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Less war, more spending: The flawed logic of Pentagon budget boosters

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In December, President Trump did the seemingly impossible. He united Republicans and Democrats — against him. 

Trump’s unceremonious, and seemingly unplanned, announcement of the end to U.S. involvement in the war in Syria and sharp troop cutbacks in Afghanistan was met with nearly unanimous condemnation from Republicans and Democrats alike. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the decision to withdraw from Syria, “a Christmas gift to Vladimir Putin.” Normally ardent Trump supporter Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took his criticism of the Afghanistan withdrawal a step further, saying it would be “paving the way toward a second 9/11.” 

{mosads}Like it or not, though, the U.S. has already begun withdrawing from these wars. But, if you think that less taxpayer money will go to the Pentagon just because the wars are ending, think again. 

Many in the foreign policy establishment are counterintuitively clamoring for more, not less, Pentagon spending just as the longest war in U.S. history is coming to a close. Former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Roger Zakheim contend that America’s more than $700 billion defense budget is “too small,” though this argument shouldn’t be too surprising considering that both have previously worked as lobbyists for defense contractors.

Former defense industry lobbyists aren’t the only ones arguing for more Pentagon spending after ending wars, however. To cite just one example of many, Reihan Salam, executive editor of the National Review, fully acknowledges that the Pentagon is “egregiously wasting taxpayer dollars” and bemoans “the militarization of U.S. foreign policy,” yet, still argues that we’d be “foolish to pursue deep cuts in military expenditures.”

Even Trump himself has joined the chorus of voices advocating for more defense spending. In late December, despite declaring an end to the war in Syria and the beginning of the end of the war in Afghanistan just a week earlier, Trump told troops in Iraq the Pentagon’s budget would be “even a little bit higher” than the $716 billion defense budget for 2019. Trump later suggested that the figure could soar to as high as $750 billion.

While this turn towards a policy of asking taxpayers to spend at wartime levels even as major wars are winding down might seem egregious, the disconnect between diminishing war activity and non-diminishing budgets isn’t anything new. As a 2016 report from the Stimson Center noted, costs per troop in Afghanistan and Iraq have risen dramatically over the past decade. 

In 2008, at the peak of the wars, the war budget — known formally as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO — was $1 million per troop. By 2016, the figure was $5.9 million per troop. What happened? After the passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which caps the Pentagon’s main budget but not war spending, the Pentagon exploited that loophole to cram tens of billions of dollars into the war budget that had nothing to do with fighting wars.

According to recent research by Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the habit of using OCO as a slush fund for non-war spending has continued unabated. 

Polls show the public supports U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Syria. If we’re going to fulfill their wishes, as it appears Trump is already doing, it’s imperative that we stop spending their tax dollars at wartime levels.

Advocates of more Pentagon spending will no doubt argue that the department’s massive budget is not just for fighting “hot wars” like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but for deterring adversaries from acting against the interests of the United States and its allies. Hence the emphasis of the new National Defense Strategy on dealing with great power competitors like Russia and China. 

But the Trump administration’s new defense strategy, and the congressionally-mandated National Defense Strategy Commission report that followed after it, are mired in old, counterproductive thinking. Talk of winning conventional wars against Russia or China, or spending over a trillion dollars to modernize an already excessive nuclear arsenal, or weaponizing outer space, as Trump proposed just last week, is more likely to spark a new global arms race than to promote peace and stability.  

{mossecondads}We need a more sophisticated approach that puts as much or more emphasis on economic and political challenges as on traditional military power — an area in which the United States already far outstrips China and Russia in any case. So it simply will not do to fill the gap left by the reduced need for spending on endless war with a mad rush to spend on equally dubious military objectives that are driven by a fear-based approach rather than a clear-eyed assessment of the most urgent security challenges we face.

Common sense suggests that if the United States spends less time-fighting wars, Pentagon spending should go down, not up. Conjuring new threats, or, even worse, misstating the nature of the security risks we face, should not be used as excuses to pad the department’s already ample budget.

Ben Freeman is the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy (CIP).  

William D. Hartung runs CIP’s Arms and Security Project. 

Tags Afghanistan Ben Freeman Donald Trump International Lindsey Graham Middle East Nancy Pelosi Syria William D. Hartung

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