Would it surprise you to know that the Orange Julius Caesar, unable to feel satisfied with the increased dollars spent under his watch, couldn’t resist lying about it? “We’ve totally rebuilt the military.” (To quote Shermer High School’s John Bender: “Totally?”) Spending on defense, according to Donald Trump, “used to be ‘million.’ And then, about 10 years ago, you started hearing ‘billion.’ And now you’re starting to hear ‘trillion,’ right?” To correct the pathological prevaricator, we still aren’t spending a trillion each year, and we’ve been hearing “billion” as far back as the Defense Department has tabulated total annual spending figures, i.e., starting in 1948. But what’s a decade or seven for someone with no interest in facts?
Given Trump’s much bigger lies—including The Big Lie about having lost the election—one can say that exaggerating about military spending is more on the order of a white lie by comparison. On the other hand, all of his lies are white lies, in that each one is told in the service of whiteness.
But now Biden is president, so let’s talk about military spending going forward rather than the past—imagined or otherwise. Before we get into the specifics of that spending, please take a look at how our country’s defense budget compares to that of other countries—I’m loath to call them competitors because, when it comes to spending, there’s really no comparison.
During the presidential campaign, Biden promised to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure … (and) bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and narrowly focus our mission on Al-Qaeda and ISIS.” From 9/11 through October 2019, our country has spent $778 billion on the war in Afghanistan, along with another $44 billion in reconstruction costs in that country. The true final tally—even in dollars, let alone the human cost—is much harder to calculate.
In the current fiscal year, spending in Afghanistan appears to be around $15 billion, down from previous years thanks to an already planned drawdown in troops that was supposed to culminate in the removal of all U.S. military personnel by May 1. This withdrawal is linked to a U.S.-Taliban agreement signed last year. However, recent violence has led the Biden administration to indicate that it will likely not abide by that timeline. Additionally, Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, came out specifically against removing all U.S. troops by the May deadline.
John Kirby, Pentagon spokesperson, stated: “The Taliban have not met their commitments. As you know, there is a looming deadline of early May … but without them meeting their commitments to renounce terrorism and to stop the violent attacks on the Afghan National Security Forces and, by dint of that, the Afghan people, it’s very hard to see a specific way forward for the negotiated settlement.” One hopes that these words represent an attempt to bring pressure to bear rather than anything more definitive, and that the Taliban does live up to its side of the bargain in the end so that Biden can bring home as close to 100% of our troops as possible.
Either way, it does not appear that truly large savings on our military spending in Afghanistan are in the offing, given the already relatively low current amount. Nevertheless, a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it begins to add up to real money, as the saying goes.
On Iran, the previous administration’s brainless unilateralism was on full display, as the U.S. in 2018 pulled out of the nuclear deal negotiated under President Barack Obama. Unsurprisingly, President Biden is going to try and revive it. Additionally, he reversed his predecessor’s pronouncement from November—also unilateral—that the totality of United Nations sanctions against Tehran were back in force. Certainly, improved relations with Iran as part of a deal that puts them further away from being able to develop nuclear weapons is a good thing in and of itself—although Thursday’s U.S. airstrikes on Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria, which Biden authorized in retaliation for previous violence the groups committed, show that achieving such improvements will not be simple. Additionally, although it’s hard to quantify, one would think having better relations with Iran would produce some savings on military spending as well.
Within the broad category of defense spending, there are some areas that might well require increases, given the changing nature of the threats we face. While we may not need as many tanks, nuclear missiles, and planes as we once did, cybersecurity is clearly an area where the U.S. has not done enough in the last few years. The recent devastating SolarWinds hack emanating from Russia—not China, as Putin’s Puppet President falsely claimed, contradicting his own Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—that breached multiple government agencies along with over 100 businesses made that failing clear.
President Biden is responding on the cybersecurity front. First of all, he spoke directly to his counterpart in Moscow: “I made it clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of aggressive actions, interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens, are over.” He added: “We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people.” Doing more than just talking, Biden’s COVID-19 relief plan contained more than $10 billion to address the cyber threat. Additionally, the new administration announced it will be enacting other measures through “executive action.” The need to spend more money on cybersecurity only further increases the importance of finding savings elsewhere in spending on defense.
Then there’s the Space Force. No, I’m not kidding. After Trump created it in late 2019, Daily Kos’ SemDem offered a brilliant takedown: “There are more than enough reasons why Space Force is a bad idea, starting with the fact that its mission was an afterthought to the primary reason, which, much like his vanity border wall, only exists to serve Trump’s ego.”
It appears that Biden will resist calls to simply return the functions of Space Force back to the Air Force, the Navy, and the Army—out of which it was carved in the first place. There still may be savings to be found, given that the current budget allocated over $15 billion to what is now the sixth branch of the Armed Forces. In addition, hopefully he’ll undo Trump’s last-second move of Space Force’s command center from Colorado—which he lost and where a Democrat beat an incumbent Republican in a Senate race—to Alabama, where Trump won and where a Senate seat flipped in the opposite direction. Whether the move was motivated by politics and a desire by Trump to enact revenge on a blue state is something I’ll leave to you to decide. The Colorado Springs Gazette editorial board noted that the move to Alabama “will cost billions over time.”
In terms of our federal budget, military spending as a share of all discretionary spending—that refers to spending not set by law, such as Social Security—dwarfs that of any other individual area. In fact, military spending equals all those other areas put together.
Furthermore, it’s important to make clear that military spending is far from the only kind of spending that protects the security of our country. Spending money on diplomacy protects our country. Spending money to combat climate change—at home and abroad—protects our country. Foreign aid protects our country. Democrats have long understood this, while Republicans—as on so many other issues—typically fail to see the big picture. As Daily Kos’ Squire for You cogently argued, “Democrats are the party of national security,” and we need to “reframe” the entire debate around the topic.
Progressives have been speaking out about the necessity of adjusting our spending priorities away from the military and toward other priorities—separate from the emergency needs created by COVID-19—that have been neglected for too long. Given that $7.4 billion of excess military supplies have been transferred to police departments since 1997 through the 1033 program, one can certainly argue that some of that spending may have been unjustified in terms of military necessity. Just maybe.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, presented the basic progressive perspective: “The disconnect between our defense spending and the threats Americans actually face has never been wider. It’s long past time to rethink and refocus how we spend our money to protect this country because military and nuclear weapons alone, as we’ve seen, are not enough to protect us.”
Progressives in the House are singing the same tune: “It is a top issue for the [Congressional Progressive Caucus],” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Chair of the CPC, a week ago. “This is a really important moment for us to move forward on cutting out waste, fraud and abuse in the Pentagon.” Here’s the CPC’s broad policy stance on military spending:
The Progressive Caucus is fighting to rein in bloated Pentagon spending, end America’s unauthorized forever wars, and rebalance our priorities abroad through robust investments in diplomacy, sustainable development, and humanitarian assistance. The United States spends more today on the military than at any time in our history—while at the same time, the Trump Administration has hollowed out essential diplomatic and humanitarian infrastructure. At the Progressive Caucus, we believe Congress should reduce conflict and foster peace—not issue blank checks for endless wars. By adopting a new global security posture that balances defense, diplomacy, and development aid, we can advance the goal of peace, rein bloated spending, and create greater economic prosperity for families here at home.
In terms of numbers, Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, along with Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, have led the push to cut military spending by 10% across-the-board—with military pay exempt from that cut. Their effort last year garnered support from about half of Democrats in each house of Congress—although notably two of the senators who got on board were now-Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the current majority whip. Who heads the Senate’s Budget Committee in the new Congress, you might ask? That would be Sanders.
Rep. Lee condemned the bloat in military costs born during the Trump years, in particular compared to the levels of spending on nonmilitary needs. “Wasteful defense spending does not make our communities safer—it only weakens our ability to respond to crises, and in recent years, that wastefulness has only increased.” Regarding the specific amount she’d like to see cut, Lee commented: “Ten percent is low. That’s the floor.”
Obviously, our country faces military threats that must be addressed. It’s also important to note that blowback from our actions around the world sometimes creates new threats, or exacerbates existing ones. Beyond the moral implications of U.S. military policy, it is clear that we need to shift our spending to some degree from our current approach. We cannot keep throwing billions of dollars at the same old military programs, and we absolutely cannot continue to shortchange other priorities both within the area of defense and in the rest of the budget. We need to invest in the American people, and work toward making our society a place with more justice and greater opportunity for each of us. The progressives are right on this issue. President Biden needs to listen to them.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)