Strange, isn't it? Our secretary of state emphatically claims that China has been acting "more aggressively abroad" and behaving "increasingly in adversarial ways." No, he insists, we're not exactly at the edge of a new cold war or planning, in the style of the last century, to "contain China." All this country is doing is "uphold[ing] this rules-based order that China is posing a challenge to. Anyone who poses a challenge to that order, we're going to stand up and and defend it." Ah, you remember that "rules-based order," don't you? The one this country has sponsored in this century with an endless series of losing wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa, right?
Our secretary of defense, mentioning no country by name (cough, cough, but you know which one he has in mind), recently said: "I'll never forget the valor that I saw and the lessons that I learned as a commander in Iraq and CENTCOM. But the way we'll fight the next major war is going to look very different from the way we fought the last ones." (The assumption being, of course, that such a war will indeed be fought.) And the Pentagon is already focusing its energy on just such a possible future war against "near-peer competitors" from the Arctic to the South China Sea. Even President Biden, addressing Congress and the nation, emphasized that "we're in competition with China and other countries to win the twenty-first century."
Again, isn't it strange that China has become such a challenge to this country "winning" a century in which it's already experienced such military loss? Isn't it strange that the Pentagon is responding to that competition by upping its efforts against that rising power in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, attempting to bring allies together to oppose it in a new alliance called the "Quad," and being militarily more aggressive in those regions. What's strange is that only China seems challenging, not that other great power and no, I'm not referring to Russia, which has a powerful nuclear arsenal but an economy smaller than that of the state of Texas. I'm thinking about us. After all, China doesn't have naval forces off Baja California, or in the Caribbean, as we do off or near its coastline. It doesn't have 800 military bases across the planet. It isn't involved in endless wars on terror from Afghanistan to Mozambique, nor does it have an aircraft carrier cruising off the coast of Afghanistan" but no need to go on, is there?
Yes, it's true that the U.S. military can't come close to winning a war in the twenty-first century, but fight them? You bet. And even in the Biden era, it seems determined to remain the military power of powers on this planet, no matter the cost domestically. Given the way the Pentagon has misused its soaring funding in these years, you might doubt that the U.S. even needs China to take it down in this less-than-rules-based world of ours. While you're thinking about that, check out Pentagon expert and TomDispatch regular Mandy Smithberger on what may be the saddest story of the Biden moment: that, amid proposed domestic advances, the Pentagon is still going to be funded and fed in the all-too-usual, wildly profligate fashion. Tom
Why the Pentagon Budget Never Goes Down
Joe Biden's First 100 Days Were a Pentagon Prize
The first 100 days of President Joe Biden's administration have come and gone. While somewhat exaggerated, that milestone is normally considered the honeymoon period for any new president. Buoyed by a recent election triumph and inauguration, he's expected to be at the peak of his power when it comes to advancing the biggest, boldest items on his agenda.
And indeed, as far as, say, infrastructure or pandemic vaccination goals, Biden has delivered in a major way. Blindly funding the Pentagon and its priorities in the stratospheric fashion that's become the essence of Washington has, however, proven another matter entirely. One-hundred days later and it's remarkable how little has changed when it comes to pouring money into this country's vast military infrastructure and the wars, ongoing or imagined, that accompany it.
For the past decade, debate about the Pentagon budget was governed, in part, by the Budget Control Act, which placed at least nominal caps on spending levels for both defense and non-defense agencies. In reality, though, unlike so many other government agencies, the Pentagon was never restrained by such a cap. Congress continued to raise its limits as military budgets only grew and, no less important, defense spending had a release valve that allowed staggering sums of money to flow without serious accounting into an off-budget fund meant especially for its wars and labelled "the overseas contingency operations account." The Congressional Research Service has estimated that such supplemental spending from September 11, 2001, to fiscal year 2019 totaled an astonishing $2 trillion above and beyond the congressionally agreed upon Pentagon budget.
Now, however, the Budget Control Act has expired, leaving this administration with a striking opportunity to reorient the country away from trillion-dollar-plus national security budgets and endless wars, though there's little sign that such a path will be taken.
If there's one thing Americans should have learned in the last year-plus, it's that endless Pentagon spending doesn't actually make us safer. The pandemic, the insurrection at the Capitol, and the persistent threat of white nationalist extremism should have made it all too clear that defending this country against the most significant risks to domestic public health and safety don't fall within the Pentagon's purview. In addition, the Department of Defense is perhaps the country's greatest source of wasteful spending and mismanagement.
Sadly enough, however, it's likely to be business as usual as long as the money continues to flow in the usual fashion. How striking and inexcusable then that, when it comes to the Pentagon, the Biden administration has visibly wasted its pivotal first 100 days in office on yet more of the same. What we already know, for instance, is that, despite a planned withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and claims about winding down America's "forever wars," the first proposed Biden Pentagon budget of $715 billion actually represents a modest increase over the staggering sums the Pentagon received in the last year of the Trump administration.
Admittedly, there is at least a little good news about the Pentagon's finances in the Biden era (though it was already included in the last Trump administration Pentagon budget). The overseas contingency operations slush fund is finally being eliminated. While some saw this as a natural consequence of the end of the Budget Control Act, it was definitely a victory over weapons-industry-funded think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies that were trying to persuade lawmakers and the public to "reform" the fund instead.
In addition, the Biden administration's decision to bring the last troops home from Afghanistan could be an important initial step in drawing down this country's endlessly expensive wars. It's estimated that the United States will have spent upwards of $2.5 trillion dollars on the war in Afghanistan alone (including approximately $12.5 billion annually for the next 40 years on the care of its veterans), a conflict in which, according to Brown University's Costs of War Project, more than a quarter of a million people were killed.
But Biden must do more if he wants to fulfill his promise to end the forever wars. That includes encouraging Congress to repeal long outdated war authorizations and committing not to let any future conflicts start without actual congressional declarations of war. Meanwhile, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and other war fronts should result in significant Pentagon budget reductions, as has happened historically after wars but don't count on it.
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