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PSPD  l  People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

  • Peace/Disarmament
  • 2013.04.13
  • 4089

Peace Column


Imperial Overreach and the Forces Driving Pentagon Spending


Joseph Gerson  Peace Activist



>>> Click this to read this column in Korean


 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.”


The U.S. is not a military dictatorship in the tradition of Pinochet or South Korean following the end of Japanese colonialism.  But the military’s dominant role in determining much of U.S. foreign policy – especially in Asia and the Pacific - helps to explain why President Obama didn’t push President Lee Myung Bak to pursue negotiations with North Korea. It also helps to explain why Washington has persisted in its failed policy of “strategic patience” – i.e. not talking - with North Korea until Pyongyang kowtows to U.S. demands. It also helps to explain the United States’ shocking and dangerous response to Kim Jung Un’s provocative third nuclear test, the repeated simulated nuclear attacks against North Korea by B-52 and B-2 bombers.


In the 1980s, when Rev. Torres was shedding light on the nature of the U.S. government, the U.S. 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, U.S. military spending is $711 billion. It consumes 60% of U.S. discretionary spending, compared to 6% for education and 1% 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 U.S. 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 U.S. “manifest destiny,” the belief again conveyed in the title of Joseph Nye’s book that the U.S. 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.


Unfortunately, U.S. 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 more.


In fact, we don’t really 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 - 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 E.U. and 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 floor under the U.S. 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% of U.S. GDP, it remains a driving force for the U.S. 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%) 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 U.S. history. Each of the 2,443 advanced fighter-bombers – plagued with technological difficulties - the Pentagon is to buy costs $90 billion, including the pilots’ helmets at $2 million each. Even if the so-called “sequesters’”   8% budget cuts are implemented, the Pentagon plans to spend $835 billion for its F-35s and another $635 billion to operate and maintain them. 
Why? Because F-35 parts are being produced in 45 of the 50 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military intervention into Syria’s catastrophic civil war.


Questions abound about whether the U.S. can sustain such levels of military spending and if the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 guns or butter has become unavoidable.


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% across the board reduction in Pentagon spending and 9% for human needs and other non-military spending. Despite President Obama’s election victory, based in large measure on reducing the national deficit by tax increases for the wealthiest 2% 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 over extended 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 U.S. elite. While the U.S. 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 other BRIC nations, the U.S. share of global GDP and educated workers have been in steady decline. 


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 we voted in favor of 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.




*Dr. Joseph Gerson is the Director of Programs for the Northeast Region the American Friends Service Committee. His most recent book is Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World. He is the convener of the Working Group for Peace and Demilitarization in Asia and the Pacific and initiated the Budget for All Referendum campaign in Massachusetts.

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