Back in 1959, President Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Khrushchev took a break from their summit and walked in the woods around Camp David. Khrushchev, in his memoirs, relates a conversation in which the president complains of how hard it is to resist the military’s demands for more money. Military leaders, said Eisenhower, invariably insist the US will fall behind the Soviet Union unless he gives them the money for this or that weapon system. “They keep grabbing for more, and I keep giving it to them.” He asked Khrushchev if that was also the case in the USSR. “It’s just the same,” said Khrushchev, who went on to describe virtually the same script. “Yes,” said the president, “that’s what I thought.”
Congress members are very much a part of the military-industrial complex, which is why someone long ago suggested that the more accurate term is MAGIC: the military-academic-governmental-industrial complex. Most people elected to Congress, and certainly any among them who serve on the armed services committee of either house, think two things when it comes to national security: the more weapons produced, the more secure we are; and the more money allocated to “national defense,” the better. These folks never met a weapons system they didn’t like. And when, in relatively lean times, they have to decide between social well being and the Pentagon’s wish list, well, they don’t have to think twice.
These days Congress members, mainly on the Republican side, are busy finding clever ways to hide stuffing the Pentagon’s stocking with strategically senseless, duplicative, exceedingly expensive weapons and related items. Remember sequestration in 2013? It was supposed to cap military and other spending in order to help bring the overall budget back to balance. Clearly, in the minds of the military-firsters, this effort was never meant to apply to the Pentagon, as evidenced by the much larger budget hit that social welfare programs took compared with the military, and by the little publicized Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is not subject to sequestration. Yes, military spending has gone down a bit over the last three years, but at over $600 billion (not counting veterans’ benefits and interest on the national debt from past wars), it’s around 54 percent of all US government discretionary spending and still close to 40 percent of global military spending.
All the whining in Congress and the Pentagon about how the US defense posture is undermined by sequestration and compels a leaner military is just so much theatrics—not just because the US military is bloated both in money and weapons, and continues to fight and prepare for wars on several fronts, but also because in Washington (including in the White House) the tricks are well known for giving the military everything it wants and then some. The fundamental problem isn’t budgetary, it’s US globalism.
Reporting on the “Pentagon slush fund,” the New York Times notes that the next military budget, as voted in the House of Representatives, will have a dozen more nuclear submarines at $8 billion apiece, a $348 billion modernization program for nuclear weapons over the coming decade, billions more for missile defense and faulty jet fighters, and, by the way, funding to maintain the Guantanamo prison-base in Cuba that the president had long ago promised to close down. US military leaders have not asked for all this money, and probably would prefer that more be allocated for conventional warfare and humanitarian missions such as in Nepal. But it’s hard to rein in the military big spenders in Congress, especially when they couch their check-writing in patriotism.
It’s funny: the Pentagon is forever complaining that China has no reason to keep increasing its military spending. It needs to look in the mirror.
Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.