When he’s right, he’s right. Look, I’ve been critical of this president too many times to count, but – unlike most mainstream media pundits – I’m willing to give credit when it’s due. Last week, in a surprise morning tweet, President Trump called U.S. defense spending, which topped out at a record $716 billion this year, "crazy." Furthermore, he even hinted at talks with America’s two main military rivals, President Xi of China, and President Putin of Russia to stave off what Trump referred to as "a major and uncontrollable arms race." Of course, we woke up this morning to the news that Trump seems – unsurprisingly – to have reversed course again, with administration officials stating that Trump will instead boost the Pentagon budget to $750 billion.
Still, it’s worth reflecting on Trump’s initial announcement. After all, I had to read the original Trump tweet twice. Was the candidate who promised to bomb "the shit out of" ISIS and to "bring back" waterboarding torture and a "whole lot worse" turning dove? Well, not exactly, but Trump was talking sense. And it’s not the first time he’s done so. Remember that candidate Trump regularly declared the 2003 invasion of Iraq "the single worst decision ever made." Couldn’t have put it better myself. Then, just before disappointingly announcing a troop increase in Afghanistan, Trump admitted his initial "instinct" was to "pull out." Right again.
It seems that one of the only things holding Trump back from ushering in real change in America’s militarized foreign policy are his rather more mainstream advisors and bipartisan congressional war-hawks. Over and over again, media, especially conventional center-left "liberal" media, assures us that these folks – the Jim Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and John Kellys of the world – are the "adults in the room," far more "responsible" than loose cannon Trump. And you know what, yea, that may occasionally been true. But on foreign policy these retired generals and their Republican and Democratic supporters on the Hill have been wrong at every turn over the last 17 years.
They, the "adults" in the Beltway crowd, have for two decades sold the American people the snake oil of increased military intervention, counterinsurgency dogma, and armed nation-building, achieving nothing more than destabilization of the entire Greater Middle East and the worst humanitarian catastrophes since World War II. They insist on ever-expanding military budgets – a lovely kickback to the American arms industry – and assure the public that they need "just a little more time" to win a "victory" of sorts in the perpetual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is long past time for some fresh thinking on military policy in the Middle East and common sense caps on runaway defense spending. And, if such good sense has to come from a man like Trump, then, well, so be it. Let’s give him a chance.
Military spending truly is out of control in the United States, and it has been ever since the end of the Second World War. At least during the Cold War (1946-91) there was some, albeit exaggerated, justification for high defense budgets. Nonetheless, except for a brief dip during President Bill Clinton’s first term, military spending never slowed down. And, after 9/11, such outlays ran straight off-the-rails. But it wasn’t necessary. Terrorism isn’t, and never was, an existential threat, or a danger on anywhere near the scale of a potential Cold War nuclear exchange with the Soviets. On the contrary, most of the post-9/11 spending and the concurrent on-the-ground military interventions in the Muslim world have been nothing but counterproductive.
And it’s all so needless. In 2017, US defense spending was equal to that of the next seven countries combined. Furthermore, five of those seven big spenders – Saudi Arabia, India, France, Britain, and Japan – are friendly US"partners." So let’s not pretend that modest cuts to this bloated budget will pose some colossal threat to American homeland security. What all that spending and fighting and killing and dying has done is fill the coffers of a domestic arms industry that is one of the last remnants of America’s once vibrant manufacturing industry. Those billions of dollars found their way into CEO’s pockets, the campaign nest eggs of compliant Democratic and Republican legislators, and the bloated salaries of revolving-door second jobs for retired military generals.
What such skyrocketing spending doesn’t do is benefit the average American. Military spending represented over 53% of total discretionary budget spending in 2015, and it’s only rising. That’s ten times the expenditure each on education and veterans’ benefits, about twenty times US spending on peaceful foreign aid, and fifty times the outlay for food and agriculture. There are, we must admit, some real opportunity costs inherent in such ballooning military spending. Five star general, West Point grad, and eventual President Dwight Eisenhower – a man whose stated policies on this topic would today place him to the left of both his own Republican Party and the neoliberal Democratic Party – parsed this out as early as 1953. That year, in his famous "A Chance for Peace" speech, Ike warned of the dangers of the growing military-industrial complex and opined on the lost opportunity costs of runaway spending, concluding presciently that:
- Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
- The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
- It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.
- It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.
- We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.
- We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
- This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Conservative or liberal, democratic socialist or libertarian, all ideologically consistent political groups should be touched by Eisenhower’s generations-old words and support President Trump’s modest call for spending cuts and arms control talks with Russia and China. Think of the good that the hundreds of billions spent on the merchants of death could do for everyday Americans. (Small c) conservatives and libertarians could have their tax cuts, balanced budgets, and fiscal discipline. True liberals and progressives could fight to shift some of that money to healthcare and education. No doubt, such groups would fight over the best use of those funds – and that’s a battle I’ll postpone for a later date – but the first step is agreeing on the need for common sense reductions and the demilitarization of the American economy. This is a fight that requires an alliance between principled, traditional opponents on the left and right. And, it demands a tough public battle with the bipartisan militarist consensus running Washington.
Consider this: in the wake of President Trump’s modest, and sensible call for reigning in "crazy" defense spending – to the tune of just a token $30 billion cut – an array of bipartisan hawks both in and outside the administration lost their collective minds. Secretary of Defense Mattis told the Reagan National Defense Forum that cutting defense wouldn’t help the deficit (which sounds illogical) and insisted on the "critical need" for a $733 billion defense budget for 2020. Then, Republican defense-industry cheerleaders in Congress, Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas and Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, exclaimed that such modest cuts would be "dangerous" and have a "crippling effect" on the military. Really, a hefty $700 billion defense budget would be "crippling?" Me thinks the congressmen doth protest too much.
In spite of the inevitable protestations from mainstream bipartisan war hawks around Washington, Americans should support the president’s seemingly new inclination for arms control and defense reductions. This president, maybe more than most, feeds on public adulation and positive attention. Thus, the citizenry should back the president’s nascent sensible comments and proceed with cautious optimism, hoping that Trump pulls a Ronald Reagan and reverses his hawkish ways in favor of international negotiation. Remember that Reagan was elected as a Cold Warrior super-hawk in 1980, but later decided to work with Soviet Premier Mikael Gorbachev to cut nuclear and defense arsenals. That was the right call, though it’s important and instructive to remember that most of Reagan’s own cabinet and a majority of the Republican Party was initially skeptical, if not downright unsupportive.
Who knows if President Trump is serious about commonsense defense cuts and prudent arms reduction negotiations. After all the man has reversed and contradicted himself a time or too – even on this very topic. Still, if Mr. Trump pulls this off it would be a surprise master stroke that would likely be applauded on Main Street but pilloried on K Street in D.C.
Should he surprise his critics, upset his corporate backers, and lessen international tensions even a little bit, well, then we’ll have to admit he has for once demonstrated his potential.
Now that’d be the "Art of the Deal."
Danny Sjursen is a US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]
Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen