The Military Budget Boondoggle

In These Times magazine, June 1997


For the past month, the Pentagon and the White House have been conducting an invisible campaign to head off opposition to increased military spending. Announcing that it was closing dozens of additional military bases, the Pentagon sold the commercial media on the idea that we have lived through a period of drastic military cutbacks. The result is that journalists now routinely talk about the military as if it had suffered since the end of the Cold War. To set the tone, Secretary of Defense William Cohen joined the chorus in mid-May with his announcement that the time had come to end the Cold War dividend.

Of course, there has been no Cold War dividend. The end of the Cold War was supposed to free up resources for increased spending on education, housing and infrastructure rebuilding. It remained a dream, however, as the paltry reductions in military outlays went to deficit reduction along with massive cuts in domestic spending. Like Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Clinton has consistently forced cuts in domestic programs by keeping military created by U.S. spending high. This is the cost, in Clinton's words, of "America's leadership in harnessing the global forces of integration"-meaning the cost of continuing to reduce the rest of the world, and particularly the underdeveloped world, to adjuncts of Corporate America.

Now, following the Pentagon's quadrennial review of projected military needs, military spending will increase to $266.8 billion in 1998 and to $273.1 billion in 2002. The recent budget deal protects this spending by creating budget "firewalls" around military funding for 1998 and 1999. The rationale for this five-year, $1.4 billion waste of resources is that the United States must be prepared to fight two full-scale wars against unknown and unforseeable opponents at the same time.

Who are these potential enemies? Certainly there are none threatening to invade the United States, or even our major allies in Europe or Asia. Indeed, the second most powerful military power, Russia, is going in the opposite direction. In late May, President Boris Yeltsin announced that Russia was cutting back on its military spending by some 40 percent over the next two to three years because the military was diverting too many resources from the development of the country's domestic economy.

The threat, if one can call it that, is said to come from increasingly unstable situations in the developing world. But that is a threat in large part of the U.S. government's own making.

During the Cold War, U.S. military suppliers accounted for about 13 percent of global arms sales. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in late 1989, U.S. arms sales have rocketed. In the past seven years, the United States has sold roughly $100 billion worth of weapons abroad. As other nations have reduced their arms sales, American military manufacturers have increased their share of the market to 70 percent. Clinton has pushed these sales as vigorously as his predecessors. His administration has funneled subsidies to the arms industry to facilitate exports, arguing that foreign arms sales keep U.S. procurement costs down and jobs at home. But, as a special Boston Globe report on the global arms trade concluded, "while leading defense manufacturers report big profits, surging stock prices and huge increases for top executives ... there has been no visible sign of reduced costs to the military, and the hemorrhaging of American jobs continues." Indeed, the Globe notes, to secure these sales, thousands of production jobs are often shipped overseas along with the technology needed for recipient nations to create their own arms industries.

In other words, the Pentagon and the Clinton administration are actively engaged in creating the threat that they say we must be prepared to meet. For without foreign arms sales, and especially the sale of manufacturing equipment and know-how, there would be nothing to defend against.

The only significant opposition to the military spending authorized in the budget deal has been voiced by the 109 members of the House Progressive Caucus. In a letter to Clinton in late April, caucus chairman Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) urged the president to reject any deal that cut domestic programs while leaving military spending at Cold War levels. Frank also promised to use the appropriations process to fight the deal.

However, the budget went through with an increase of $53 billion in military spending over the next five years, along with $115 billion in cuts in Medicare, more than a $30 billion reduction in food stamps and the elimination of funds to rebuild crumbling schools.

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