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Tomgram: William Astore, Will the Pentagon Budget Ever Shrink?

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

In the spirit of this prolonged moment from hell, let me offer you a homemade conspiracy theory that will hopefully compete with the most vivid or do I mean livid? QAnon-ish ones around. Imagine this (even though it's not true) as an explanation for the origins of the disastrous war in Ukraine: the major weapons-making corporations of our own military-industrial complex plotted long and hard to ensure that Russian president Vladimir Putin invaded that country and their agents in Russia did so brilliantly! They convinced the oligarchs around Putin but not too near, since no one gets within 100 yards of the guy that the Ukrainians were just dying (so to speak) to welcome the Russian army as a liberation force. In their turn, those oligarchs convinced him that an invasion by the Red Army and yes, they also got him to believe that the present shabby Russian military was still the Soviet force that, once upon a distant time, sent its tanks so successfully into Hungary and Czechoslovakia to repress the revolts of uppity locals would be a surefire success. And so they got their invasion, big time, but also something so much better. Specifically, in response to the disaster in Ukraine, the Biden administration has only recently called for yet another staggering hike in the Pentagon budget, a godsend for the U.S. arms industry. And it goes without saying that congressional Republicans are eager to send that sum higher yet.

What a plot! And of course, like so many other conspiracy theories of this era, both all too logical (once you start down that path) and crazy as a loon. Still, you do have to find some way to explain the fact that, in this century, no matter what was happening, the Pentagon budget has only continued to soar and the invasion of Ukraine has only made matters worse, or, if you're a weapons manufacturer, better. It's certainly a phenomenon wild enough for some kind of conspiracy theory, don't you think? Especially since, long before the latest suggested national security budget hike, the Pentagon and crew were already raking in more money than the next 11 nations combined, even though the U.S. military hasn't come out on top in a war that mattered since World War II.

With all of that in mind, take a moment with TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore for a little "thought experiment" about that very budget. Can we really be in a world too wild for it to ever decrease? Tom

What Would It Take for Military Spending in America to Go Down?
A Thought Experiment on the Military-Industrial Complex


I have a question for you: What would it take in today's world for America's military spending to go down? Here's one admittedly farfetched scenario: Vladimir Putin loses his grip on power and Russia retrenches militarily while reaching out to normalize relations with the West. At the same time, China prudently decides to spend less on its military, pursuing economic power while abandoning any pretense to a militarized superpower status. Assuming such an unlikely scenario, with a "new cold war" nipped in the bud and the U.S. as the world's unchallenged global hegemon, Pentagon spending would surely shrink, right?

Well, I wouldn't count on it. Based on developments after the Soviet Union's collapse three decades ago, here's what I suspect would be far more likely to happen. The U.S. military, aided by various strap-hanging think tanks, intelligence agencies, and weapons manufacturers, would simply shift into overdrive. As its spokespeople would explain to anyone who'd listen (especially in Congress), the disappearance of the Russian and Chinese threats would carry its own awesome dangers, leaving this country prospectively even less safe than before.

You'd hear things like: we've suddenly been plunged into a more complex multipolar world, significantly more chaotic now that our "near-peer" rivals are no longer challenging us, with even more asymmetrical threats to U.S. military dominance. The key word, of course, would be "more" linked, as I'm sure you've guessed, to omnipresent Pentagon demands for yet more military spending. When it comes to weapons, budgets, and war, the military-industrial complex's philosophy is captured by an arch comment of the legendary actress Mae West: "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."

Even without Russia and China as serious threats to American hegemony, you'd hear again about an "unbalanced" Kim Jong-un in North Korea and his deeply alarming ballistic missiles; you'd hear about Iran and its alleged urge to build nuclear weapons; and, if those two countries proved too little, perhaps the war on terror would be resuscitated. (Indeed, during the ongoing wall-to-wall coverage of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, North Korea did test a ballistic missile, an event a distracted media greeted with a collective shrug.) My point is this: when you define the entire globe as your sphere of influence, as the U.S. government does, there will always be threats somewhere. It matters little, in budgetary terms, whether it's terror, most often linked to radical Islam, or the struggle over resources linked to climate change, which the Pentagon has long recognized as a danger, even if it still burns carbon as if there were no tomorrow. And don't discount a whole new set of dangers in space and cyberspace, the latest realms of combat.

Of course, this country is always allegedly falling behind in some vital realm of weapons research. Right now, it's hypersonic missiles, just as in the early days of the Cold War bomber and missile "gaps" were falsely said to be endangering our security. Again, when national security is defined as full-spectrum dominance and America must reign supreme in all areas, you can always come up with realms where we're allegedly lagging and where there's a critical need for billions more of your taxpayer dollars. Consider the ongoing "modernization" of our nuclear arsenal, at a projected cost approaching $2 trillion over the coming decades. As a jobs program, as well as an advertisement of naked power, it may yet rival the Egyptian pyramids. (Of course, the pyramids became wonders of the world rather than threatening to end it.)

No Peace Dividends for You

While a young captain in the Air Force, I lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a romping, stomping performance by our military in the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991. It felt great! I was teaching history at the Air Force Academy when President George H.W. Bush talked of a "new world order." On a planet with no Soviet Union and no Cold War, we even briefly heard talk of "peace dividends" to come that echoed the historical response of Americans after prevailing in past wars. In the aftermath of the Civil War, as well as World Wars I and II, rapid demobilization and a dramatic downsizing of the military establishment had occurred.

And indeed, there was initially at least some modest shrinkage of our military after the Soviet collapse, though nothing like what most experts had expected. Personnel cuts came first. As a young officer, I well remember the Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIP) and the Selective Early Retirement Board (SERB). VSIP offered money to entice officers like me to get out early, while SERB represented involuntary retirement for those judged to have overstayed their welcome. Then there was the dreaded RIF, or Reduction in Force, program, which involved involuntary separation without benefits.

Yet even as personnel were pruned from our military, the ambitions of the national security state only grew. As I wrote long ago, the U.S. didn't just "contain" the Soviet empire during the Cold War; that empire also contained us. With its main enemy in tatters and facing virtually no restraint to its global ambitions, the military-industrial complex promptly began to search for new realms to dominate and new enemies to contain and defeat. Expansion, not shrinkage, soon became the byword, whether in Asia, Africa, or Europe, where, despite promises made to the last of the Soviet Union's leaders, NATO's growth took the lead.

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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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