Bush-Style Military Spending Not Over Yet

Thought the Bush years were over? Not so fast.

The main “accomplishment” of those years, apart from getting our country handed over to the big banks and corporations, was of course launching two wars. The cost of those wars so far is staggering, but these amounts are dwarfed by the so-called “regular” defense budget.

Most of what we spend on the military—including hundreds of high-tech planes that are churned out every year and then sit idle—isn’t spent on the wars we’re actually fighting. And under cover of war, these “regular” budgets have risen right along with the war funding bills.

Enter the Obama administration. It’s having trouble fulfilling its promises to end those wars. But it’s also having trouble bringing “regular” military spending under control.

Every year a group I lead, the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget, looks at overall U.S. security spending. We analyze the balance between spending on what we call “offense” (military force), “defense” (homeland security measures such as screening baggage and cargo), and “prevention” (preventing wars through diplomacy, peacekeeping troops, and economic development).

In the Bush administration’s last year, it devoted 87% of our security dollars to the military. In the first Obama budget that figure is: 87%. The needle hasn’t moved. At all.

Why not? In his first speech to Congress, President Obama promised to “reform our defense budget so we’re not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use.” To their credit, his administration did manage to knock off a few this year. Though short, it was a longer list than at any time since the period of defense cuts following the end of the Cold War.

The biggest prize was the F-22 fighter jet. F-22s, which cost $350 million each, were designed to fight planes the Soviet Union planned to build and never did. The F-22 is too exotic and costly ever to have been used in the wars we are actually fighting. It deserved to die.

It took a furious battle to keep this plane from coming back from the dead: The F-22’s contractor has craftily placed jobs building the plane in 44 states. The Obama administration had to threaten to veto the entire defense spending bill if Congress reversed its plans for the F-22’s demise.

But while the Obama administration successfully cut about $10 billion in spending on such turkeys, it then added about $20 billion in additional military spending. He got a lot of deserved credit for increasing spending on the tools of prevention-diplomacy, peacekeeping, and economic development among them. But the end result was the same wildly out-of-balance security budget the Bush team handed off.

Obama also took a stab at reforming the weapons-contracting “system” that hides billions every year in padded contracts and outright fraud. It won’t fix the problem-truck-sized loopholes remain-but it’s a start.

To his credit, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been lamenting that “America’s civilian institutions of diplomacy and development have been chronically undermanned and underfunded for far too long, relative to what we spend on the military.” The Obama administration’s good intentions to fix this are still mostly unrealized.

MIRIAM PEMBERTON is a research fellow with the Foreign Policy In Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies. She leads the task force that just published A Unified Security Budget for the United States, FY 2010.


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Miriam Pemberton is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, writing and speaking on demilitarization issues for its Foreign Policy In Focus project. She has recently published a report, “Military vs. Climate Security: Mapping the Shift from the Bush Years to the Obama Era.”

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