The Senate and House Armed Forces Committees are in a competition to see which house of Congress can add more money to our bloated defense spending. The Senate took the lead two weeks ago, when it provided an additional $45 billion to defense spending, blowing past the targets set by both the White House and the Department of Defense. The mainstream media has paid virtually no attention to this irresponsible dueling with scarce American dollars.
As of now, the top line defense budget figure is an astounding $847 billion, designed to counter inflation; the Russian invasion of Ukraine; and the Pentagon’s unwillingness to fund unneeded weapons systems. Russia’s official defense spending in 2021 amounted to less than $65 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which provides authoritative data and analysis on military spending and armed conflict. Russia’s pathetic military performance in Ukraine over the past four months argues against any increase in the Pentagon’s budget.
The bipartisan frenzy for additional military spending was reflected in the remarks of Senate committee chairman Jack Reed (D/RI), who argued that the inflation demanded greater spending, and ranking member Jim Inhofe (R/OK), who said the defense bill was “everything I hoped for.” And why not? The entire global community spends about $2 trillion on defense, and the United States represents more than half of that figure when you add the military costs in the budgets of the intelligence community, the Veterans’ Administration, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Homeland Security. This year’s defense bill is even named for Inhofe, who is retiring at the end of the 117th Congress, following 30 years of boosting defense spending in the Senate.
The justification for additional defense spending is reminiscent of traditional Cold War justifications. The Senate’s defense authorization act even empowers the Pentagon to establish a “strategic competition initiative” for the U.S. African Command, which would lead to an expanded U.S. military presence in Africa. The United States has already trained leaders of coups in Mali and Guinea, and provided aid to repressive regimes in Uganda and Niger. The Pentagon can’t even provide an accurate inventory of the military equipment it has provided to African countries.
The bill also takes advantage of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless language regarding nuclear weapons in order to fund the Pentagon’s wasteful and unneeded modernization and buildup of nuclear weapons. Washington and Moscow must find a way to return to the agreement between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that a “nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” Biden used to advocate a “No First Use” nuclear policy, but his nuclear posture review this year made no mention of such a policy.
The exaggeration of the threat to justify the outrageous defense spending never stops. Instead of assessing these regular exaggerations, the Congress wants the Pentagon to assess its judgements regarding the willingness of our allies to fight their enemies. So, instead of examining the wrongful assessments of Russian military power prior to their invasion of Ukraine, the Congress wants the Department of Defense to explain why it underestimated Ukraine’s ability to deal with the Russian invasion. Similarly, instead of examining the intelligence failure regarding the strength of the Taliban, the Congress wants to focus on the exaggerated assessments of the Afghan military. Pentagon spokesmen continue to insist that the United States provided the Afghan military with “the people…the equipment…the training…the support,” ignoring the complete failure to create an Afghan army that could defend the capital, let alone the country.
Exaggerations of Soviet and now Russian military power have dominated the congressional discussion of defense spending for the past 60 years. The intelligence community has been very helpful in this regard. Only President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood the problem and ignored the various false alarms, such as the so-called bomber gap and missile gap in the late 1950s in order to limit defense spending. President John F. Kennedy and virtually everyone of his successors were unwilling to take on the military-industrial campaign to increase defense spending.
The inability to conduct a comprehensive review of defense spending is particularly harmful at this juncture because the open-ended bipartisan support for the Department of Defense is contributing to the drift in U.S. involvement in the war between Russia and Ukraine. In addition to the high costs of the war and our support for Ukraine, we need to understand the high costs of the war’s consequences, particularly the acrimony between Washington and Moscow that is exceeding Cold War levels. Even during the Cold War, presidents understood the need for substantive communications with Russia; summitry at the highest level; arms control and disarmament; and avoiding Third World conflicts that could lead to confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia.
At some point, we need to reassess the delivery of highly sophisticated and lethal military weaponry in order to determine our ultimate goals in this war and not merely the goals and objectives of Ukraine. Similarly, we need to understand the risks we are taking in turning the war into a U.S./NATO confrontation with Russia in order to avoid sleepwalking into a greater confrontation. President Kennedy read Barbara Tuchman’s “Guns of August” during the Cuban missile crisis, and claimed it helped him to understand the necessity of ignoring the demands for greater U.S. military involvement in Cuba. Perhaps it’s time for President Joe Biden to slow down the decision making of his unimpressive national security team in order to stop the current wrong-headed hubris regarding Ukrainian “successes” that depend on U.S. support. I fear that Biden will use his G7 and NATO summits this week to rally the European community around unlimited support for Ukraine without taking into account the consequences of wider warfare.