The Pentagon gets more money, and Americans pay the price

By Katrina vanden Heuvel, June 22, 2022
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Bipartisanship is a rare and endangered species in today’s bitterly divided Washington. Except when it comes to one thing: the Pentagon budget.

From Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow House Democrats to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his fellow Senate Republicans, all agree that the Defense Department — which already boasts a budget higher, in comparable dollars, than its levels during the Cold War, and bigger than the combined military budgets of the next nine highest-spending countries — must have more. The only argument is how high the “top line” should go.

Ironically, this lone area of bipartisan consensus is a tribute not to the wisdom of the center but to its folly. Even as the military budget keeps going up, Americans are growing less and less secure.

The pandemic has taken the lives of more than 1 million Americans. With much of the world still lacking vaccines, as well as serviceable public health systems, the global toll keeps rising. And neither the United States nor the rest of the world is even close to prepared for the next pandemic, which, given our global economy, is certain to follow.

Meanwhile, last year, the United States alone suffered 20 climate catastrophes that wreaked over $1 billion in damage. Drought now endangers much of the West. Floods threaten the heartland. Hurricanes are predicted to be ever fiercer. Yellowstone National Park, with its recent drastic snowmelt and subsequent devastating floods, is only the most recent victim of a warming climate’s destructive effects. And yet, the Pentagon will get more money while efforts to kick-start investments to address catastrophic climate change are blocked by the Republican opposition in the Senate.

What is all this new defense spending for? Part will go to building up bases and weaponry in Asia to counter China. But the Chinese are competing most effectively not with military forces but with successful economic mercantilism. They are focused on capturing markets, locking up access to resources, and investing to dominate the emerging industries and technologies of the future. The Pentagon’s new weapons and bases won’t substitute for our failure to invest in cutting-edge R&D, in a modern and efficient infrastructure, and in a trade policy that serves Americans rather than multinational corporations.

The other target is Russia. Some of the most popular arguments for more military spending have been exposed as weak while the Ukraine war reveals the limits of the Russian military and Germany and other NATO allies pledge to increase their military spending dramatically. And yet, somehow, the Russian threat, as manifested by its invasion of Ukraine, remains the excuse for more Pentagon spending, not less.

The core of the argument is both logical and absurd. The United States maintains more than 700 bases in some 80 countries around the world. The Pentagon has carried out counterterrorism operations in at least 85 countries, nearly half of the world’s nation-states. It’s now gearing up to be able to take on both Russia and China. If the United States is committed to policing the world, the military budget will always by definition be inadequate. The mission, however, is absurd — and ruinous, if we want to rebuild and secure a healthy and prosperous democracy at home.

What powers the bipartisan consensus on military spending isn’t, of course, logic or even security. Pentagon spending is armed and armored by the military-industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us against more than 60 years ago. Eisenhower was prescient but too optimistic. Now we have, as former intelligence official Ray McGovern dubs it, “MICIMATT”— a military-industrial-congressional-intelligence-media-academia-think-tank complex that is the most powerful lobby of all.

OpenSecrets, the authoritative, nonpartisan source on campaign financing and lobbying, reports that the weapons industry has spent about $300 million on campaign contributions and $2.5 billion on lobbying during the Pentagon’s post-9/11 spending surge. In any given year, the industry employs an average of 700 lobbyists, more than one for every member of Congress. The Pentagon virtually invented the revolving door: A recent Government Accountability Office report identified 1,700 generals, admirals and Pentagon procurement officials who went to work in the 14 major arms contractors after leaving the government. According to a 2020 report, contractors and the Pentagon contributed more than $1 billion to the nation’s top 50 think tanks, another source of sinecures for former military officials, from 2014 to 2019.

None of these, though, are as powerful as the defense industry’s political contracting and production process, which systematically spreads jobs to key congressional districts nationwide. As William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, recently reported, the website for Lockheed Martin, a leading defense contractor, includes a map showing the state-by-state impact of the 250,000 jobs it claims are tied to its work on the troubled F-35 fighter jet. The company claims to have subcontractors in 45 states and Puerto Rico.

As Congress completes work on the defense budget authorization, bipartisan support will likely lift the top line higher even than the Pentagon or the president have asked for. But as the military grows, Americans will become less secure, battered by real threats that more weapons won’t address.