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General News    H3'ed 6/29/21

Tomgram: Hartung and Smithberger, Washington's National Security Spending Follies

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

These days, a riven Congress is proving essentially incapable of passing significant legislation, no matter the subject. After all, the 2021 congressional version of the Republican Party believes fervently in no-votes and filibusters. New voting rights legislation? Don't hold your breath. Improvements on Obamacare, no less a public option? Not on your life (which might indeed be what's at stake for some Americans). A bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6th assault on the Capitol? Why create an "additional, extraneous commission that Democratic leaders want" (as Senator Mitch McConnell put it)? A major infrastructure package with a truly green heart, rather than a pallid compromise that might not even make it through the Senate? Not a chance in hell (not unless the Democrats can use "reconciliation" and get senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to go along). And so it goes. That's certainly the recent past and possibly the future, too, as far as the eye (or perhaps I mean the "nay") can see.

Oh, wait a minute, there is one exception to the rule of the day, week, month, year, and for all we know so many years to come: the Pentagon budget! The party that thinks taxpayer dollars should not be spent on most Americans makes only two exceptions: the rich (who got their super tax cut as the Trump years began) and the military or rather the military-industrial complex. In fact, that's the only place where congressional Democrats and Republicans seem capable of endlessly agreeing: that the military deserves every tax dollar it desires or that any giant weapons-making corporation might want. "Defense" spending has long been and remains the only truly bipartisan subject in Washington. If you remember, Congress even passed the previous Pentagon budget 81 to 13 in the Senate over President Trump's veto.

The only other exception: anything that can be made to seem like part of a coming new cold war with China, or as Katrina vanden Heuvel put it recently, "In a Washington addled by bitter partisan divides, the call to meet the threat posed by China and Russia forges bipartisan consensus." Indeed! And the Democrats were, at least, clever enough to get recent bipartisan support for funding a $250-billion science and high-tech infrastructure bill by framing it as an anti-Chinese measure.

In that context, consider the new Biden-era budget not just for the Pentagon but for the full national security state. Today, Pentagon experts and TomDispatch regulars William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger do something that, strangely enough, no one else in the media bothers to do: they actually add up the full national security budget, piece by piece, leaving us with a mind-boggling view of the true financial glories of militarization, American-style. Tom

What Price "Defense"?
America's Nearly $1.3 Trillion National Security Budget Isn't Making Us Any Safer

By and

President Biden's first Pentagon budget, released late last month, is staggering by any reasonable standard. At more than $750 billion for the Defense Department and related work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy, it represents one of the highest levels of spending since World War II far higher than the peaks of the Korean or Vietnam wars or President Ronald Reagan's military buildup of the 1980s, and roughly three times what China spends on its military.

Developments of the past year and a half an ongoing pandemic, an intensifying mega-drought, white supremacy activities, and racial and economic injustice among them should have underscored that the greatest threats to American lives are anything but military in nature. But no matter, the Biden administration has decided to double down on military spending as the primary pillar of what still passes for American security policy. And don't be fooled by that striking Pentagon budget figure either. This year's funding requests suggest that the total national security budget will come closer to a breathtaking $1.3 trillion.

That mind-boggling figure underscores just how misguided Washington's current "security" a word that should increasingly be put in quotation marks policies really are. No less concerning was the new administration's decision to go full-speed ahead on longstanding Pentagon plans to build a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and missiles, including, of course, new nuclear warheads to go with them, at a cost of at least $1.7 trillion over the next three decades.

The Trump administration added to that plan projects like a new submarine-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile, all of which is fully funded in Biden's first budget. It hardly matters that a far smaller arsenal would be more than adequate to dissuade any country from launching a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies. A rare glimmer of hope came in a recent internal memo from the Navy suggesting that it may ultimately scrap Trump's sea-launched cruise missile in next year's budget submission but that proposal is already facing intense pushback from nuclear-weapons boosters in Congress.

In all, Biden's first budget is a major win for key players in the nuclear-industrial complex like Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor on the new nuclear bomber and a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); General Dynamics, the maker of the new ballistic-missile submarine; Lockheed Martin, which produces sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs); and firms like Honeywell that oversee key elements in the Department of Energy's nuclear-warhead complex.

The Biden budget does retire some older-generation weapons. The only reason, however, is to fund even more expensive new systems like hypersonic weapons and ones embedded with artificial intelligence, all with the goal of supposedly putting the United States in a position to win a war with China (if anyone could "win" such a war).

China's military buildup remains, in fact, largely defensive, so ramping up Pentagon spending supposedly in response represents both bad strategy and bad budgeting. If, sooner or later, cooler heads don't prevail, the obsession with China that's gripped the White House, the Pentagon, and key members of Congress could keep Pentagon budgets high for decades to come.

In reality, the principal challenges posed by China are diplomatic and economic, not military, and seeking militarized answers to them will only spark a new Cold War and a risky arms race that could make a superpower nuclear conflict more likely. While there's much to criticize in China's policies, from its crackdown on the democracy movement in Hong Kong to its ethnic cleansing and severe repression of its Uyghur population, in basic military capabilities, it doesn't come faintly close to the United States, nor will it any time soon. Washington's military build-up, however, could undermine the biggest opportunity in U.S.-China relations: finding a way to cooperate on issues like climate change that threaten the future of the planet.

As noted, the three-quarters of a trillion dollars the United States spends on the Pentagon budget is just a portion of a much larger figure for the full range of activities of the national security state. Let's look, category by category, at what the Biden budget proposes to spend on this broader set of activities.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("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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