The Pentagon, first, last, and always

Focusing on the wrong threats, including a New Cold War with China, is the last thing we can afford now.

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SOURCETomDispatch
Image Credit: Evert Meulie

This country is in a crisis of the first order. More than half a million of us have died thanks to Covid-19. Food insecurity is on the rise, with nearly 24 million Americans going hungry, including 12 million children. Unemployment claims filed since the pandemic began have now reached 93 million. Given the level of damage to the less wealthy parts of this society, it’s little wonder that most Americans chose pandemic recovery (including the quick distribution of vaccines) as their top priority issue.

Keep in mind that our democracy is suffering as well. After all, former president Donald Trump incited an insurrection when he wasn’t able to win at the polls, an assault on the Capitol in which military veterans were overrepresented among those committed to reversing the election results (and endangering legislators as well). If you want a mood-of-the-moment fact, consider this: even after Joe Biden’s election, QAnon followers continued to insist that Trump could still be inaugurated to his second term in office. Addressing economic and political instability at home will take significant resources and focus, including calling to account those who so grossly mishandled the country’s pandemic response and stoked the big lie of questioning the legitimacy of Biden’s election victory.

If, however, you weren’t out here in the real world, but in there where the national security elite exists, you’d find that the chatter would involve few of the problems just mentioned. And only in our world would such a stance seem remarkably disconnected from reality. In their world, the “crisis” part of the present financial crisis is a fear, based on widespread rumors and reports about the Biden budget to come, that the Pentagon’s funding might actually get, if not a genuine haircut, then at least a trim — something largely unheard of in the twenty-first century.

The Pentagon’s boosters and their allies in the defense industry respond to such fears by insisting that no such trim could possibly be in order, that competition with China must be the prime focus of this moment and of the budget to come. Assuming that China’s rise is, in fact, a genuine problem, it’s not one that’s likely to be solved either in the near future or in a military fashion (not, at least, without disaster for the world), and it’s certainly not one that should be prioritized during a catastrophic pandemic.

While there are genuine concerns about what China’s rise might mean for the United States, it’s important to recognize just how much harm those trying to distract us from the very real problems at hand are likely to inflict on our health and actual security. Since the beginning of the pandemic, in fact, those unwilling to accept our failures or respond adequately to the disease at hand have blamed outside forces, most notably China, for otherwise preventable havoc to American lives and the economy.

Trump and his allies tried to shirk accountability for their failure to respond to the pandemic by pushing xenophobic and false characterizations of Covid-19 as the “China virus” or the “kung flu.” In a similar fashion, the national security elites hope that focusing on building up our military and building new nuclear weapons with China in mind will distract time and energy from making needed changes at home. But those urging us to increase Pentagon spending to compete with China in the middle of a pandemic are, in reality, only compounding the damage to our country’s recovery.

Militarizing the future

Given the last two decades, you won’t be surprised to know that this misplaced assessment of the real threat to the public has a firm grip on Washington right now. As my colleague Dan Grazier at the Project On Government Oversight pointed out recently, confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks included more than 70 (sometimes ominous) mentions of China.

So again, no surprise that only a few weeks after those hearings, Biden announced the creation of a new China task force at the Pentagon. As the press announcement made clear, that group is going to be a dream for the military-industrial complex since it will, above all, focus on developing advanced “defense” technologies to stare down the China “threat” and so further militarize the future. In other words, the Pentagon’s projected threat assessments and their wonder-weapon solutions will be at the forefront of Washington thinking — and, therefore, funding, even during this pandemic.

That’s why it’s easy enough to predict where such a task force will lead. A similar panel in 2018, including lobbyists, board members, and contractors from the arms industry, warned that competition with China would require a long-term increase in funding for the Pentagon of 3% to 5%. That could mean an almost unimaginable future Department of Defense budget of $971.9 billion in fiscal year 2024. To pay for it, they suggested, Congress should consider cutting social security and other kinds of safety-net spending.

Even before Covid-19 hit, the economic fragility of so many Americans should have made that kind of recommendation irresponsible. In the midst of a pandemic, it’s beyond dangerous. Still, it betrays a crucial truth about the military-industrial complex: its key figures see the U.S. economy as something that should serve their needs, not the other way around.

Of course, the giants of the weapons industry have long had a direct seat at the table in Washington. Despite being the first Black secretary of defense, for instance, Lloyd Austin III remains typical of the Pentagon establishment in the sense that he comes to the job directly from a seat on the board of directors of weapons giant Raytheon. And he’s in good company. After all, many of the administration’s recent appointees are drawn from key Washington think tanks supported by the weapons industry.

For instance, more than a dozen former staffers from, or people affiliated with, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) have joined the Biden administration. A recent report by the Revolving Door Project found that CNAS had repeatedly accepted the sort of funding that went comfortably with recommendations it was making that “would directly benefit some of the think tank’s donors, including military contractors and foreign governments.” When it came to confronting China, for instance, CNAS figures urged the Department of Defense to “sustain and enhance” defense contractors so that they would become ever more “robust, flexible, and resilient” in a faceoff with that country. 

Sadly, even as the Pentagon’s budget remains largely unchallenged, there’s been a sudden reawakening — especially in Republican ranks — to the version of fiscal conservatism that looks askance at providing relief to communities and businesses suffering around the country. Recent debates in Washington about the latest pandemic relief bill suggest once again that the much-ballyhooed principles of “responsibility” and “fiscal conservatism” apply to everyone — except, of course, the Pentagon.

Putting COVID-19 relief spending in perspective

The price tag for the relief bill presently being debated in Congress, $1.9 trillion, is certainly significant, but it’s not far from the kind of taxpayer support national security agencies normally receive every year. In 2020, for instance, the real national security budget request surpassed $1.2 trillion. That request included not only the Pentagon, but other costs of war, including care for veterans and military retirement benefits.

Over the years, such costs have proven monumental. The Department of Defense alone, for example, has received more than $10.6 trillion over the past 20 years. That included $2 trillion for its overseas contingency operations account, a war-fighting fund used by both the Pentagon and lawmakers to circumvent congressionally imposed spending caps. Reliance on that account, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office assured Congress, only made it likelier that taxpayers would fund more expensive and less optimal solutions to America’s forever wars.

In the past, the justification for such excessive national-security spending rested on the idea that the Defense Department was the key to keeping Americans safe. As a result, the Pentagon’s ever-escalating requests for money were approved by Congress year after year without real opposition. Disproportionate funding for that institution has, however, come at a significant cost.

Caps on non-defense spending under the Budget Control Act of 2011 meant that civilian agencies were already underfunded when the pandemic hit. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out, “Overall funding for programs outside veterans’ medical care remains below its level a decade ago.” The consequences of that underspending can also be seen in our crumbling roads and infrastructure, to which, in its last report in 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a D+ — and the situation has only grown worse since then.

Job protection is the other common refrain for those defending high funding levels for the Pentagon and, during a pandemic with such devastating employment consequences, such a concern can hardly be dismissed. But studies have consistently shown that military spending is a remarkably poor job creator compared to almost any other kind of spending. Some of us may still remember World War II’s Rosie the Riveter and mid-twentieth-century union support for defense budgets as engines for job creation. Those assumptions are, however, sorely out of date. Investing in healthcare, combating climate change, or rebuilding infrastructure are all significantly more effective job creators than yet more military spending.

Of course, non-military stimulus spending has been far from perfect. Even measuring the effects of the first relief package passed by Congress has proven difficult, especially since the Trump administration ignored the law when it came to reporting on just how many jobs that spending either preserved or created. Still, there’s no question that non-military stimulus efforts are more effective, by orders of magnitude, than defense spending when it comes to job creation.

Needed: A new funding strategy to weather future storms

The uncomfortable truth (even for those who would like to see a trillion dollars in annual Pentagon spending) is that such funding won’t make us safer, possibly far less so. Recent studies of preventable military aviation crashes indicate that, disturbingly enough, given the way the Pentagon spends taxpayer funds, more money can actually make us less safe.

Somewhere along the line in this pandemic moment, Washington needs to redefine the meaning of both “national security” and “national interest.” In a world in which California burns and Texas freezes, in which more than half-a-million Americans have already been felled by Covid-19, it’s time to recognize how damaging the over-funding of the Pentagon and a myopic focus on an ever more militarized cold war with China are likely to be to this country. As the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft’s Stephen Wertheim has argued, it’s increasingly clear that an American strategy focused on chasing global military supremacy into the distant future no longer serves any real definition of national interest.

Vanderbilt law professor Ganesh Sitaraman recently pointed out at Foreign Affairs that “the coming era will be one of health crises, climate shocks, cyberattacks, and geoeconomic competition among great powers. What unites those seemingly disparate threats is that each is not so much a battle to be won as a challenge to be weathered.” While traditional defense threats still loom large in what passes for national debate in Washington, the most likely (and potentially most devastating) threats to public health and safety aren’t actually in the Pentagon’s wheelhouse.

Weathering those future crises will continue to require innovation and creativity, which means ensuring that we are investing adequately not in the hypersonic weaponry of some future imagined war but in education and public health now. Particularly in the near term, as we try to rebuild jobs and businesses lost to this pandemic, even the Pentagon must be forced to make better use of the staggering resources it already receives from increasingly embattled American taxpayers. Rushing to produce yet more useless (and sometimes poorly produced) weapons systems and technology will only increase the fragility of both the military and the civilian society it’s supposed to protect.

Make no mistake: the addiction to Pentagon spending is a bipartisan problem in Washington. Still, change is in order. The problems we face at home are too overwhelming to be ignored. We can’t continue to let the appetites of the military-industrial complex crowd out the needs of the rest of us.

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