Financing the Imperial Armed Forces
A Trillion Dollars and Nowhere
to Go but Up
by Robert Dreyfuss, TomDispatch
www.zmag.org, June 9, 2007
War critics are rightly disappointed over
the inability of congressional Democrats to mount an effective
challenge to President Bush's Iraq adventure. What began as a
frontal assault on the war, with tough talk about deadlines and
timetables, has settled into something like a guerrilla-style
campaign to chip away at war policy until the edifice crumbles.
Still, Democratic criticism of administration policy in Iraq looks
muscle-bound when compared with the Party's readiness to go along
with the President's massive military buildup, domestically and
globally. Nothing underlines the tacit alliance between so-called
foreign-policy realists and hard-line exponents of neoconservative-style
empire-building more than the Washington consensus that the United
States needs to expand the budget of the Defense Department without
end, while increasing the size of the U.S. Armed Forces. In addition,
spending on the 16 agencies and other organizations that make
up the official U.S. "intelligence community" or IC
-- including the CIA -- and on homeland security is going through
The numbers are astonishing and, except for a hardy band of progressives
in the House of Representatives, Democrats willing to call for
shrinking the bloated Pentagon or intelligence budgets are essentially
nonexistent. Among presidential candidates, only Rep. Dennis Kucinich
and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson even mention the possibility
of cutting the defense budget. Indeed, presidential candidates
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are, at present, competing with
each other in their calls for the expansion of the Armed Forces.
Both are supporting manpower increases in the range of 80,000
to 100,000 troops, mostly for the Army and the Marines. (The current,
Bush-backed authorization for fiscal year 2008 calls for the addition
of 65,000 more Army recruits and 27,000 Marines by 2012.)
How astonishing are the budgetary numbers? Consider the trajectory
of U.S. defense spending over the last nearly two decades. From
the end of the Cold War into the mid-1990s, defense spending actually
fell significantly. In constant 1996 dollars, the Pentagon's budget
dropped from a peacetime high of $376 billion, at the end of President
Ronald Reagan's military buildup in 1989, to a low of $265 billion
in 1996. (That compares to post-World War II wartime highs of
$437 billion in 1953, during the Korean War, and $388 billion
in 1968, at the peak of the War in Vietnam.) After the Soviet
empire peacefully disintegrated, the 1990s decline wasn't exactly
the hoped-for "peace dividend," but it wasn't peanuts
However, since September 12th, 2001, defense spending has simply
exploded. For 2008, the Bush administration is requesting a staggering
$650 billion, compared to the already staggering $400 billion
the Pentagon collected in 2001. Even subtracting the costs of
the ongoing "Global War on Terrorism" -- which is what
the White House likes to call its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
-- for FY 2008, the Pentagon will still spend $510 billion. In
other words, even without the President's two wars, defense spending
will have nearly doubled since the mid-1990s. Given that the United
States has literally no significant enemy state to fight anywhere
on the planet, this represents a remarkable, if perverse, achievement.
As a famous Democratic politician once asked: Where is the outrage?
Neocons, war profiteers, and hardliners of all stripes still argue
that the "enemy" we face is a nonexistent bugaboo called
"Islamofascism." It's easy to imagine them laughing
into their sleeves while they continue to claim that the way to
battle low-tech, rag-tag bands of leftover Al Qaeda crazies is
by spending billions of dollars on massively expensive, massively
powerful, futuristic weapons systems.
As always, a significant part of the defense bill is eaten up
by these big-ticket items. According to the reputable Center for
Arms Control and Nonproliferation, there are at least 28 pricey
weapons systems that, just by themselves, will rack up a whopping
$44 billion in 2008. The projected cost of these 28 systems --
which include fighter jets, the B-2 bomber, the V-22 Osprey, various
advanced naval vessels, cruise-missile systems, and the ultra-expensive
aircraft carriers the Navy always demands -- will, in the end,
be more than $1 trillion. And that's not even including the Star
Wars missile-defense system, which at the moment soaks up about
$11 billion a year.
By one count, U.S. defense spending in 2008 will amount to 29
times the combined military spending of all six so-called rogue
states: Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. The
United States accounts for almost half -- approximately 48% --
of the entire world's spending on what we like to call "defense."
Again, according to the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation,
U.S. defense spending this year amounts to exactly twice the combined
military spending of the next six biggest military powers: China,
Russia, the U.K., France, Japan, and Germany.
Despite this, like presidential candidates Clinton and Obama,
the right-wing Democratic Leadership Council is pushing hard to
tie the party to increased military spending. Writes journalist
"'America needs a bigger and better military,' reads an October
report by Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, the
policy arm of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that
counts Senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Evan Bayh (D-IN) among
"'Escalating conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched
the all-volunteer force to the breaking point,' the report says.
'Democrats should step forward with a plan to repair the damage,
by adding more troops, replenishing depleted stocks of equipment,
and reorganizing the force around the new missions of unconventional
warfare, counterinsurgency, and civil reconstruction.'"
So hostile is the atmosphere in Congress to cuts of any sort in
military spending that even a recent effort by traditional defense
critics to suggest ways to reorient the Pentagon's budgetary priorities
turned out to involve but the most modest of rebalancings. A coalition
of these critics from organizations such as the Institute for
Policy Studies, the Center for American Progress, and other left
and left-center groups, including such experts as Larry Korb of
CAP, Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives, and
William Hartung of the World Policy Institute, suggested cutting
$56 billion from offensive weapons systems, but then proposed
to shift fully $50 billion of it into areas such as homeland security,
international peacekeeping, and "nation building."
Why, exactly, we need to increase Pentagon spending even in those
categories is mystifying, since no country is actually threatening
us and -- if the Iraqi and Afghani wars were settled -- the problem
of terrorism could be adequately dealt with by mobilizing relatively
modest numbers of CIA officers and FBI and law enforcement agents.
The fact that such respected defense critics feel compelled to
put forward such a lame proposal is a sign of our crimped times;
a sign that, pragmatically speaking, it is simply verboten to
criticize Pentagon bloat, even given the current, Democrat-controlled
Congress. It's not that the public is pro-military spending either.
Indeed, in a Gallup Poll conducted in February, fully 43% of Americans
said they believed that the United States is spending "too
much" on defense, while only 20% said "too little."
Rather, it's a sign that the political class -- perhaps swayed
by the influence of the military-industrial complex and its army
of lobbyists -- hasn't yet caught up to public opinion.
And it's important to keep in mind that the official Pentagon
budget doesn't begin to tell the full story of American "defense"
spending. In addition to the $650 billion that the Pentagon will
get in 2008, huge additional sums will be spent on veterans care
and interest on the national debt accumulated from previous DOD
spending that ballooned the deficit. In all, those two accounts
add $263 billion to the Pentagon budget, for a grand total of
Then there are the intelligence and homeland security budgets.
Back in the 1990s, when I started reporting on the CIA and the
U.S. intelligence community, its entire budget was about $27 billion.
Last year, although the number is supposed to be top secret, the
Bush administration revealed that intelligence spending had reached
$44 billion. For 2008, according to media reports, Congress is
working on an authorization of $48 billion for our spies.
Again, when I first wrote about "homeland security"
in the late 1990s -- it was then called "counterterrorism"
-- the Clinton administration was spending $17 billion in interagency
budgets in this area. For 2008, the budget of the Department of
Homeland Security -- that mishmash, incompetent agency hurriedly
assembled under pressure from uber-hawk Joe Lieberman (even the
Bush administration was initially opposed to its creation) --
will be $46.4 billion.
To a rational observer, such spending -- totaling more than $1
trillion in 2008, according to the figures I've just cited --
seems quite literally insane. During the Cold War, hawks scared
Americans into tolerating staggering but somewhat lesser sums
by invoking the specter of Soviet Communism. Does anyone, anywhere,
truly believe that we need to spend more than a trillion dollars
a year to defend ourselves against small bands of al-Qaeda fanatics?
Robert Dreyfuss, an independent journalist in the Washington,
D.C. area and Rolling Stone magazine's national security correspondent,
is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash
Fundamentalist Islam. He writes frequently for Rolling Stone,
The American Prospect, The Nation, Mother Jones, and the Washington
Monthly. His web site is RobertDreyfuss.com.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the
Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources,
news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing,
co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of Mission
Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch