Lawrence Wilkerson: Pressure from arms manufactures and politicians protecting jobs make it difficult to have a rational approach to US military budget
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Wilkerson Report with Larry Wilkerson, who joins us now from William & Mary College, where he is the adjunct professor of government. He is also the former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Thanks very much for joining us, Larry.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me, Paul.
JAY: So what have you been working on, thinking about this week?
WILKERSON: Reducing the Pentagon budget, which really boils down to reducing the national security budget.
JAY: And what conclusions did you come to? I once heard a speech you made at the Samuel Adams awards, and you said that what United States governing powers have to come to terms with is, one way or the other, the American empire is going to weaken and be less or wither away, and it can either be managed reasonably or it can be fought kicking and screaming. So what does that mean in terms of military budgets?
WILKERSON: This is a huge component of that, Paul. If you can’t take money away from the security component, the national security component, and either use that money in more advantageous ways for the country, then you’re trapped, I mean, you’re really trapped into the national security state, and your discretionary spending is extremely little and growing less as your interest payments on your debt grow larger and larger.
So if you look at the national security budget across its entire [li], that is to say, holistically, you see a number of different accounts. You see, of course, the soft power account, which is the 150 account at the State Department, the international affairs account. You see the Homeland Security account. You see the Veterans Administration account. You see the nuclear weapons account buried in the Department of Energy. You also see the account that now is, I think, approaching if not over $100 billion for this massive intelligence structure we’ve set up since 9/11.
So if you look at all of those accounts, you’re talking about spending not as the military people say all the time, including myself, 3, 4, 4.5 percent of GDP; you’re spending 7 or 8 percent of GDP. You’re spending, for example, in FY 2010 $1.2 trillion. At that really impacts your discretionary spending. You hardly have any spending for anything else.
So we’ve got to do something about this. And I think the time, very opportunistic time, convergence of Tea Party interests, Democratic interests, Republican interests, progressive interests, and real interests of this republic are to reduce this spending across the board. And I think we can do that.
JAY: What would it look like?
WILKERSON: It would like like, I think, a ten-year program, adjusted wisely—not the way sequestration’s going to do it, like a hammer, but adjusted wisely for the different threats that we think we envision and the different capabilities we think we need over about the next decade. I do think you could reduce spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 to $100 billion each of the years of that decade. Now, in one year you might reduce it by only $45 billion; in another decade you might reduce by $80 billion. But it’s got to be in consonance with the way we perceive the threats, developing and otherwise, and the way we perceive the capabilities we need to counter those threats.
JAY: Now, you’re talking about actual cuts, not just slowing down growth, because some of the things that have—I know President Obama has said they’ve already made some cuts, but if I understand it correctly, a lot of that is really just slowing down growth.
WILKERSON: That’s absolutely right, Paul. I mean, let’s face it. We are last year still in a spending spree. We’re spending more than we spent at the height of the Cold War. Our expenditures are phenomenal in that respect, particularly when you look out and see no existential threats, and the threats you do see are very different from the past. We need to reshape our capabilities to accommodate those threats, and at the same time to save enormous amounts of money by this reshaping.
For example, drones don’t cost nearly as much as F-22 fighters. Submarines don’t cost nearly as much as aircraft carriers. And, incidentally, submarines are the most invulnerable weapons platform in the world and need to be augmented and need to be retained and need to be made even more sophisticated than they are now. You want to bring a nation to its knees, a nation, for example, like China, then you impact its commerce with submarines.
So we need to think hard about how we reshape our capabilities, saving money in the process, working out inefficiencies—and waste and fraud and abuse, too, of course—and at the same time look at the management of our Armed Forces. For example, we have more general and flag officers, general officers, admirals and generals, on active duty today with a much less force than we had when we had 16 million men under arms in World War II. That’s crazy. We need to get rid of some of these generals and admirals.
So there are all manner of ways you can do this, but it’s basically reshaping your capabilities to meet the threats you think you’re going to meet in the next 25 to 30 years.
JAY: But isn’t it also about rethinking what you want to accomplish with the military? I mean, it’s one thing about defending your own country. It’s another thing to want, to quote you, bring a nation to its knees. I mean, why be in a position to have to or be capable of bringing a nation to its knees? Why not just be in a position to defend the country?
WILKERSON: Excellent point. And what I mean when I say you need to look at the national security budget holistically is just that. We need to rebalance that budget. For example, we need to put a lot more money into soft power. And the dominant element there is the 150 account at State, the international affairs account. We need to hire more foreign service officers. We need to empower them. We need to let them take risks. We need to use them for intelligence gatherers. And their intelligence, by the way, Paul, will be infinitely better than this billion-dollar complex we’ve created to gather intelligence, which has done nothing but fail catastrophically over the last 30 years.
So we need to shift the balance in that national security set of accounts to favor soft power. And what you do when you do that is you create situations in the world that are not going to require military force. So you reduce the need for the military. I’m not saying you reduce it to zero, but I am saying you can reduce it dramatically if you apply diplomacy, political and economic power, and so forth more adroitly, more smartly, more wisely over the next 25 to 30 years.
JAY: Now, I mean, there’s lots of ways you could approach this rationally, either from the point—even if you want to maintain the American empire—I mean, I would argue it’d be a good thing not to, but either way there’s a lot more rational approaches that could be taken than the current one, which begs the question, then, how much of military policy and expenditure, military budget, is really the result of lobbying by arms manufacturer, the military-industrial complex. I mean, is it possible to have change? And you’ve been in on the inside. How big a pressure is that, coming from those places?
WILKERSON: It’s enormous. Take the NRA for example. The NRA’s not in business to protect the Second Amendment or individual gun owners. It’s in business to protect those who sell arms. It’s that clear. It’s that simple. Anybody who thinks differently is smoking something. By the same token, Lockheed Martin is in business to sell arms. So is Ratheon. So is [groUn]. So you’ve got enormous influences that will tend to want to keep the military-industrial complex as big as it is, even grow it, expand it, and want to keep the jobs and everything associated with it. So this is not going to be an easy task.
As I was talking at this recent conference, I talked about Norfolk, for example, Norfolk, Virginia, my home state. This is real jobs, this is real economic might to people in Virginia. So if you talk about cutting the complex over at Norfolk and the environs surrounding and you talk about cutting the jobs and so forth, you’re going to have two Virginia senators and some representatives and a governor and everybody else in your face.
So this is not going to be easy, but it’s time to do it. And it’s time to do it not just for the satisfaction of reducing the security budget, but for the benefit of this country. And if you want to maintain an empire, make it a commercial empire, make it an empire of things we do best, arguably (used to be, at least) better than anybody else in the world. The Chinese are giving us some competition. The Japanese did previously. But it’s healthy competition, though. Let’s make it a commercial empire and let’s maintain that empire in terms of commerce and not in terms of killing people, killing people for oil or killing people for human rights. I think both are just as bad as the other.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Larry.
WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.