We Should Be Debating How to Reduce the Pentagon Budget
The first presidential debate of 2020 is set for tomorrow night, and as usual, bread-and-butter domestic issues such as health care and economic security are likely to dominate the conversation — this year no doubt supplemented by discussions of racial justice and law and order (as defined by President Trump). This is understandable, but limiting the discussion to these admittedly crucial issues would leave an incomplete picture of the qualifications needed to lead the country. Many issues, from immigration to climate change to how to combat Covid-19, call for international cooperation. And adequately addressing them will call for a dramatic shift in public investment away from endless war and near-record Pentagon budgets towards coping with more immediate risks, which are not military in nature.
Earlier this month the Trump administration released a letter from former military officials that, among other things, attacked the Obama-Biden administration for implementing “debilitating budget cuts” to our military. This was apparently an attempt to spark a bidding war over who can throw more money at the Pentagon, as if this were a sign of strength rather than an indicator of undisciplined budgeting and misplaced priorities.
The real question is, why is the Pentagon budget still so high, when our greatest challenges are not military in nature? Pandemics, climate change, extreme inequality and racial injustice all pose greater risks to public health and safety than traditional military challenges, yet the Pentagon consumes well more than half of the federal government’s discretionary budget. And just last week we learned that the Department of Defense diverted hundreds of millions of dollars in funding designated for Covid-19 relief to pay for jet engine parts and body armor that could have been easily accommodated within its existing budget – yet another sign of waste and undisciplined spending of our tax dollars.
The first thing one needs to know about the assertions of underspending on the Pentagon is that they are grossly inaccurate. There were not significant reductions in Pentagon spending during the Obama administration. In fact, the Pentagon received more funding in the eight years of the Obama administration than in the Bush administration’s two terms in office — $5.8 trillion under Obama over eight years versus $5.3 trillion under Bush for eight years (adjusted for inflation). To the extent that funding did come down slightly in the later years of the administration it is because the number of troops in the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan came down from a peak of 180,000 to about 25,000.
We need a strong military, but we can be safer for less if we set the right priorities and impose long overdue budget discipline at the Pentagon. The Pentagon is the only major federal agency that has never passed an audit. Eliminating excess overhead alone could save $25 billion per year. Getting rid of dangerous, unnecessary and overpriced weapons systems like aircraft carriers, F‑35 combat aircraft, and new nuclear weapons systems can save tens of billions more per year. And a true commitment to ending America’s forever wars and reducing the size of the military accordingly would save hundreds of billions in the next decade. As Brown University’s Costs of War Project has documented, America’s post‑9/11 wars have cost at least $6.4 trillion and counting, and far from making us safer, they have made matters worse, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead, displacing millions, and creating fertile ground for terrorist groups like ISIS to rise.
The above-mentioned changes and more are set out in the report of the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, a group of former White House, Congressional, and Pentagon budget experts, ex-military officers, and independent analysts from across the political spectrum.
The response of the defense establishment to calls for a shift in priorities can be summed up in three words: China, China, and China. Variations on this theme have been repeated relentlessly by the Pentagon and its allies in Congress, from both parties. But the primary challenge from China is political and economic, not military. And the U.S. and China need to cooperate if global challenges like pandemics, climate change, and economic stagnation are ever going to be solved. The last thing either nation, or the international community, needs is a new Cold War, or a new U.S.-China arms race. Using China as a reason to boost Pentagon spending is misguided and counterproductive.
Diverting Pentagon spending to more constructive purposes is not only good policy, it’s also good politics. A recent survey by the Eurasia Group Foundation found that twice as many Americans want to decrease the Pentagon budget as increase it, and a plurality of both Biden and Trump supporters agreed that peace is best achieved and sustained by “keeping a focus on the domestic needs and the health of American democracy, while avoiding unnecessary intervention beyond the borders of the United States.”
Whether in the presidential debates, on the campaign trail, or in the transition to the next administration – whoever wins the election in November – the time has come to stop treating the Pentagon’s budget as sacrosanct and come up with a comprehensive, multi-faceted plan to make America and the world a safer place. This may be difficult to do in the rough and tumble of an increasingly harsh campaign season, but the sooner we have that conversation, the better.