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The Fiscal Cliff of Our Own Making

Time to Cut Pentagon Budget

by MARK A. DUNLEA

It is time to cut the military budget.

It has been time to cut the military budget for many years. Like right after WWII. Otherwise known as a peace dividend. Free up funds to pay for school, job training, health care, clear water and air, mass transit, housing, hunger, jobs.

Under sequestration as part of the federal budget deficit deal, half the budget cuts would come from the military, around $45 billion this year – perhaps 6% of existing spending. And those cuts include reductions in growth. That is way too little. Lawrence Korb, defense advisor for former President Reagan. estimates $150 billion a year could be cut while maintaining the Reagan era level of military strength.

Imagine how much you could cut if your focus was primarily to defend the US, not to protect oil companies – or to fight an attack by Stalin’s tank divisions which no longer exists. Groups like the Green Party argue for cuts of $300 billion or more – and still the US would have by far the largest and strongest military.

The whole idea behind the sequestration deal was that neither the Democrats or Republicans would allow any real cuts to the military. And there has been a bipartisan push to find a solution that spares the military from anything off than a little trimming of the fat around the edges. Even the budget deal pushed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus would reduce the military cuts well below the sequestration requirements.

The Republicans of course want to slash spending on programs that benefit the majority of Americans. The first part of the strategy was to create a deficit with huge tax cuts that benefit the rich that creates the deficits that provides the excuse to cut social spending – a weak safety nets makes for a complaint work force.

But Obama and the Democrats have put cuts on the table to programs like Social Security and Medicare while be willing to accept major cuts in other critical domestic programs such as health care, hunger, housing, environment, etc.

Below I go into how wasteful and criminally corrupt Pentagon spending has become. How we have fallen into the standard trap of countries ‘arming themselves not to fight the next war but rather the past one (from the 1940’s, or as President Obama pointed out in the last debate, we don’t need as many bayonets as we used to – we also don’t need as many tanks or aircraft carriers either.)

But first a little history lesson.

WWII was so long ago that almost everyone forgets that we never had a permanent standing army before them. After the few wars we previously fought, the soldiers went back home to raise their families, grow some crops, run a local business.

That was the conservative position (i.e., vastly different from the neo-con pretenders). America’s role was not to be the bully / policemen of the world. National security meant defending our borders. And with the oceans being two of our borders, and two allies (Canada and Mexico) being the other borders, US was and still is one of the safest countries in the world in terms of external military threats.

President Eisenhower, the Leader of the Allied Forces, knew that he was giving the country a raw deal when he decided to Cold War against the Soviet Union launched by Truman. While he felt he had no choice, he felt guilty enough that his farewell address to the country warned us to guard against the growing power and threat to democracy (and corruption) of the Congressional-Military-Industrial complex (he chickened out at the last moment and deleted the Congressional part).

Needless to say his mea culpa didn’t do much to curb the money devouring monster he had unleashed on America – and the world.

No one knows how much we really spend on the military.. The low-ball estimate is that it is $700 billion (a 100% increase in the last decade) but most believe it runs over a trillion dollars when you add in interest payments from past wars, nuclear weapons, intelligence gathering, Veteran benefits, Homeland Security. etc.

The military budget is so out of control and hidden in so many places that it has never been audited, making it wide open for fraud and theft There was an effort late in the Clinton administration to start reconciling transactions with documentation in the Department of Defense. They audited $7 trillion in transactions and found that they could not justify $2.3 trillion of it. In 2011, the General Accounting Office reported “serious financial management problems at the Department of Defense that made its financial statements unauditable”.

The standard line is that 54 cents out of every discretionary dollar in the federal budget is spent on the military. More than half of tax revenues go to the military. We spend as much on the military as the rest of the world combined – and most of the other big spenders are our military allies.

The Cold War against the Soviet Union has been replaced by the war on terrorism. Defense wise, that requires a much smaller – and different – armed forces. And it is likely that a near-term future war would be fought in response to cyber or biological attacks rather than soldiers, tanks, or airplanes.

Much of our military spending is more about corporate welfare than it is about defense needs. Much is used to fulfill the neocon strategy of intervening to protect “our” corporate and strategic interests abroad. The US strategic doctrine of “full spectrum dominance – air, land, sea, space, cyberspace” is inherently opposed to cooperative security doctrines that rely on building mutual trust, joint security for sea lanes, etc., and progressive disarmament

We pay to operate more than 700 military bases in more than 100 countries. Not even Rome at the height of its power came close to this. American taxpayers pay for the defense of Europe and Japan, countries that have the financial ability to pay for whatever defense they feel is necessary.

But my blood was boiling when I read the chapter on military spending in Ralph Nader’s new book, The Seventeen Solutions.

Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defense under Reagan, notes that the US “fields 11 aircraft carriers, while no other country has even one of comparable size and power.” New carrier construction costs $15 billion. And while aircraft carriers were important in WWII (the last war), they are just sitting expensive ducks in the age of missiles, killer whales prowling the oceans with no enemies in sight.

Korb details myriad examples of how the various armed services waste tens of billions arming themselves with competing and duplicative copies of the same weapons (e.g., Joint Striker Fighter jets)

Weapons are built not to meet defense needs but to reward military contractors and their Congressional supporters. The Pentagon informed Lockeed-Martin that it wanted to cut its order of F-22 fighter planes (replaced by F-35), so the cost per plane increased nearly 400% to $410 million.

The Pentagon gets rid of tens of billions of “surplus equipment”, often in new condition, for pennies on the dollar, while spending enormous amount to replace the equipment. They were selling chemical protective suits for $3 while other units were buying the same exact one for $200.

In the longest war in American history, the US had deployed more than 130,000 soldiers – and an equal number of contractors – to fight an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Taliban militia. The government’s Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated that the US has misspent or wasted $34 billion just in contract services in those two countries.

In the documentary Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, Halliburton charged $100 for every bag of laundry they washed. Soldiers found the returned clothes so grimy they would often rewash it. The amount of corporate looting in these wars was enormous, a new generation of robber barons. And no one has gone to jail as a result, nor has the money been recovered.

The Pentagon could save billions by canceling the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which breaks down on average after eight hours of use and is ten years behind schedule. Marines haven’t stormed a beach in nearly half a century. We could save $35 billion by reducing our nuclear weapons arsenal – which Russia says it would match (remember how Reagan and Gorbachev competed to top each other’s reductions)

The U.S. has so many tanks – which they don’t use – that they mothball thousands in the deserts across the US, as the government continues to build new ones, despite objections from the leaders of the Armed Forces. In April of last year, 173 House members – Democrats and Republicans – sent a letter Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, urging him to continue to produce more tanks.

The economy – and continuing high unemployment, poverty and low wages – are greater threats to Americans than the deficit, which has been decreasing in recent years, particularly as a percent of the GDP.

If one really believes that the deficit is the country’s greatest problem, one would expect that you would try to resolve it by addressing its root causes – the huge “Bush” tax cuts for the wealthy, two unfunded wars, and a Great Recession caused by Wall Street misdeeds in the housing market. Cutting government spending during a very weak recovery from a major recession is a prescription to cause the economy to tank even further – as Europe has experienced.

With a few exceptions, the big money groups (e.g., unions) that have fought against sequestration have failed to call for cuts in Pentagon spending. This is a major mistake. “As Eisenhower noted, “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

A few years ago several dozen children’s advocates gathered in NYC to develop an agenda to end child poverty. I said that writing a platform was relatively easy, the real challenge was to pay for it, and that meant calling for cuts in the military budget. A number of participants were indignant that I even brought it up – “that is not what we here for.” I said if you don’t deal with the revenue issue, all your good ideas are just pipe dreams. The bottom line: we got a meager $400 million annual increase in funding for children nutrition programs, and paid for it by cutting $2 billion from the food stamp program.

In this case, we need to free up military spending to invest in the domestic economy, rebuilding our infrastructure, putting people to work. A Green New Deal. Invest in the transition to a carbon neutral economy that addresses climate change. That is the path to full employment. Congress instead focuses on delivering military pork to contractors in their district because “they’re good paying jobs.” However, every other sector of the economy would produce more jobs per dollar spent than lining the pockets of military contractors.

Some of the funds saving by cutting Pentagon waste should be made available to help local communities transition their local defense plants to more socially productive uses that support living wage jobs.

Continuing to waste our tax dollars on military spending to enrich corporate profiteers will be the death of us all.

Mark A. Dunlea is Executive Director of the Hunger Action Network of NYS and a member of the Executive Committee of the Green Party of NY. He is author of Madame President: The Unauthorized Biography of the First Green Party President.