WASHINGTON - Despite a shrinking national economy and a record defense budget, U.S. neo-conservatives and other right-wing hawks are mounting a spirited - if misleading - campaign to persuade Congress that the military should get a bigger slice.
They are calling on Congress and President Barack Obama to boost military spending next year even beyond the projections made by the administration of former President George W. Bush as to what would be needed.
They are also arguing for devoting tens of billions of dollars of the nearly one-trillion-dollar economic stimulus package that Obama is trying to push through Congress by mid-February to defense spending, insisting that increased orders from largely U.S.-based military contractors should translate quickly into more jobs at a time when official unemployment rate is moving quickly toward two digits.
"These kinds of expenditures not only make economic good sense, but would help close the large and long-standing gap between U.S. strategy and military resources," wrote Tom Donnelly, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a predominantly neo-conservative think tank, last month.
"If bridges need fixing, so too do the tools with which our military fights," he argued, adding that Congress should increase defense spending by at least 20 billion dollars a year. "A critical element in any recovery will be strengthening the foundations of a global economy, built upon U.S. worldwide security guarantees."
The campaign, which coincides with increased spending by major defense contractors for lobbying activities, comes at a critical moment for the new administration, which is focused more on getting the stimulus package passed quickly than on its precise content and on getting its key appointees confirmed and in place in the sprawling bureaucracies that make up the government.
The administration is also still putting together its fiscal year (FY) 2010 budget and is not expected to release details until next month, less than seven months before the fiscal year begins.
For now, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is insisting that the Pentagon's budget's be set at 527 billion dollars for next year, consistent with the Bush administration's estimates as to its needs for FY 2010, an eight percent increase over the current year's military budget.
That amount, which does not include the roughly 170 billion dollars Washington is spending this year on ongoing military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in what the Bush administration called the "global war on terror", already makes up more than 40 percent of the world's total military expenditures.
But, as pointed out this week by the influential Congressional Quarterly, the Pentagon's bureaucracy and hawks in think tanks and Congress are insisting that OMB's request actually amounts to a 10-percent cut in a 584-billion-dollar recommendation submitted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff last fall in an apparent attempt to pressure the incoming president into a major increase.
On Jan. 30, the far-right broadcast outlet, Fox News, quoted what it called a senior Defence official as saying that the administration was demanding a 55-billion-dollar cut in defense spending.
At that point, other voices jumped in. Max Boot, a neo-conservative military analyst at the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), asserted that Pentagon chief Robert Gates had opposed the OMB's ceiling and warned that if Obama did not overrule it, "he could be doing terrible damage not only to our armed forces but also to his carefully cultivated image of moderation."
The following day, Robert Kagan, a leading neo-conservative ideologue at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, joined the outcry in his monthly column in the Washington Post, offering five reasons why "a ten percent cut in defense spending" could have disastrous geo-political implications by signaling to U.S. enemies that "the American retreat has begun".
"At a time when people talk of trillion-dollar stimulus packages, cutting 10 percent from the defense budget is a pittance, especially given the high price we will pay in America's global position," he wrote. "...(T)his is not the time to start weakening the armed forces."
"It's pretty remarkable," said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation (NAF). "Obama agrees to Bush's (defense budget) increase, and the neo-cons are running around saying, 'Oh, he's gutting the military'."
Hartung and other defense analysts see this latest maneuver as part of a larger campaign by the Pentagon bureaucracy and the defense industry, which anticipated growing pressure on the defense budget even before the outbreak of the current financial crisis in September, to protect their interests even at a time when the Pentagon's political leadership recognizes that huge increases in military spending they enjoyed during the Bush era are not sustainable.
Overall, military spending increased by about 60 percent since Bush took office in 2001, not including the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition to the apparent disinformation about the alleged "cut" in defense spending, the Pentagon's allies in the media have been pushing hard for increased military spending to be made a part of the stimulus package.
That campaign was launched in late December when Martin Feldstein, former President Ronald Reagan's chief economic adviser and an AEI fellow, argued in the Wall Street Journal for at least 30 billion dollars to expand military procurement, research, and recruitment. Such an expansion could create some 330,000 jobs, he estimated in an article entitled "Defense Spending Would Be Great Stimulus".
"Military procurement has the further advantage that almost all of the equipment and supplies that the military buys is made in the United States..." he noted. "...Because of the current very high and rising unemployment rates among young men and women," he added, "...now is also a good time for the military to increase recruiting and training."
Frank Gaffney, Jr., president of the far-right Center for Security Policy (CSP), quickly echoed that message in his weekly Washington Times column. "I have long believed it is mistake to use the defense budget as a jobs program. We should buy military hardware because it is needed for our security, not to boost employment," he wrote.
"That said, where increased employment follows from making necessary investments in our armed forces' capabilities to fight today's wars - and, no less important, tomorrow's - it would be absurd not to include the Pentagon in an economic stimulus package."
Meanwhile, the major military contractors have stepped up their lobbying efforts. According to the Wall Street Journal, three of the biggest companies - Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, and Northrop-Grumman - boosted their multi-million-dollar lobbying budgets by between 54 percent and 90 percent beginning in 2008 as it became clear that the Bush spending binge was nearing an end.
According to Hartung and other Pentagon critics, now is the critical moment for a reformist administration to begin cutting the defense budget, notably by canceling expensive conventional-weapons systems, such as the F-22 fighter jets and the V-22 Osprey aircraft that have proved both hugely expensive and of dubious utility.
"They have a chance to stop the train and start moving back in the right direction," he told IPS. "If they don't take it now, it'll just get harder down the road."
"The problem they're not getting huge public pressure to cut, whereas they are getting a lot of pressure to spend more," he said.
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.