By Nicholas J.S. Davies
To listen to the Republican candidates’ debate last week, one would think that President Obama had slashed the U.S. military budget and left our country defenseless.Â Nothing could be farther off the mark.Â There are real weaknesses in Obama’s foreign policy, but a lack of funding for weapons and war is not one of them.Â President Obama has in fact been responsible for the largest U.S. military budget since the Second World War, as is well documented in theÂ U.S. Department of Defense’s annual “Green Book.”
The table below compares average annual Pentagon budgets under every president since Truman, using “constant dollar” figures from the FY2016 Green Book.Â I’ll use these same inflation-adjusted figures throughout this article, to make sure I’m always comparing “apples to apples”. Â These figures do not include additional military-related spending by the VA, CIA, Homeland Security, Energy, Justice or State Departments, nor interest payments on past military spending, which combine to raise the true cost of U.S. militarism to aboutÂ $1.3 trillion per year,Â orÂ one thirteenth of the U.S. economy.
U.S. Military Budgets 1948-2015
Obama Â Â Â Â FY2010-15 Â Â Â $663.4 billion per year
Bush Jr Â Â Â Â FY2002-09*Â Â $634.9 Â Â ” Â Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ”
Clinton Â Â Â Â FY1994-2001 Â $418.0 Â Â ” Â Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ”
Bush Sr Â Â Â FY1990-93 Â Â $513.4Â Â ” Â Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ”
Reagan Â Â Â Â FY1982-89 Â Â $565.0Â Â ” Â Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ”
Carter Â Â Â Â Â FY1978-81 Â Â $428.1Â Â Â ” Â Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ”
Ford Â Â Â Â Â Â FY1976-77 Â Â $406.7Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ”
Nixon Â Â Â Â Â FY1970-75 Â Â $441.7Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ”
Johnson Â Â Â FY1965-69 Â Â $527.3Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ” Â Â Â Â ”
Kennedy Â Â Â Â FY1962-64 Â Â $457.2Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ” Â Â Â Â ”
Eisenhower Â FY1954-61 Â Â $416.3Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ”
Truman Â Â Â Â FY1948-53 Â Â $375.7Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ” Â Â Â ”
*Excludes $80 billion supplemental added to FY2009 under Obama.
TheÂ U.S.Â militaryÂ receives moreÂ generousÂ fundingÂ than the rest of the 10Â largest militaries in the world combinedÂ (China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, U.K., France, Japan, India, Germany & South Korea). Â And yet, despite the chaos and violence ofÂ the past 15 years, theÂ Republican candidatesÂ seem oblivious to the dangers of one country wielding such massive and disproportionate military power.
On the Democratic side, even Senator Bernie Sanders has not said how much he would cut military spending. Â But Sanders regularly votes against the authorization bills for these record military budgets, condemning this wholesale diversion of resources from real human needs andÂ insisting that war should be a “last resort”.
Sanders’Â votes to attack Yugoslavia in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001, while theÂ UN CharterÂ prohibits such unilateral uses of force, do raise troubling questionsÂ about exactly what he means by a “last resort.”Â Â As his aide Jeremy Brecher asked Sanders inÂ his resignation letterÂ over his Yugoslavia vote, “Is there a moral limit to the military violence that you are willing to participate in or support?Â Where does that limit lie?Â And when that limit has been reached, what action willÂ youÂ take?” Â Many Americans are eager to hear Sanders flesh out a coherent commitment to peace and disarmament to match his commitment to economic justice.
Democrats and Republicans Push Back
When President Obama took office, Congressman Barney Frank immediately called for aÂ 25% cut in military spending. Â Instead, the new president obtained an $80 billion supplemental to the FY2009 budget to fund his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and his first full military budget (FY2010) was $761 billion, within $3.4 billion of the $764.3 billion post-WWII record set by President Bush in FY2008.
TheÂ Sustainable Defense Task Force, commissioned by Congressman Frank and bipartisan Members of Congress in 2010, called for $960 billion in cuts from the projected military budget over the next 10 years. Â Jill Stein of the Green PartyÂ andÂ Rocky Anderson of the Justice Partycalled for a 50% cut in U.S. military spending in their 2012 presidential campaigns.Â That seems radical at first glance, but a 50% cut in the FY2012 budget would only have been a 13% cut from what President Clinton spent in FY1998.
Power Over Peace
Clinton’s $399 billion FY1998 military budget was the nearest we came to realizing the “peace dividend” promised at the end of the Cold War.Â But that didn’t even breach the Cold War baseline of $393 billion set after the Korean War (FY1954) and the Vietnam WarÂ (FY1975).Â The largely unrecognized tragedy of today’s world is that we allowed the “peace dividend” to be trumped by what Carl Conetta of theÂ Project on Defense AlternativesÂ calls the “power dividend”, the desire of military-industrial interests to take advantage of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. to consolidate global U.S. military power.
The triumph of the “power dividend” over the “peace dividend” was driven by some of the most powerful vested interests in history.Â But at each step, there were alternatives to war, weapons production and global military expansion.
Â At aÂ Senate Budget Committee hearingÂ in December 1989, former DefenseÂ Secretary RobertÂ McNamara and AssistantÂ Secretary Lawrence Korb, a Democrat and a Republican, testified that the FY1990 $542 billion Pentagon budget could be cut by half over the next 10 years to leave us with a new post-Cold War baseline military budget of $270 billion, 60% less thanÂ President Obama has spent and 20% below what even Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson called for.
There was significant opposition to the First Gulf War -Â 22 Senators and 183 RepsÂ voted against it, including Sanders – but notÂ enough to stop the march to war. Â The war became a model for future U.S.-led wars and served as a marketing display for a new generation of U.S. weapons.Â After treating the public to endless bombsight videos of “smart bombs” making “surgical strikes”, U.S. officials eventually admitted that such “precision” weapons were onlyÂ 7% of the bombs and missilesÂ raining down on Iraq.Â The rest were good old-fashioned carpet-bombing, but the mass slaughter of Iraqis was not part of the marketing campaign.Â When the bombing stopped,Â U.S. pilots were ordered to fly straight from Kuwait to theÂ Paris Air Show, and the next three years setÂ new recordsÂ for U.S. weapons exports.
Presidents Bush and Clinton made significant cuts in military spending between 1992 and 1994, but the reductions shrank to 1-3% per year between 1995 and 1998 and the budget started rising again in 1999.Â Meanwhile, U.S. officials crafted new rationalizations for the use of U.S. military force to lay the ideological groundwork for future wars. Â Untested and highly questionable claims that more aggressive U.S. use of force could have prevented theÂ genocide in RwandaÂ orÂ civil war in YugoslaviaÂ have served to justify the use of force elsewhere ever since, with universally catastrophic results.Â Â NeoconservativesÂ went even further and claimed that seizing the post-Cold War power dividend was essential to U.S. security and prosperity in the 21st century.
“Vital” U.S. Interests
The claims of both the humanitarian interventionists and the neoconservatives were emotional appeals to different strains in the American psyche,Â driven and promoted by powerful people and institutions whose careers and interests were bound up in the growth of the military industrial complex.Â The humanitarian interventionists appealed to Americans’ desire to be a force for good in the world.Â AsÂ Madeleine Albright asked ColinÂ Powell,Â “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Â On the other hand, the neocons played on the insularity and insecurity of many Americans to claim that the world must be dominated by U.S. military power if we are to preserve our way of life.
TheÂ Clinton administration wove many of these claims into a blueprint for global U.S. military expansion in itsÂ 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review. Â The QDR threatened the unilateral use of U.S. military force, in clear violation of the UN Charter, to defend “vital” U.S. interests all over the world, including “preventing the emergence of a hostile regional coalition,” and “ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources.”
Procurement and Politics (as Usual)
To the extent that they are aware of the huge increase in military spending since 1998, most Americans wouldÂ connectÂ it withÂ the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ill-defined “war on terror.” Â But Carl Conetta’s researchÂ established that, between 1998Â and 2010,Â only 20% of U.S. military procurementÂ and RDT&EÂ (research, development, testing & evaluation)Â spending andÂ onlyÂ half theÂ totalÂ increase in military spendingÂ wasÂ related toÂ ongoing military operations.Â In his 2010 paper,Â An Undisciplined Defense, Conetta found that our government had spentÂ an extraÂ 1.15Â trillion dollars above and beyond Clinton’sÂ FY1998Â baselineÂ on expensesÂ that wereÂ unrelated to to itsÂ currentÂ wars.
Most of the additional funds, $640 billion, were spent on new weapons and equipment (Procurement + RDT&E in the Green Book).Â Incredibly, this was more than double the $290 billion the military spent on new weapons and equipment for the wars it was actually fighting.Â And the lion’s share was not for the Army, but for the Air Force and Navy.
There has been political opposition to theÂ F-35 warplane, which activists have dubbed “the plane that ate the budget” and whose eventual cost hasÂ beenÂ estimated atÂ $1.5 trillion for 2,400 planes.Â But the Navy’s procurement and RDT&E budgets rival the Air Force’s.
Former General Dynamics CEOÂ Lester Crown’s political patronageÂ of a young politician named Barack Obama, whom he first met in 1989 at the Chicago law firm where Obama was an intern, has worked out very well for the family firm.Â Since Obama won the Presidency, with Lester’s son James and daughter-in-law Paula as his Illinois fundraising chairs and 4th largestÂ bundlersÂ nationwide, General Dynamics stock price has gained 170% and itsÂ latest annual reportÂ hailed 2014 as its most profitable year ever, despite an overall 30% reduction in Pentagon procurement and RDT&E spending since FY2009.
Although General Dynamics isÂ selling fewer Abrams tanks and armored vehicles since the U.S. withdrew most of its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, its Marine Systems division is doing better than ever.Â The Navy increased its purchases ofÂ Virginia class submarinesÂ from one to two per year in 2012 at $2 billion each.Â It is buying one newÂ Arleigh Burke class destroyerÂ per year through 2022 at $1.8 billion apiece (Obama reinstated that program as part of his missile defense plan), and the FY2010 budget handed General Dynamics a contract to build 3 newÂ Zumwalt class destroyersÂ for $3.2 billion each, on top of $10 billion already spent on research and development.Â That was despite a U.S. Navy spokesman calling the Zumwalt “a ship you don’t need,” as itÂ will be especially vulnerable to new anti-ship missiles developed by potential enemies. Â General Dynamics is also one of the largest U.S. producers of bombs and ammunition, so it isÂ profiting handsomelyÂ from the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria.
CarlÂ ConettaÂ explainsÂ the U.S.’sÂ unilateral armsÂ build-upÂ as the result of a lack of discipline and a failure of military planners to makeÂ difficultÂ choices about the kind of wars they are preparing to fight or the forces and weapons they might need.Â ButÂ this massive national investment is justified in the minds of U.S. officials by what they can use these forces to do. Â By building the most expensive and destructive war machine ever,Â designing it toÂ be able toÂ threaten orÂ attackÂ just aboutÂ anybody anywhere,Â and justifyingÂ its existence with a combination of neocon and humanitarian interventionist ideology,Â U.S. officials have fostered dangerous illusions about theÂ veryÂ nature of military force.Â As historian Gabriel KolkoÂ warned in 1994, “options and decisions that are intrinsically dangerous and irrational become notÂ merely plausible but the only form of reasoning about war and diplomacy that is possible in official circles.”
War, What is it Good For?
The use of military force is essentially destructive.Â Weapons of war are designed to hurt people and break things.Â All nations claim to build and buy them only to defend themselves andÂ their peopleÂ against the aggression of others.Â The notion that the use of military force canÂ everÂ be a force for good may, at best, apply toÂ a few veryÂ rare,Â exceptional situations where a limited but decisive use of forceÂ hasÂ put an end to an existing conflict and led to a restoration of peace.Â The more usual result of the use or escalation of force is to cause greater death and destruction, to fuel resistance and to cause more widespread instability.Â This is what has happened wherever the U.S. has used force since 2001, includingÂ inÂ itsÂ proxy and covertÂ operations in Syria and Ukraine.
We seem to be coming full circle, to once again recognize the dangers of militarism and the wisdom of the U.S. leaders and diplomats who played instrumental roles in crafting theÂ UN Charter, theÂ Geneva Conventions, theÂ Kellogg Briand PactÂ and much of the existing framework of international law.Â These treaties and conventions were based on the lived experience of our grandparents that a world where war was permitted was no longer sustainable.Â So they were dedicated, to the greatest extent possible, to prohibiting and eliminating war and to protecting people everywhere from the horror of war as a basic human right.
As President Carter said in hisÂ Nobel lectureÂ in 2002, “War may sometimes be a necessary evil.Â But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good.” Â Recent U.S. policy has been a tragic experiment in renormalizing the evil of war.Â This experiment has failed abysmally,Â but there remains much work to do to restore peace, to repair the damage, and to recommit the United States to the rule of law.
Military Spending: So Goes the U.S., So Goes the World
IfÂ we compare U.S. military spending with global military spending, we can see that, as the U.S. cut its military budget by a third between 1985 and 1998, the rest of the world followed suit and global military budgets alsoÂ fell by a third between 1988 and 1998. Â But as the US spent trillions of dollars on weapons and war after 2000, boosting its share of global military spending from 38% to 48% by 2008, both allies and potential enemies again responded in kind.Â The 92% rise in the U.S. military budget by 2008 led to a 65% rise in global military spending by 2011.
U.S. propaganda presents U.S. aggression and military expansionÂ asÂ a force for security and stability.Â In reality, it is U.S. militarism that has been driving global militarism, and U.S.-led wars and covert interventions that have spawned subsidiary conflicts and deprived millions of people of security and stability in country after country. Â But just as diplomacy and peacemaking between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. led to a 33% fall in global military spending in the 1990s, a new U.S. commitment to peace and disarmament today would likewise set the whole world on a more peaceful course.
Obama’s Awakening Late in Coming
In his diplomacy with Cuba and Iran and his apparent readiness to finally respond to Russian diplomacy on Syria and Ukraine, President Obama appears to have learned some important lessons from the violence and chaos that he and President Bush have unleashed on the world.Â The most generous patron the military industrial complex has ever known may finally be looking for diplomatic solutions to the crises caused by his policies.
But Obama’s awakening, if that is what it turns out to be, has come tragically late in his presidency, for millions of victims of U.S. war crimes and for the future of our country and the world.Â Whoever we elect as our next President must therefore be ready on day oneÂ to start dismantling this infernal war machine andÂ building aÂ “permanent structure of peace”, on a firm foundation of humanity, diplomacy and a renewed U.S. commitment to the rule of international law.Î¦
Nicolas J S Davies is a journalist and the author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq and of the chapter on “Obama At War” in Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.