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Defense Cuts Hysteria

Over the last five years, we’ve spent money on the military – in real, inflation adjusted dollars – at a higher rate than at any other time since World War II. That includes the late 1960s, when the United States simultaneously faced a competitor with 10,000 nuclear weapons and sent a half million troops to Vietnam. The Pentagon is spending recklessly at a time of fiscal crisis when America’s debt has been downgraded for the first time since formal credit ratings began in 1917.

Yet the Washington Post has joined the hucksters of the military-industrial complex in forecasting imminent doom if one cent is cut from Pentagon budgets. Supposedly, the Defense Department has already cut $465 billion from its budget, and further cuts would be ruinous. But those $465 billion in cuts are fake, mostly paper “savings” pocketed by the president from adjustments to unrealistic past projections of the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and from other baseline manipulations.

Despite what Secretaries Gates and Panetta have claimed, the DOD budget has been, next to the Bush tax cuts, the single greatest contributor to the drastic swing from surplus to deficit since 2001. Including debt service costs, the wars have cost about $1.7 trillion. Additionally, the Pentagon has spent about $1 trillion above inflation on its non-war budget. Adding debt service makes that about $1.3 trillion, for a grand total of roughly $3 trillion added to the debt, courtesy of DOD.

As for the military’s doom-saying, such rhetoric has been standard procedure for service chiefs testifying to Congress for at least the past three decades that I served as a congressional staff member. Deliberate threat inflation, such as the hyperbolic overestimation of Soviet military capabilities in the 1980s, was the genesis of serious intelligence failures and billions wasted on weapons designed for imaginary threats.

China-as-military-threat is now in vogue at the Pentagon and in Congress. There is a threat, but it comes not from the rust-bucket aircraft carrier China bought from Russia. China now owns about one trillion dollars in U.S. Treasury securities – 36 per cent of all foreign holdings. According to the IMF, China is poised to pass the U.S. in gross domestic product by 2016. That is the real threat we face, not death rays and stealth air fleets. If you want to gaze upon the threat China poses, not because of any inherent evil on its part, but because of our own tax policy, spending priorities, “free” trade ideology, and general indifference of our elites, go to Youngstown, or Toledo, or some other post-industrial wasteland.

The U.S. spends about as much on its military as all other countries in the world combined. It could shave a trillion off a projected $6.1 trillion in spending over the next decade and still be miles ahead of the next power or any conceivable combination of powers.

But what about another 9/11, ask the Cassandras? In 2001, the U.S. already spent as much on its military as everyone else in the world, but that was irrelevant to preventing 9/11. That disaster was an intelligence failure: a failure of our intelligence agencies to some degree, but even more a failure of the cognitive intelligence and good judgment of our elected so-called leaders.

The Post cites figures from biased DOD-funded sources (think tanks, trade associations, contractors) claiming that a million jobs would be lost. But national defense is not supposed to be a jobs program, and in any case, if creating publicly-funded employment were the objective, a dollar spent on infrastructure would produce more jobs than a dollar spent on the military.

The United States is now a bloated military empire on the cusp of economic decline. Historically, the danger in such cases is that when the fiscal stability of the empire begins to weaken, the governing elites double down on the very policies of military profligacy that caused the fiscal crisis in the first place.

History is littered with powers that followed this ruinous path: the Spanish Empire, the Dutch Republic, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union. Chest-pounding rhetoric to the contrary, our military policies of the last decade have left us less prosperous, less secure, and less free. A course correction is desperately needed, regardless of what entrenched Beltway elites like the editorial board of The Washington Post think.

MIKE LOFGREN retired in June 2011 after 28 years as a Congressional staffer. He served 16 years as a professional staff member on the Republican staff of the House and Senate Budget Committees.

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