Obama and the Permanent War Budget

It's been a good decade for the Pentagon. The most recent numbers
from Capitol Hill indicate that Pentagon spending (counting Iraq and
Afghanistan) will reach over $630 billion in 2010. And that doesn't
even include the billions set aside for building new military facilities and sustaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

But even without counting the costs of the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, the Department of Defense budget has been moving
relentlessly upward since 2001. Pentagon budget authority has jumped
from $296 billion in 2001 to $513 billion in 2009, a 73% increase. And
again, that's not even counting the over $1 trillion in taxpayer money
that has been thrown at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if those
wars had never happened, the Pentagon would still be racking up huge
increases year after year after year.

And perhaps most disturbing of all, the Pentagon budget increased for every year of the first decade of the 21st
century, an unprecedented run that didn't even happen in the World War
II era, much less during Korea or Vietnam. And if the government's
current plans are carried out, there will be yearly increases in
military spending for at least another decade.

We have a permanent war budget, and most of it isn't even being used
to fight wars - it's mostly a giveaway to the Pentagon and its favorite

What Can Be Done?

For starters, the Pentagon needs to cut unnecessary weapons systems
that were designed to meet Cold War threats that no longer exist. A
good place to look for these kinds of cuts is in the Unified Security Budget,
an analysis provided annually by a taskforce organized by Foreign
Policy In Focus. Its most recent recommendations call for over $55
billion in cuts in everything from unneeded combat aircraft to
anti-missile programs to nuclear weapons spending.

To their credit, President Obama and his Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates have sought to eliminate eight such programs, from the F-22
combat aircraft to the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (a leftover from the
old "Star Wars" program). An analysis recently produced by Taxpayers
for Common Sense indicated that six of the eight proposed program cuts
stuck. This is an impressive record, given the need to fight the
weapons contractors and their pork-barreling allies in Congress to get
the job done. But as the analysis also notes, additional spending on
other programs added up to $1 billion more than the amount saved by the

This shouldn't be surprising. As a candidate for president, Obama
told a rally in Iowa that it might be necessary to "bump up" the
military budget beyond the record levels established by the Bush
administration. And in announcing the administration's proposed weapons
cuts in spring 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made it clear
that he was seeking to rearrange priorities within the Pentagon, not
reduce its budget. Gates sought more funding for equipment that would
support counterinsurgency operations - like unmanned aerial vehicles -
and less for systems designed to fight a Soviet threat that no longer
exists - like the F-22 combat aircraft. And he got pretty much what he
asked for.

Reducing U.S. Reach

Another area for savings would be to cut the size of the armed
forces. But Obama campaigned on a promise to carry out a troop increase
of 92,000, mirroring proposals made by the Bush administration. And his
commitment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan might set the
stage for even larger increases in the total U.S. forces at some point
down the road.

Finally, any real savings in U.S. military spending would need to be
accompanied by a reduction in U.S. "global reach" - in the hundreds of
major military facilities it controls in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin
America. But - in parallel to the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan-
U.S. overseas-basing arrangements have been on the rise, not only in
Iraq and Afghanistan themselves but in bordering nations.

So, barring major public pressure, don't expect the overall Pentagon
budget to go down anytime soon. We can certainly still achieve some
real reforms, from the elimination of outmoded systems like the F-22,
to cracking down on war profiteering, to supporting the Obama
administration's indispensable efforts to cut back the size of the U.S.
nuclear arsenal. At least for now, though, making the Pentagon do with
less when most communities in the country are suffering from the
deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression is not in the
cards. Not unless large numbers of us make it an issue.

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