungry children fed. If that military money were spent for ordinary, useful things it could go a very long way. For example, food stamps are this country’s most important anti-hunger program, and the need for them has jumped during the economic crisis. An all-time high of almost 40 million people, about one of every eight Americans, are now receiving this form of help, half of them are children, and a third are elderly or disabled. The food stamps program costs $56 billion in FY 2009 (it’s somewhat more this year), less than one tenth of the military’s base budget. Food stamps are responsible for making severe hunger rare in America, and surely that’s a far greater contribution to “homeland security” than the occupation of Iraq.

Another example: A UN report several years ago called on the United States and other rich nations to spend more on overseas development assistance in order to meet their commitment to cut extreme global poverty in half over ten years. The amount of money needed for that goal, from all the developed world together, would have been $48 billion per year – again less than one tenth of annual US military spending.

There is another cost, the effect on global climate and resources. The United States military is a huge source of pollution and environmental destruction. This country, with about 5 percent of the world’s population, consumes some 25 percent of its oil. Somewhere around 2 percent of that oil, some 400,000 barrels every day, is burned by the military. About 70 percent of that is in the form of jet fuel, around 14 percent of the nation’s total. Fuel efficiency does not rank high among the design criteria for new tanks or jet fighters.

Military spending is always a tragedy of lost opportunities. In the words of former President Dwight Eisenhower, the great general of World War II, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

Even so, that can’t be the last word. If devoting so many resources to the US armed forces were really necessary to preserve our safety and independence – to defend our freedom – this wealthy nation would have to bear the burden. Is that the case? Another comparison, the international perspective, suggests a very different answer.

In 2003, the United States was preparing to invade Iraq. To justify that war, the American people and Congress were told that Iraq was a serious threat because of its powerful military machine and its “weapons of mass destruction.” Was that ever credible? According to the CIA’s World Factbook, Iraq’s military spending was then about $1.3 billion per year, roughly 300 times less the US spent on its military! If they could threaten us with such a small military budget, the Iraqi soldiers must have been supermen – or else the vast US spending was largely wasted. Of course, everyone now knows that there was no military threat from Iraq.

Iran and North Korea were the other two members of Bush’s ridiculous “axis of evil,” and the threat posed by Iran, which might some day have a nuclear weapon, has been much in the spotlight of late. How do these countries stack up today as military powers? Again, according to the CIA, Iran now spends about $22 billion on its armed forces. North Korea is secretive as to its military budget and the Factbook declines to speculate. It does peg North Korea’s entire economy (GDP) at around $40 billion. South Korea, the only nation that might fear aggression from the North, spends almost that much just on its armed forces. Military spending represents only 2.7 percent of South Korea’s GDP, leaving room for increases in an emergency. South Korea, of course, is a firm US ally, and nearly 30,000 US troops are still stationed there. Perhaps, North Korea feels a little threatened itself.

Some see a potential danger in Cuba, “only 90 miles off our shores” and, understandably, not friendly to the US government. But Cuba spends a smaller percentage of its GDP on defense than does the United States, amounting to about $4.2 billion dollars. In Cuba’s case, using the word “defense” is probably justified.

The more compelling military comparison, of course, is with bigger countries. Some of the world’s larger armed forces, such as those of Great Britain, France, Germany and even Russia, are relatively easy to assess and their budgets are comparable to one tenth of ours; the CIA’s estimates for their military spending are $51.6 billion, $55 billion, $44 billion and $82.5 billion, respectively. Of course, the first three are US allies, and Russia is no longer considered a dangerous enemy. Evaluating the military budget of China is much harder and estimates differ widely. China’s official total, considered by all outsiders to be too low, is $78 billion. The CIA puts it almost five times higher, at $378 billion. Others, including the World Bank, give far lower estimates ranging from 1 and one-half to 3 times the official figure. However, there is general agreement that China’s military spending has been rising during recent years, but that its spending and capabilities remain very far below those of the United States. It is hard to imagine China becoming an actual military threat to this country.

The CIA’s Factbook and the World Bank estimate that the entire world spends around one and a half trillion dollars ($1,500,000,000,000) per year on weapons and war, and the United States alone is responsible for roughly half of that incredible and shameful figure. The money we spend is not for the “defense” of this country against any conceivable attacker, should one exist. Much of it maintains and even enlarges forces designed for the former cold war, when the USSR was considered a threatening superpower. Some pays for the 750 to 800 US military bases overseas, located in at least 40 countries. A great deal of the total buys what the Pentagon calls “power projection forces,”‘ such as aircraft carrier battle groups. (The US Navy operates 11 large carriers, all nuclear powered. No other country has any comparable ships.) And a lot is wasteful “pork,” spent for unneeded or unworkable – but very profitable – weapons systems like the untested anti-missile defenses in Alaska.

Why do we spend so much, year after year, decades after the end of the cold war? Part of the answer lies in interservice rivalry and institutional inertia. The culture of militarism, and with it the assumption that US interests must be defended worldwide, has become self-perpetuating. Moreover, there is the great political power of the many industries that profit from maintaining, enlarging and operating our military system; together they form a major part of the US economy. It was again President Dwight Eisenhower who famously warned, “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.” Today, that “misplaced power” is not “potential,” but an all too present reality.

Probably, most Americans believe that the United States should continue to maintain the most powerful military forces of any nation in the world. That should be enough for our defense! But if the benchmark for US military power were merely to remain number one, two-thirds of current spending could be converted to peaceful purposes. The US military institution is not a “defense” force, nor are the hundreds of billions it costs in “defense” spending. It is simply not accurate to use such terms; this is an institution and a budget for world domination. It will be very difficult to change that reality.