[Note for TomDispatch Readers: We're proud to note that Nick Turse's remarkable work for this website (and elsewhere) on the shadowy use of American Special Operations forces globally has been named Project Censored's number one story of 2015-2016. Click here for Turse's latest TD piece on the subject and expect more revelations in the months to come. Congratulations, Nick! Tom]
War, what is it good for? In America, the answer is that, much of the time, you'll probably never know what it's good for -- or, in some cases, even notice that we're at war. Right now, the U.S. is ever more deeply involved in significant conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and increasingly Yemen -- at least five ongoing wars in the Greater Middle East. Yet, in the midst of Election 2016, with the single exception of the long-proclaimed, long-awaited Iraqi-Kurdish offensive against Islamic State militants in the city of Mosul (with U.S. advisers on the frontlines and U.S. Apache helicopter crews in the air), the rest of our spreading military actions might as well be taking place on Mars.
The Taliban has recently attacked two Afghan cities and is gaining ground nationwide; Afghan military casualties have been soaring; and American planes and advisers have been let loose there in a fashion unseen since 2014. Neither presidential candidate has offered a peep on the subject, nor has there been a question about that now-15-year-old war in any of the "debates." (They must be rigged!) In Syria, the U.S. air campaign continues, largely unnoticed, while Washington tries to broker a deal between the Turks and the Kurds (think Hatfields and McCoys) for an offensive to take ISIS's "capital" Raqqa. (Good luck on that twosome working together!)
The New York Times recently described the expanding but under-the-radar American war against the al-Shabab terror movement in Somalia this way: "Hundreds of American troops now rotate through makeshift bases in Somalia, the largest military presence since the United States pulled out of the country after the 'Black Hawk Down' battle in 1993... It carries enormous risks -- including more American casualties, botched airstrikes that kill civilians and the potential for the United States to be drawn even more deeply into a troubled country that so far has stymied all efforts to fix it."
As for Libya -- oh, yes, Washington is in action there, too, even if you never hear about it -- the U.S. Air Force (drones, jets, and helicopters) has doubled its air strikes against ISIS militants in the last month: 163 of them. And, of course, there's Yemen where the U.S. seems to be stumbling directly into a new war without the slightest notice to Congress or the American people. American destroyers have been responding to "missile attacks" that -- shades of the Tonkin Gulf incident of the Vietnam War era -- may or may not have happened by firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in territory occupied by the Houthi rebels. This in a country already under siege from a brutal American-backed Saudi air campaign, significantly aimed at its impoverished civilian population, and wracked by an expanding al-Qaeda operation. Even what those destroyers are doing so close to the Yemeni coast is never discussed.
Add it all up and one classic TomDispatch question comes to mind: What could possibly go wrong? Especially since, as TomDispatch regular William Hartung points out today, it's all sunshine when it comes to one great war-fighting fact: the Pentagon's budget is already coming up roses and no matter who enters the Oval Office, it's only going to get bigger. So buckle up that seat belt, it's war, American-style, and taxpayer dollars to the horizon. Tom
The Urge to Splurge
Why Is It So Hard to Reduce the Pentagon Budget?
By William D. Hartung
Through good times and bad, regardless of what's actually happening in the world, one thing is certain: in the long run, the Pentagon budget won't go down.
It's not that that budget has never been reduced. At pivotal moments, like the end of World War II as well as war's end in Korea and Vietnam, there were indeed temporary downturns, as there was after the Cold War ended. More recently, the Budget Control Act of 2011 threw a monkey wrench into the Pentagon's plans for funding that would go ever onward and upward by putting a cap on the money Congress could pony up for it. The remarkable thing, though, is not that such moments have occurred, but how modest and short-lived they've proved to be.
Take the current budget. It's down slightly from its peak in 2011, when it reached the highest level since World War II, but this year's budget for the Pentagon and related agencies is nothing to sneeze at. It comes in at roughly $600 billion -- more than the peak year of the massive arms build-up initiated by President Ronald Reagan back in the 1980s. To put this figure in perspective: despite troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan dropping sharply over the past eight years, the Obama administration has still managed to spend more on the Pentagon than the Bush administration did during its two terms in office.
What accounts for the Department of Defense's ability to keep a stranglehold on your tax dollars year after endless year?
Pillar one supporting that edifice: ideology. As long as most Americans accept the notion that it is the God-given mission and right of the United States to go anywhere on the planet and do more or less anything it cares to do with its military, you won't see Pentagon spending brought under real control. Think of this as the military corollary to American exceptionalism -- or just call it the doctrine of armed exceptionalism, if you will.
The second pillar supporting lavish military budgets (and this will hardly surprise you): the entrenched power of the arms lobby and its allies in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. The strategic placement of arms production facilities and military bases in key states and Congressional districts has created an economic dependency that has saved many a flawed weapons system from being unceremoniously dumped in the trash bin of history.
Lockheed Martin, for instance, has put together a handy map of how its troubled F-35 fighter jet has created 125,000 jobs in 46 states. The actual figures are, in fact, considerably lower, but the principle holds: having subcontractors in dozens of states makes it harder for members of Congress to consider cutting or slowing down even a failed or failing program. Take as an example the M-1 tank, which the Army actually wanted to stop buying. Its plans were thwarted by the Ohio congressional delegation, which led a fight to add more M-1s to the budget in order to keep the General Dynamics production line in Lima, Ohio, up and running. In a similar fashion, prodded by the Missouri delegation, Congress added two different versions of Boeing's F-18 aircraft to the budget to keep funds flowing to that company's St. Louis area plant.
The one-two punch of an environment in which the military can do no wrong, while being outfitted for every global task imaginable, and what former Pentagon analyst Franklin "Chuck" Spinney has called "political engineering," has been a tough combination to beat.