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Putting War Waste on the Chopping Block

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In the ordinary course of things in Washington, D.C., and on television, there are two separate conversations. In one conversation, everything that the government spends money on (schools, transportation, police, etc.) must be trimmed back to save money. In the other conversation, the expenses of wars and the military must be unquestioned. After what he said this week on ABC, it will be interesting to see whether Congressman Barney Frank is permitted on television anymore. He combined the two conversations.

After a right-winger proposed more tax cuts to "stimulate" the economy and denounced any spending programs as not being "stimulus," Frank pointed out that the largest spending program we've seen is the war on Iraq. Host George Stephanopoulos clearly felt the force of some galactic wind about to suck him into a different dimension in which the two conversations are permitted to overlap. He jumped in and said "That is a whole 'nother show." But Frank faced the taboo head-on, saying:

"No it isn’t. That's the problem. The problem is that we look at spending and say oh don't spend on highways, don't spend on healthcare, but let's build cold war weapons to defeat the Soviet Union when we don't need them, let's have hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars going to the military without a check. Unless everything is on the table then you're going to have a disproportionate hit in some places."

Late last year, Frank proposed cutting the military by 25 percent. When I spoke with his chief of staff, he told me that he thought 10 percent could come from ending the occupation of Iraq. So, Frank is apparently thinking of the military and war budgets as a whole and proposing to cut a quarter, with 15 percent coming out of the standard military budget. "If we are going to get the deficit under control without slashing every domestic program, this is a necessity," Frank said. Now, I'll be the first to point out that 25 percent is grotesquely insufficient, and that there is a perverse sort of unstated public apology here, in that Frank led the charge to throw $700 billion at Wall Street tycoons and has sat by as trillions more has flown out that golden door without any pretense of oversight. But when someone in power gets something right, our focus should be on moving it forward, not analyzing the purity of heart of a politician.

While it is shocking for anyone on television to admit that the military costs money, the public knows it. And when the public sees the military budget in detail, we scream "Slash it!" In a March 2005 report called "The Federal Budget: the Public's Priorities," the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) told people the basic distribution of funds in the federal budget and asked how they would rearrange the funding if they could. Americans from across the political spectrum, on average, said they would cut the military budget by 31 percent. That's more than double Frank's 15 percent. Congressman Dennis Kucinich has in the past proposed a 15 percent cut and been denounced as a radical. Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey has long proposed a shift of resources away from the military but has never named a specific number at all.

We the people are, as usual, out ahead of our leaders. Sixty-five percent of Americans, when they saw how much money the military had, told PIPA they favored taking at least some of it away. Majorities favored reducing spending on the capacity for conducting large-scale nuclear and conventional wars. And second highest on the list of cuts after the "defense" budget was the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Majorities of ordinary people taking this survey were also able to do what Congress members and TV pundits have declared impossible, distinguish between wars and soldiers. They favored slashing money for wars and the military, while increasing funds for veterans and preserving funds for those on active duty.

The biggest increases in the PIPA survey went to education, job training, employment, and medical research. And the largest increase in percentage terms went to conserving and developing renewable energy: 70 percent of Americans favored an increase, which averaged 1,090 percent (yes, over a thousand percent).

But exactly how much money can we cut out of war waste and military misspending?

Well, for fiscal year 2009, we're looking at $653 billion for the Pentagon, plus $162 billion in supplemental spending for Iraq and Afghanistan. A quarter of $815 billion is $203.75 billion. Anyone who couldn't figure out where to cut $203.75 billion from the military and wars is probably a danger to themselves and others.

You could get $162 by ending two horribly damaging foreign occupations. You could get $73.7 billion just by ending the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the people who brought you mechanical killer elephants and telepathic warfare and who are now researching exploding frisbees, cyborg wasps, and Captain America no-meals and no-sleep soldiers. That'd be $235.7 billion right there. Imagine if you also shut down just a few of the 1,000 or so bases we're imposing on other people's countries building animosity around the globe. (A mammoth new base in Italy is being constructed right now despite fierce opposition from the Italian public: ) An upcoming conference in DC on closing foreign bases might have a chance of being heard if it lets Congress know that some $130 billion could be saved by an action that would improve U.S. foreign relations. Or what if we were to shut down "missile defense" or abandon all space weapons programs until, you know, there was a sane argument for them. President Obama has already backed a ban on space weapons. We could cut a couple of billion dollars by ending the new practice of basing U.S. troops on our own soil for "crowd control" through Northern Command. Ending torture will save money, but how much would ending illegal propaganda save? Let's face it, Frank's proposal is disgustingly and immorally conservative, but it's a good start.

It's safe to assume the $162 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan will actually be double that by the end of the year. There's also about $150 billion in the military portions of departments other than "Defense." And that's not counting veterans' benefits or the interest on debt for past military spending. The total tax dollars we devote to killing each year now is over a trillion and a half, which compares to some $1.2 trillion we devote to living, not counting trust funds like Social Security and not counting Paulson's Plunder. In fact, what we spend on the military is now more than all other nations combined. We should be thinking in terms of cutting at the very least a quarter of the whole $1.5 trillion, or $375 billion. And that doesn't include warrantless and other unjustified spying, which is ongoing, or detentions, renditions, prison camps, and torture not done by the military, which may be ending.

To believe Fox News, a senior U.S. "defense" official says that President Obama has asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to cut the military budget request for the Fiscal Year 2010 by 10 percent. That's a start.

Back in November, the Defense Business Board, an internal management oversight body in the U.S. military stated in briefings that major systemic cuts were absolutely necessary. As the Boston Globe reported:

"The briefings do not specify which programs should be cut, but defense analysts say that prime targets would probably include the new F-35 fighter jet, a series of Navy ship programs, and a massive Army project to build a new generation of ground combat vehicles, all of which have been skyrocketing in cost and suffering long development delays."

The Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction also pointed out in a report this week that over $50 billion has been spent on reconstruction without reconstructing much, and another $50 billion spent on other contractors in Iraq, with the primary item produced being new innovations in fraud, scams, rip-offs, and profiteering. This is not new to anyone who followed the work of Congressman Henry Waxman who chaired the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform during the last Congress, before he decided for partisan reasons that the upcoming two years would not require any oversight.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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