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Wilbur Ross put the matter... well, mouth-wateringly. At a Milken Institute Global Conference in California, the commerce secretary recalled how President Trump was hosting a dinner for China's president, Xi Jinping, at his Mar-a-Lago club at the moment when a bevy of Tomahawk missiles were being dispatched against an airfield in Syria. Ross described the moment this way: "Just as dessert was being served, the president explained to Mr. Xi he had something he wanted to tell him, which was the launching of 59 missiles into Syria. It was in lieu of after-dinner entertainment." To laughter from the crowd, he then added, "The thing was, it didn't cost the president anything to have that entertainment."
The president himself recalled the same moment in an interview with Fox Business: "I was sitting at the table. We had finished dinner. We're now having dessert. And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you've ever seen, and President Xi was enjoying it." (Of course, Donald Trump is hardly the first person to, in essence, say, "Let them eat cake.")
In the end, of course, someone did have to pick up the tab for that thrillingly militarized dessert and it just happened to be you and me. As TomDispatch regular William Hartung, author of Prophets of War, points out today in a piece on the true costs of war, American-style, the bill for that piece of cake and those Tomahawk missiles was $89 million dollars, admittedly a mere lagniappe by twenty-first-century U.S. military standards. (The tip for the meal naturally went to the maker of those Tomahawks, Raytheon). Rest assured that future desserts will undoubtedly be even more elaborate and expensive. After all, in a rare bipartisan show of unity, Republicans and Democrats just polished off a spending bill that will not only keep the government open through September, but give the Pentagon, an institution that happens to be historically incapable of even auditing itself, an extra little treat: $15 billion above and beyond its already vast budget to tide it over in its never-ending wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and "replenish equipment and pay for training and maintenance."
We're talking chocolate cake all the way to the bank when it comes to the Pentagon and the major weapons contractors it regularly offers its tastiest desserts. Admittedly, that $15 billion wasn't quite what President Trump wanted, but call it an mouth-watering appetizer when it comes to a meal about which, unlike almost everything else on the table in Washington, Democrats and Republicans always see more or less eye to eye. And expect one thing: a lot more chocolate cake in President Trump's future. After all, the generals are in charge. Tom
The American Way of War Is a Budget-Breaker
Never Has a Society Spent More for Less
By William D. Hartung
When Donald Trump wanted to "do something" about the use of chemical weapons on civilians in Syria, he had the U.S. Navy lob 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield (cost: $89 million). The strike was symbolic at best, as the Assad regime ran bombing missions from the same airfield the very next day, but it did underscore one thing: the immense costs of military action of just about any sort in our era.
While $89 million is a rounding error in the Pentagon's $600 billion budget, it represents real money for other agencies. It's more than twice the $38 million annual budget of the U.S. Institute of Peace and more than half the $149 million budget of the National Endowment of the Arts, both slated for elimination under Trump's budget blueprint. If the strikes had somehow made us -- or anyone -- safer, perhaps they would have been worth it, but they did not.
In this century of nonstop military conflict, the American public has never fully confronted the immense costs of the wars being waged in its name. The human costs -- including an estimated 370,000 deaths, more than half of them civilians, and the millions who have been uprooted from their homes and sent into flight, often across national borders -- are surely the most devastating consequences of these conflicts. But the economic costs of our recent wars should not be ignored, both because they are so massive in their own right and because of the many peaceable opportunities foregone to pay for them.
Even on the rare occasions when the costs of American war preparations and war making are actually covered in the media, they never receive the sort of attention that would be commensurate with their importance. Last September, for example, the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute released a paper demonstrating that, since 2001, the U.S. had racked up $4.79 trillion in current and future costs from its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, as well as in the war at home being waged by the Department of Homeland Security. That report was certainly covered in a number of major outlets, including the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic, and U.S. News and World Report. Given its importance, however, it should have been on the front page of every newspaper in America, gone viral on social media, and been the subject of scores of editorials. Not a chance.
Yet the figures should stagger the imagination. Direct war spending accounted for "only"$1.7 trillion of that sum, or less than half of the total costs. The Pentagon disbursed those funds not through its regular budget but via a separate war account called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). Then there were the more than $900 billion in indirect war costs paid for from the regular budget and the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs. And don't forget to add in the more than half-trillion dollars for the budget of the Department of Homeland Security since 2001, as well as an expected $1 trillion in future costs for taking care of the veterans of this century's wars throughout their lifetimes. If anyone were truly paying attention, what could more effectively bring home just how perpetual Washington's post-9/11 war policies are likely to be?
That cost, in fact, deserves special attention. The Veterans Administration has chronic problems in delivering adequate care and paying out benefits in a timely fashion. Its biggest challenge: the sheer volume of veterans generated by Washington's recent wars. An additional two million former military personnel have entered the VA system since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. Fully half of them have already been awarded lifetime disability benefits. More than one in seven -- 327,000 -- suffer from traumatic brain injury. Not surprisingly, spending for the Veterans Administration has tripled since 2001. It has now reached more than $180 billion annually and yet the VA still can't catch up with its backlog of cases or hire doctors and nurses fast enough to meet the need.
Now imagine another 15 years of such failing, yet endless wars and the flood of veterans they will produce and then imagine what a Cost of War Project report might look like in 2032. Given all this, you would think that the long-term price tag for caring for veterans would be taken into account when a president decides whether or not to continue to pursue America's never-ending wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa, but that, of course, is never the case.
What a Military-First World Means in Budgetary Terms
Enter Donald Trump. Even before he launches a major war of his own -- if he does -- he's loosed his generals to pursue with renewed energy just about all the wars that have been started in the last 15 years. In addition, he's made it strikingly clear that he's ready to throw hundreds of billions (eventually, of course, trillions) of additional tax dollars at the Pentagon in the years to come. As he put it in a September 2016 interview on Meet the Press, "I'm gonna build a military that's so strong... nobody's gonna mess with us." As he makes plans to hike the Pentagon budget once more, however, here's what he seems blissfully unaware of: at roughly $600 billion per year, current Pentagon spending is already close to its post-World War II peak and higher than it was at the height of the massive 1980s military buildup initiated by President Ronald Reagan.
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