Among too many progressives there is an unfortunate and wrongheaded perspective about the military-industrial complex: It can't be beat.
Arrayed against any attempt to make meaningful cuts in military spending, it is said (quite accurately), are the contractors with "must-have" weapons to sell, the revolving door that puts ex-generals and ex-colonels on their boards of directors, the residual Cold Warriors, empire builders and other hegemonists, the Congresspeople with district jobs at stake and, of course, the xenophobic super-patriots, large numbers of whom have never seen combat except in films.
But, despite being at its post-World War II peak, MIC spending is now more vulnerable than at any time in the past 20 years when the collapse of the Soviet Union opened a window for a "peace dividend" that was partially realized during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations when the overall military budget from 1989 through 1998 fell 28 percent. Instead of lamenting that we're helpless in the face of the MIC juggernaut that has consumed $7.2 trillion since 1998, that weakness should be exploited to the max in the budget debates that will consume much of the rest of 2011.
Our momentary advantage comes from a convergence of views that spans a good portion of the political spectrum combined with widespread hawkishness on deficit spending. While any immediate impact is likely to be small, now is our best chance to set the foundation for a vast reduction in the military spending from 2013-14 and onward.
Whether U.S. military spending is 47 percent of the world's total, as calculated by the highly respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute or far more, as set forth by Chris Hellman of the National Priorities Project, there is no argument that the United States not only spends more for military purposes than any other nation on the planet, but also as much or almost as much as all other nations combined. Of those 195 nations, the U.S. has some kind of military presence in about 150, and more than 700 bases in at least 60.
Despite the end of the Cold War, the original justification for what Dwight Eisenhower called the MIC a half century ago, military spending has risen significantly in inflation-adjusted dollars, as can be seen in this chart.
Spending shown in inflation-adjusted (2011) dollars
As Hellman notes, however, the $671 billion shown in the chart does not include $19.3 billion for nuclear-related spending by the Dept. of Energy, $8.7 billion in counter-terrorism activities by the State Dept. and U.S. Agency for International Development, $27 billion for military intelligence, $129.3 billion for veterans programs (call this part of the expenditures for consequences of past wars), $18 billion that includes foreign military aid, international peacekeeping operations and projects such as cleaning up landmines in previous conflict zones, and $48.5 billion for pensions that go to military veterans and retired civilian Pentagon employees. Plus, $48 billion in defense-related interest debt.
For 2012, the administration has spoken to budget-tightening at the Pentagon. Three months ago Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proposed $78 billion in spending cuts and some efficiency measures to the "base" budget, that is, the budget without the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But those cuts are to be spread over five years, less than a 3 percent cut. And because of spending increases in other areas, the actual Pentagon base budget request for 2012 is $553 billion. Calculated in inflation-adjusted dollars, this is more than at any time since World War II. Here's what things look like going forward:
U.S. Defense Budget Actual and Forecasts
In other words, without big changes, the United States will be spending more than it was during the height of Vietnam and the Cold War in 2015. Here is another way to look at what that spending looks like:
Pretty damn depressing, frankly.
But, as Robert Dreyfus recently wrote in Taking Aim at the Pentagon Budget, support for deep cuts in military spending are no longer anchored among the usual suspects at the Straus Military Reform Project, the Project for Defense Alternatives, The Cato Institute,The World Can't Wait or CodePink.
In the past 10 months, several task forces have sought larger-than-expected military spending cuts:
The Sustainable Defense Task Force, which was formed in response to a request from Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), working together with in cooperation Representative Walter B. Jones (R-NC), Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), and Senator Ron Wyden (D OR) published Debt, Deficits, & Defense A Way Forward, which found nearly a $100 billion a year to cut over the next decade, $960 billion all told. This would not come from war spending, $118 billion in current annual spending, but from the base budget.
The Debt Reduction Task Force set up by the Bipartisan Policy and co-chaired by Sen. Pete Dominici and Alice Rivlin published Restoring America's Future, which called for a 275,000 reduction in the number of troops over five years and a Pentagon spending freeze, which would lower predicted baseline spending by $166 billion in 2016.
The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the Simpson-Bowles task force popularly known on the left as the "catfood commission" for its proposals on social spending also included in its publication of The Moment of Truth as much as a trillion dollars in military cuts over a decade. (The commission was not perfectly clear about the numbers, so the cuts might be as little as $650 billion.)
Getting Congress to make big cuts in military spending will, of course, not be easy. Behind the scenes, we know well from past experience who will be opposed. And in Congress itself, the armed services committees will be stubborn obstacles. But what better time is ripe for the fight?
There's a secondary battle to be fought as well. And that is what to do with the money that is saved. Naturally, there will be the inevitable talk about more tax cuts for the wealthy Americans. And a big push will be made to reduce the deficit, as happened with the "peace dividend" in the Clinton years. That led to missed opportunities. A better place to spend that money, or rather to invest it, as Miriam Pemberton and John Feffer wrote for Foreign Policy in Focus last year, is on "The Green Dividend." This meshes perfectly with President Obama's proposal to wean the nation off fossil fuels and provide the new jobs that such investment will generate.
As Pemberton and Feffer say:
The Obama administration has made investing in the green economy a priority. But the great majority of these investments have come in the one-time American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—otherwise known as the “Recovery Act ”—of 2009. Most of the money is already spoken for. If these are truly to lay the groundwork for a green economy, such investments will in future need to be built into the regular budget. …
Countries, like individuals, rarely get second chances. After the Cold War ended, the United States missed a golden opportunity to use a “peace dividend” to fund a large-scale conversion program to transform the defense sector into the core of a new manufacturing system. We have suffered grievously because of this error of foresight. The United States has witnessed a continued erosion of manufacturing capacity, as our products can’t compete globally and our workers lose jobs to outsourcing. Despite considerable evidence of our dangerous reliance on imported fossil fuels, we did not take the necessary steps to invest in sustainable alternatives and develop world-class green technology. And our military sector remained hypertrophied, which only encouraged U.S. leaders to use these capabilities in a series of wars that have further saddled the country with debt.
We wasted the peace dividend opportunity. But we are fortunate to have a second chance. The current leadership recognizes the importance of green jobs. It has already devoted some funds in the initial stimulus package to encouraging green technology. It has embraced nuclear abolition and promised to wind up the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it acknowledges the climate crisis and the role the United States must play to address global warming. …
The trick of the green dividend is to ensure that new manufacturing jobs are created to replace the defense sector employment. These new jobs are necessary to ensure support of unions, industry, and the politicians who will refuse to cut even the smallest fraction of the U.S. military budget as long as it generates employment.
The green dividend is perhaps our last shot at transforming the U.S. economy. We have been given a second chance. If we blow it this time, there will not likely be another.
As historians and other observers have told us for decades, national security is about far more than how big and well-funded a country's military is. That is more true in a world of climate change and ever scarcer resources than at any time in the past. Last year, as part of its aggressive infrastructure efforts, China installed more than three times as much new wind-generating capacity as the United States did. It surpassed our total wind-generating capacity by 12 percent. China's official military budget is about 14 percent of America's. Calculated at what some consider a fairer measure, it is less 60 percent of ours. There's a lesson there. Our task is to make our leaders pay attention to it.