In this age of austerity, all the politicians are talking about the need for spending cuts. But when it comes to shared burdens and slashed budgets, don’t expect the Pentagon to start holding bake sales, despite what you may have heard about reductions to its obscenely bloated funding.
Citing the U.S. government’s $14.3 trillion debt, lawmakers from both parties have seized the moment to try and attain long hoped-for cuts to Social Security and Medicare. But the recent deal does seem to include some good news for lovers of peace: the push for reductions would encompass the war-making part of the state. Indeed, according to a “fact sheet” released by the White House on the bipartisan compromise, the recent deal to raise the national debt ceiling “puts us on track to cut $350 billion from the defense budget over 10 years.”
Popular liberal pundits, such as The Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson and Ezra Klein, reacted by calling the supposed defense cuts “gigantic” and “unprecedented.” The White House says they’re the first spending reductions since the 1990s.
But don’t start cheering yet. As with any other major bipartisan initiative in Washington — the Iraq war and the Wall Street bailouts come time mind — there’s ample reason to be skeptical.
First, the cuts for 2012 are virtually nil. Security spending — which includes the Pentagon, State Department, Homeland Security, part of Veterans Affairs, and intelligence spending — will be capped at $684 billion in 2012, a decline of merely $5 billion (less than 1 percent) from this year.
Yes, there are potentially far more drastic cuts down the road. In addition to the first $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade, a bipartisan congressional committee must come up with an additional $1.5 trillion cuts by November — or trigger an automatic across-the-board reduction of $1.2 trillion starting in 2013, half of which would be expected to come from military spending.
However, expect this threat of deep military cuts — if cutting defense by 3 percent a year can be called “deep” when it has grown at a rate of 9 percent over the last decade — to be used as a bargaining chip by Democrats to extract concessions on tax increases from Republicans; don’t hold your breath expecting the cuts to actually materialize. And with House Republicans already pledging to “fight on behalf of our Armed Forces,” by which they mean the military-industrial complex, don’t expect Democrats to put up much of a fight. Even if Obama were so inclined, the idea that he will expend political capital on cutting military spending even as he expands the war on terror in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia is doubtful, especially with an election looming.
But let’s put aside cynicism and accept the Obama administration at its word. Let’s assume the White House and Congress agree to cut military spending by $35 billion* a year over 10 years. While the numbers may sound impressive out of context, that’s like draining an Olympic-sized pool with a glass from your kitchen: you’re going to be at it awhile. The military budget has ballooned so much over the last decade that even if it were cut in half tomorrow, the U.S. would still spend more than it did in 2001.
Indeed, the Obama administration’s proposed military budget for 2012 — the baseline from which future cuts are projected — is at its “highest level since World War II,” according to the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, “surpassing the Cold War peak” set by Ronald Reagan and a Democratic House of Representatives in 1985. Even if, instead of over a decade, the whole, entirely-subject-to-change $350 billion were cut from the defense budget in one fiscal year alone, the U.S. would still lead the globe in military spending, devoting twice as much to guns and bombs as its closest and much more populous rival, China. And that’s without factoring in the cost of any new wars.
Of course, official budget numbers don’t tell the whole story. Factoring in interest payments for past military expenditures, spending on veterans’ care, and other defense-related items not included in the Pentagon budget, economist Robert Higgs estimates the yearly grand total spent on the military is $1 trillion or more, with over half of the federal income tax going to the military. And that massive national debt that’s being used to justify cuts in social spending? Nothing has contributed to it more than the dramatic rise in military spending over the last decade, a factoid you might have missed if you get your news from a television.
The tragic irony is that debt caused in large part by foreign military adventures is being used to further a class war here at home, even as the bloodshed continues in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and beyond. Too bad that, rather than denounce this morally and fiscally damaging addiction to militarism, politicians prefer to orchestrate the decline of the American empire from within.
*Correction: This figure has been corrected from the original “$350 billion.”