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Tomgram: Hartung and Smithberger, The Pandemic of Pentagon Spending

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Consider the second paragraph of the lead story in the November 20th New York Times:

"The leaders of Western Europe have called Mr. Biden, as has the president of the world's rising superpower, Xi Jinping of China. PayPal's chief executive extended his 'warmest congratulations to President-Elect Joe Biden, who will become the 46th president of the U.S.A.' The Boeing Corporation, which benefited from Mr. Trump's demands for big-ticket defense items, issued a statement on Friday saying, 'We look forward to working with the Biden administration.'"

Not that I need to remind you, but we were then (as we are now) in the midst of the most bizarre post-election moment in American history. Donald Trump was doing every strange thing he could to hold onto power (or, at least, the fantasy of power) and defenestrate the American political system, while burying himself in a never-ending TV binge in the White House. Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that Joe Biden, the new president-elect, was being recognized by the governments of Western Europe (many of which The Donald had harried or spurned) and greeted by the president of China (a country he had gone after economically and even militarily). No surprise there. But you know you're in a brand new American world when a major weapons-making corporation like Boeing acts as if it were a foreign government preparing to deal with a new president in a disputed election.

Think of Boeing, in fact, as the Boris Johnson of arms corporations. After all, Donald Trump, who may have put more money into the Pentagon than any president in memory, had been out on the hustings in Saudi Arabia (doing sword dances, no less) from the early moments of his presidency to sell the products of America's largest arms makers (Boeing included). And that performance of his never ended. His administration, for instance, only recently approved major arms sales to Taiwan (another slap in the face to China), including 100 Boeing-made Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems and 135 Boeing-made air-to-ground cruise missiles.

And yet, like the British prime minister, Boeing, too, has now turned on its man in the White House and publicly recognized the new president-elect. What more do you need to know about the world of big money and the 1% that we're now pandemically immersed in? Unfortunately, there turns out to be so much more to know, as you'll soon discover in the latest piece from Pentagon experts and TomDispatch regulars William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger. Tom

Shrinking the Pentagon
Will the Biden Administration Dare Cut Military Spending?
By William D. Hartung and Mandy Smithberger

Now that Joe Biden is slated to take office as the 46th president of the United States, advice on how he should address a wide range of daunting problems is flooding in. Nowhere is there more at stake than when it comes to how he handles this country's highly militarized foreign policy in general and Pentagon spending in particular.

Defense spending increased sharply in the Trump years and is now substantially higher than it was during the Korean or Vietnam War eras or during the massive military buildup President Ronald Reagan oversaw in the 1980s. Today, it consumes well over half of the nation's discretionary budget, which just happens to also pay for a wide array of urgently needed priorities ranging from housing, job training, and alternative energy programs to public health and infrastructure building. At a time when pandemics, high unemployment, racial inequality, and climate change pose the greatest threats to our safety and security, this allocation of resources should be considered unsustainable. Unfortunately, the Pentagon and the arms industry have yet to get that memo. Defense company executives recently assured a Washington Post reporter that they are "unconcerned" about or consider unlikely the possibility that a Biden administration would significantly reduce Pentagon spending.

It's easy enough to understand their confidence. Many of the officials rumored to soon be appointed to lead the Pentagon, including a number of former Obama administration figures, have spent the past few years working, either directly or indirectly, for defense contractors. Not surprisingly, then, their policy prescriptions emphasize some of the most expensive and risky military technologies imaginable like hypersonic weaponry. The expected next secretary of defense, Michà le Flournoy, has already insisted that Washington needs to make "big bets" on unmanned systems and artificial intelligence. Of course, she won't be the one who will pay the price if they fail -- or even if they succeed and take money that might have been used for crucial domestic purposes like health care in a pandemic moment.

Still, contrary to the wishes and hopes of the military-industrial complex and figures like Flournoy, there is a growing congressional interest in trying to bring runaway Pentagon spending under control. This July, for instance, Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI), Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pushed parallel measures in the House and Senate to cut Pentagon spending by 10%, a savings of more than $70 billion that could have been put to good use elsewhere, including aid to increasingly desperate low-income communities. Although their initiatives lost, the very fact that they were proposed may be a turning point in a Congress that, for years, has signed off on whatever the Pentagon asked for, without resistance of any sort.

Think of those votes on Pentagon budget reductions as just the beginning of a long-term effort to tame that out-of-control institution. Representatives Pocan and Lee, for instance, created a defense-savings caucus in the House focused on going after misguided Department of Defense spending. During campaign 2020, both Joe Biden and the Democratic platform emphasized that this country and the world can indeed be made safer while spending less on the Pentagon.

Clearly, the fairy-tale explanation that more spending equals better security needs to be ditched. Will it happen soon? Who knows? At least it's time for the rest of us to begin thinking about how much less should be spent on the Department of Defense and how to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent more wisely.

A Pentagon Spending Agenda for the Biden Administration

In reality, it's not that complicated. Pentagon spending could easily be reduced substantially even as the world was made a safer place. For that to happen, however, its budget would have to begin to deal with the actual challenges this country faces rather than letting billions of dollars more be squandered on outmoded military priorities and artificially inflated threats supposedly posed by our biggest adversaries.

One blueprint for doing just that has been put together by the Center for International Policy's Sustainable Defense Task Force, a group of former White House, Pentagon, and congressional budget officials, retired military officers, and think-tank experts from across the political spectrum. They have crafted a plan to save $1.25 trillion from proposed Pentagon spending over the next decade.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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