All Dollars, No Sense

The Pentagon is eating away at our future security.


Just one year ago, Bill Clinton made investment the watchword of his presidential campaign. His manifesto, Putting People First, proclaimed, “We have a historic opportunity. The human and physical resources we once dedicated to winning the Cold War can now be rededicated to fulfilling unmet domestic needs.” He pledged to transfer the savings from defense “dollar for dollar” into “investment in the American economy.”

This summer, the Pentagon completed its “Bottom-Up Review of Defense Needs and Programs,” detailing structure and strategy for the military in a post-Cold War world. Most accounts claim that the administration is making a wrenching transition from a military economy. Headlines report base and plant closures. Polls show that people, worried about turmoil abroad and jobs at home, are wary of military cuts. Republicans are primed to attack, with Senator Robert Dole charging, “Democrats under the leadership of President Clinton want to gut defense.”

Don’t believe the hype. The administration plans to spend $1.3 trillion on the military over the next five years, nearly fourteen thousand dollars for every household in America. The national defense budget will only decline from $290.7 billion in 1993 to about $230 billion in 1997 (in 1993 dollars). Conservatives decry cuts of 40 percent from Cold War heights, but the reductions follow the feeding frenzy of the early 1980s, when Reagan bloated military spending by 50 percent in real terms. At the end of the century, this bureaucratic bingeing will leave military spending at levels roughly comparable to those the hawkish Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford thought necessary in the midst of the Cold War.

Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. military looks like Bluto bellying up to Sweet Pea. Our military spends more than the ten next- most expensive militaries combined–and at the moment, all of those countries either are our allies or want to be. While we spend $1.3 trillion on the military over the next five years, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan will each spend less than $200 billion.

This massive military commitment comes when the U.S. is remarkably free of foreign military threats. For forty-five years, fear of the Soviets drove the military budget, more than half of which was devoted to opposing a Warsaw Pact assault on Germany. But many believe that Russia now wants to join NATO. According to CIA estimates, even if a baby-bust Stalin were to take over in Moscow, it would be a decade before Russia might again constitute a conventional military threat.

To be sure, the world is a dangerous place, and Americans overwhelmingly believe that the U.S. should maintain the most powerful military in the world. Even so, analysts from the Brookings Institution, the Program in Science & Technology for International Security at MIT, and experts like Reagan Defense Planner Lawrence Korb and former CIA Director William Colby have called for reducing the military budget to between $150 billion and $180 billion a year by 1997 (1993 dollars).

“The most important security concern most Americans feel is walking through a city at night,” Colby told Mother Jones. “That’s not a problem for the army. Another important security concern is that other countries have better-educated, better-trained workforces. That’s not a problem for the army. We need a military capable of defending us, but we no longer need Cold War-size forces.”

Scaling down to a $150-billion-a-year defense budget would leave us an extra $200 billion over the next five years–more than double the savings Clinton proposes–and $70 billion to $80 billion every year thereafter. And such a military budget would hardly leave us prey to foreign vultures: we would still be spending nearly four times as much as any other nation.

The rationale

What justifies the bloated budgets now being planned? Even conservatives have been hard-pressed to give an answer. “Threats have become remote,” admitted Republican presidential hopeful and former Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, “so remote that they are difficult to discern.” General Colin Powell, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, groused, “We no longer have the luxury of having a threat to plan for.”

But creativity springs anew in a bureaucracy in search of a mission. Last year the Joint Chiefs, admitting that it is difficult to name a threat without straining credulity, invoked “the threat of the unknown,” which offers scope for imagination if not guidance for planning.

The aging whiz kids that Clinton Defense Secretary Les Aspin brought to the Pentagon cleverly summon up the ogres and goblins that inhabit our collective unconscious, saying we must meet the “new dangers” posed by regional powers like Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. The large dragon has been slain, testified Clinton’s CIA Director James Woolsey, but the “jungle is filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes.”

This is surely true, but none of Woolsey’s snakes can swim the oceans to reach us. Why should the U.S. plan to spend $59.4 billion each year to defend South Korea from its enemy to the north, when the South has twice the population and more than five times the gross national product of the isolated, backward, communist monarchy? And wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in renewable energy and conservation than to spend $47.8 billion a year fortifying corrupt, feudal emirates to keep oil cheap for Europe and Japan?

Furthermore, even if we see our role as tangling with Woolsey’s snakes, that still wouldn’t justify the Pentagon’s budget, as none of those potential adversaries spends more than $20 billion a year on its military.

To get around this, Pentagon planners inflate the threats by adding them together. Aspin has suggested that the U.S. needs forces capable of simultaneously fighting two large-scale regional wars, carrying out a Panama-size intervention in our hemisphere, and launching a relief operation the size of the Kurdish rescue, while maintaining forces for rotation if an operation is extended.

Even at the height of the Cold War, the military did not possess the transport equipment to do all that at once. Moreover, these tasks concern humanitarian assistance and global peacekeeping, not direct threats to our national safety. There is no reason for the U.S. to carry out these operations alone, nor to undertake them simultaneously.

The real reasons

The Defense Department claims that its budgets are based upon the first “major, bottom-up, threat-based, comprehensive review of defense needs, programs, and budgets” since the breakup of the USSR. In fact, the administration’s military budget owes more to the threat posed by Georgia Senator Sam Nunn than to that posed by North Korean President Kim Il Sung.

During the presidential campaign, Clinton promised to cut only $60 billion–less than 5 percent–from the Bush “base force” plan. As a Vietnam dissenter, Clinton wanted the support of Nunn, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and that put a lid on defense cuts. (“Call it the Sam Nunn defense plan,” one of Clinton’s leading campaign strategists explained.) When Nunn agreed not to jump ship, the budget had fulfilled its primary purpose.

Once in office, Clinton used the $60 billion as his base and then added savings by projecting lower inflation and freezing wages on federal workers. Clinton’s $1.3 trillion, five-year plan in turn framed the Pentagon review. As one officer put it, “We’re wrapping a veneer of strategy on a budget that’s already been decided.”

What sustains this military budget in Congress is not the fear of “new dangers” abroad but the fear of job losses at home. As Aspin noted while still heading the House Armed Services Committee, the struggle is no longer between liberal and conservative, but between those who have significant contracts at risk and those who do not.

Take the V-22 Osprey Assault Plane, slated to cost $30 billion for 663 planes. The air force doesn’t want it. The navy doesn’t want it. The Bush Defense Department tried to kill it. But legislators in Texas and Pennsylvania kept it alive to preserve jobs. President Clinton embraced it as a candidate in search of votes, so it survives to this day.

The lobby defending the military is fierce and entrenched. On the other hand, as Republican Senator Phil Gramm put it, “There is no lobby for the future.”

What to do

Cutting the military budget requires an honest rethinking about the way our economy should work. For forty years the military has provided us with a stealth industrial policy. It has subsidized industry and research, targeted investments to less-developed areas, bailed out companies, and created markets.

But a bloated military budget is the most costly, least efficient public-works program imaginable. Under the most generous estimates, each job generated by the military budget costs about fifty thousand dollars per person. We waste scarce resources–and the talents of our most skilled workers and scientists–making weapons we no longer need, while we starve investments we cannot do without. After reviewing a range of economic models, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that reducing military spending and reinvesting the savings at home could generate more jobs, fuel greater growth, and create better prospects for the next generation.

This fall, Congress will review the Pentagon’s projections. Next year’s budget will set the trajectory for defense spending–and thus for national priorities–until the next war or the next depression.

The moment could scarcely be more ill-timed. The president, already wounded in the skirmish over gays in the military, has no intention of quarreling with the Pentagon. Republicans are charging that Clinton’s cuts will weaken America and cost jobs, turning pork-barrel patriotism to partisan advantage. Next year is an election year and, with a slow-growth economy, legislators will be loath to cut spending of any kind–other than spending on the poor, who do not turn out at the polls–before facing the voters.

Clinton’s budget plan essentially freezes discretionary federal spending for five years. Cities, schools, housing, and the environment all will take another hit unless military spending is reduced. Worse, a $250-billion-a-year military will find things to do and places to go. We will find ourselves entwined with “poisonous snakes” across the globe, while our infrastructure crumbles, our economy flags, and our children’s prospects dim.

The great British historian Arnold Toynbee concluded that great civilizations, like dinosaurs, decline because they cannot adjust to a changed world. The world has surely changed. Now the choice is ours.

Robert L. Borosage is director of The Campaign for New Priorities.