Despite strikes against the Islamic State, 13 years of major U.S. combat operations have ended. Yet war-weary Americans might be surprised to learn that military spending is still at historically high levels and that the president and Congress are conspiring to increase it — by a lot.
Since at least 2009, Americans have heard from politicians, pundits and journalists that the military spending spree was over. Well before the end of Obama’s first term, such claims turned to near hysteria about supposedly huge spending decreases in defense. The truth is however that the bulk of the cuts came from moderate reductions in the “emergency” war appropriations, not from the Pentagon’s core budget. The wars were ending; so of course we were spending less on the wars.
The Budget Control Act of 2011 mandated reductions in discretionary domestic and defense spending, mostly in the form of subtractions from planned budget increases. This added a modicum of reality to the panic among those interests accustomed to the stratospheric levels of security spending during the longest military buildup in the nation’s history.
If those interests have their way, the brief and limited cuts will be replaced by significant increases in 2016. As Washington commences the annual budget charade, the debate is dominated by three coalitions, and they all want to increase defense spending.
First, our Democratic president’s budget proposal casts aside the “sequester” across-the-board limitations and increases the core military budget to $561 billion. This raise would be separate from the $51 billion the president proposes for supplemental war spending (with a very small portion for fighting the Islamic State). Many House and Senate Democrats will go along in the hopes of getting the parallel increase to domestic spending sought by Obama.
Second, the House Budget Committee, representing the policy preferences of the core conservative factions of the GOP, has responded with a budget that meets the spending caps and yet significantly increases defense spending. How do they perform this feat of magic? By putting the entire military increase for 2016 in the “emergency” supplemental war budget, which conveniently does not fall under the sequester caps. How much “war” spending? $94 billion, which by itself is larger than any other nation’s entire military budget except for China’s, and $44 billion more than the Pentagon’s request.
This trick is a stark of admission that for years the “war” appropriations have been a sham — they instead have provided a backdoor channel of supplemental money for the Pentagon.
The final faction, represented by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other hawks, objects to the backdoor plan. They want substantial increases in defense spending in the regular budget beyond what either Obama or the House Republicans have proposed. Which leaves pretty much no one to argue against defense spending increases.
Consider: If the president’s total request is approved — and the final figure will probably be higher than the proposed $612 billion — it would be 27 percent more (adjusted for inflation) than what we spent in 2002, a full year into the war on terror, and all but equal to the peak years of the Cold War.
More than 13 years of war and the trillions of dollars spent have created a bipartisan bulldozer of political and economic interests to sustain the post-9/11 spending spree.
The stage is set for yet another budget battle royal: not over whether, but by how much, to increase military spending. Americans must intervene to give voice to the popular opposition that we know is there but is not being heard, let alone heeded.