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General News    H3'ed 3/2/21

Tomgram: Mandy Smithberger, More Money for the Pentagon in the Pandemic Moment?

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Strange, isn't it, what doesn't sink in. Take this number: $6.4 trillion. There's a figure you might think should cause a genuine stir (especially since each of those was a taxpayer dollar). In fact, that was what, in November 2019, Neta Crawford of Brown University's invaluable Costs of War Project calculated that this country had spent on or committed to its post-9/11 wars across significant parts of the planet (and future care for U.S. military personnel damaged by them). By all rights, that number should have stunned this country. It should have caused an uproar. It should have resulted in major policy changes in Washington.

Just imagine that, in the years before Covid-19 hit, when American infrastructure was already going down "infrastructure week" would become a (bad) joke of the Trump era the American taxpayer was "investing" $6.4 trillion (a figure you can't repeat too often) in a series of disastrous wars. They would be responsible for the deaths of thousands of American military personnel and hundreds of thousands of civilians in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. They would uproot millions more and help unsettle the planet. Yet, explain it as you will, they simply couldn't be (and still can't be) ended. If that isn't the record from hell, what is?

Today, Crawford's figure would, of course, have to be updated as we await Joe Biden's decisions on future American war-making from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond. And yet, strangely enough, as TomDispatch regular and Pentagon expert Mandy Smithberger reports, Washington, in a remarkably bipartisan fashion, continues to fund the Pentagon at levels that should astound us all. This at a moment when questions remain about whether the Biden administration can pass a $1.9 trillion bill to offer relief to Americans overwhelmed by the disaster of Covid-19. Imagine what those $6.4 trillion dollars could have done, if invested in this country, in us, instead of in those disastrous wars. Tom

The Pentagon, First, Last, and Always
Focusing on the Wrong Threats, including a New Cold War with China, Is the Last Thing We Can Afford Now


This country is in a crisis of the first order. More than half a million of us have died thanks to Covid-19. Food insecurity is on the rise, with nearly 24 million Americans going hungry, including 12 million children. Unemployment claims filed since the pandemic began have now reached 93 million. Given the level of damage to the less wealthy parts of this society, it's little wonder that most Americans chose pandemic recovery (including the quick distribution of vaccines) as their top priority issue.

Keep in mind that our democracy is suffering as well. After all, former president Donald Trump incited an insurrection when he wasn't able to win at the polls, an assault on the Capitol in which military veterans were overrepresented among those committed to reversing the election results (and endangering legislators as well). If you want a mood-of-the-moment fact, consider this: even after Joe Biden's election, QAnon followers continued to insist that Trump could still be inaugurated to his second term in office. Addressing economic and political instability at home will take significant resources and focus, including calling to account those who so grossly mishandled the country's pandemic response and stoked the big lie of questioning the legitimacy of Biden's election victory.

If, however, you weren't out here in the real world, but in there where the national security elite exists, you'd find that the chatter would involve few of the problems just mentioned. And only in our world would such a stance seem remarkably disconnected from reality. In their world, the "crisis" part of the present financial crisis is a fear, based on widespread rumors and reports about the Biden budget to come, that the Pentagon's funding might actually get, if not a genuine haircut, then at least a trim something largely unheard of in the twenty-first century.

The Pentagon's boosters and their allies in the defense industry respond to such fears by insisting that no such trim could possibly be in order, that competition with China must be the prime focus of this moment and of the budget to come. Assuming that China's rise is, in fact, a genuine problem, it's not one that's likely to be solved either in the near future or in a military fashion (not, at least, without disaster for the world), and it's certainly not one that should be prioritized during a catastrophic pandemic.

While there are genuine concerns about what China's rise might mean for the United States, it's important to recognize just how much harm those trying to distract us from the very real problems at hand are likely to inflict on our health and actual security. Since the beginning of the pandemic, in fact, those unwilling to accept our failures or respond adequately to the disease at hand have blamed outside forces, most notably China, for otherwise preventable havoc to American lives and the economy.

Trump and his allies tried to shirk accountability for their failure to respond to the pandemic by pushing xenophobic and false characterizations of Covid-19 as the "China virus" or the "kung flu." In a similar fashion, the national security elites hope that focusing on building up our military and building new nuclear weapons with China in mind will distract time and energy from making needed changes at home. But those urging us to increase Pentagon spending to compete with China in the middle of a pandemic are, in reality, only compounding the damage to our country's recovery.

Militarizing the Future

Given the last two decades, you won't be surprised to know that this misplaced assessment of the real threat to the public has a firm grip on Washington right now. As my colleague Dan Grazier at the Project On Government Oversight pointed out recently, confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks included more than 70 (sometimes ominous) mentions of China.

So again, no surprise that only a few weeks after those hearings, Biden announced the creation of a new China task force at the Pentagon. As the press announcement made clear, that group is going to be a dream for the military-industrial complex since it will, above all, focus on developing advanced "defense" technologies to stare down the China "threat" and so further militarize the future. In other words, the Pentagon's projected threat assessments and their wonder-weapon solutions will be at the forefront of Washington thinking and, therefore, funding, even during this pandemic.

That's why it's easy enough to predict where such a task force will lead. A similar panel in 2018, including lobbyists, board members, and contractors from the arms industry, warned that competition with China would require a long-term increase in funding for the Pentagon of 3% to 5%. That could mean an almost unimaginable future Department of Defense budget of $971.9 billion in fiscal year 2024. To pay for it, they suggested, Congress should consider cutting social security and other kinds of safety-net spending.

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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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