The 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas over the issue of slavery were notable for their erudite discussion of an important policy matter. Now we don’t talk about issues, we talk about political viability in terms of how much the candidates have to spend. Ideas? Not so much.
Military spending is the biggest waste of federal taxdollars ever. Both political parties are equally complicit.
The militarism scam is the best-kept secret in American politics.
When you think about it — but no one in the halls of Congress ever does — it’s hard to think of a country that has less to fear than the United States. Two vast oceans eliminate our vulnerability to attack, except by countries with sophisticated long-range ballistic missiles (5 out of 206 nations). We share long borders with two nations that we count as close allies and trading partners.
Historically, the U.S. has only faced an invasion once, by the British during the War of 1812. (There have been other minor incursions, by Mexico during the 19th century and the Japanese occupation of two remote islands in the Aleutian chain during World War II. The Pearl Harbor attack was a raid, not an invasion.)
Objectively, we have little to worry about beside terrorism — and that’s a job for domestic police and intelligence agencies, not the military. Yet a whopping 54% of discretionary federal spending goes to the Pentagon. The Bush Administration put the Afghanistan and Iraq wars “off the books” of the Pentagon budget. And that’s not counting interest on debt or benefits paid out for old wars. We’re still paying $5 billion a year for World War II. We’re still paying off beneficiaries for the Civil and Spanish-American Wars!
The U.S. accounts for less than 5% of the world’s population. We account for 37% of military spending worldwide, equal to the next seven countries (China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France, Japan) combined. (And the U.S. sells a lot of hardware to most of those countries.)
Russia spends roughly a tenth as much on defense as the U.S. And they have a lot more (and twice as much territory) to defend against: NATO/American missiles to their west in Europe, a southern border full of radical Islamists in unstable countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, Afghanistan a stone’s throw away, historical regional superpower rival China next door. Despite its relatively small defense budget, Russia somehow manages to soldier on.
No matter how you look at it, America’s military budget is due for a haircut. If it were up to me, I’d scale quickly down to the Russian level, pro rata for square mileage — lob 95% of this bloated $600 billion a year monstrosity right off the top. But even a less radical budget cutter could do some good. A 10% cut — $60 billion a year — would buy universal pre-school or allow half of America’s four-year college and university students to have free tuition.
Insanely, we’re going the opposite direction.
President Trump wants to increase military spending by $54 billion — roughly 10% — per year.
Republican hypocrisy is brazen and obvious. Most are channeling Dick Cheney’s “deficits don’t matter” to justify huge tax cuts to rich individuals and big business. “I’m not the first to observe that a Republican Congress only cares about the deficit when a Democrat is in the White House,” the economist Alan Krueger says. But even the most strident deficit hawks, though uncomfortable with the tax cuts, have no problem whatsoever with Trump’s proposed hike in military spending.
“Any time we spend more money — even if it’s for something that we need — we need to cut spending in a corresponding aspect to the budget,” says Rand Paul. Slashing other, more needed programs — which is pretty much anything other than the military — is what passes for sanity in the Republican Party.
No one is proposing zero increase, much less a cut.
If anything, the Democrats are even worse. Democrats have promised a fierce Resistance to Trump and his works. But their oft-stated resolve is noticeably absent when it comes to He-Who-Must-Be-Impeached’s lust to jack up a crazy-ass defense budget that doesn’t have much of a justification to exist at all.
“This budget shifts the burden off of the wealthy and special interests and puts it squarely on the backs of the middle class and those struggling to get there … Democrats in Congress will emphatically oppose these cuts and urge our Republican colleagues to reject them as well,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
Notice what’s missing? Like other Democratic leaders, Schumer’s beef is with Trump’s proposed cuts to the arts, EPA and other domestic spending, and the tax cuts. He doesn’t say boo about the defense increase.
As usual, Bernie Sanders was better than other Democrats. But even he didn’t explicitly reject the idea of a military increase on its face.
As we move past Memorial Day — the holiday when we remember the war dead, the vast majority who died not to defend America but to oppress people in other countries who never posed a threat to the United States — we should reconsider the assumption that all military spending is good spending.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
Late last year, I interviewed Bernie Sanders while working on my biography “Bernie.” I asked him if he planned to reduce the defense budget if elected president. “We will take a hard look at that,” he told me, agreeing that there’s an awful lot of bloat in America’s military spending that ought to be cut.
Why doesn’t he say that now?
A statement detailing his intent to reduce military spending — not just the on-the-books budget of the Pentagon, but also the “off the books” taxdollars that go to wars like the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the National Security Agency and other parts of the surveillance state that have expanded radically since 9/11 — would help answer one of Sanders’ critics’ most potent criticisms: that he’ll be an irresponsible Santa Gone Wild, giving away free college tuition and Medicare for all without a care in the world for how to pay for it.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign, already reeking of desperation, is turning ugly. Bill Clinton, of all people, accused Bernie of lying, and his supporters of sexism. Clinton surrogate Madeleine Albright called female Sanders supporters traitors to their gender. The once-respected Gloria Steinem called them sluts, implying they were hanging out at Bernie’s big rallies to get laid by hunky Bernie bros.
Pathetic. But Hillary remains a potent force. She’s the mathematical favorite. When she casts herself as the realist (“a progressive who likes to get things done”), her argument that Bernie’s promises are politically unrealistic and fiscally irresponsible carries weight with Democrats who are still on the fence.
If Bernie can answer this two-part question, he wins the nomination: how will he get his far-left programs (by American standards, not those of the rest of the world) through Congress? How will he pay for them?
The first question, I think, isn’t as big a hurdle as the corporate punditry seems to think. Most voters can imagine a sustained progressive movement centered around street activism — Sanders’ “political revolution” — that pressures Congress so that, as Sanders puts it, Mitch O’Connell sees hundreds of thousands of people marching outside his window whenever he plots to thwart the people’s will.
Like Occupy Wall Street, except that the president is encouraging the movement rather than ordering the cops to beat up its members.
Anyway, liberal Democrats are angry. Hillary’s “half a dream” sales pitch isn’t half as enticing to them as Bernie’s ambitious agenda. Come on, Hill: did you take half a bribe from Goldman Sachs? Even if Bernie’s idealism gets dashed on the rocks of Republican intransigence, progressive Dems don’t care; they want to see Bernie try. Democrats haven’t watched a Democratic president push for radical change since LBJ.
The second question of the skeptics is: show me the money! Where is the cash to pay for free public college tuition and a single-payer healthcare system?
Sanders has said he would cover the $75 billion per year cost of his college reform program by imposing a tax on Wall Street speculation. He would almost certainly increase taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals as part of moving the tax code back to a more progressive, pre-Reagan structure. Everyone would pay a higher tax rate to cover Berniecare, though working-class people would pay less than they’d save.
At the risk of sounding like a Republican, there’s waste throughout the federal budget. There is, for example, no evidence that the NSA has ever done its job by preventing a single terrorist attack. Meanwhile, as Edward Snowden informed us, they’re spying on all our phone calls and emails. Shut them down; save $10 billion a year or more. Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security could be trimmed to a fraction of its current size or eliminated, with its tiny portion of useful activities transferred to other agencies, including law enforcement.
Last year’s defense budget was nearly $600 billion, or 54% of discretionary federal spending. That’s more than the next nine countries combined, including China and Russia. Conservatively, at least half of that is spent on waste and fraud by DOD contractors, so there’s $300 billion right off the bat. I bet we could cut it 90% and still not have to worry about a foreign invasion, something that hasn’t happened since 1812.
These cuts could easily cover the several hundred billion shortfall between Bernie’s tax increase on the rich and the cost of his healthcare plan.
Nothing says fiscal conservatism like pacifism. As of 2015 the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, the most expensive in U.S. history, cost more than $1.5 trillion. More than $1 billion a year is still going down those ratholes. Bernie has said ISIS must be “crushed,” but he may want to revisit that. As of November, the anti-ISIS air and jihadi-training campaign had cost $5 billion and counting.
And obviously don’t start any new wars of choice.
Studies have shown that high student loan debt hobbles economic activity, delaying the age at which college graduates can afford to buy their first cars and homes. Freeing college graduates and their parents from exorbitant tuition bills would stimulate the automobile and real estate markets in particular, as well as the overall economy.
The same is true for healthcare costs. Every dollar you don’t spend on health insurance premiums, deductibles and co-pays is one you have for something else. That’s a lot of potential stimulus.
I don’t know why the Sanders campaign hasn’t issued a detailed plan explaining how President Sanders would cover the costs of free college tuition and Medicare for All. Maybe they’re worried about getting attacked as weak on national security by the hawkish Secretary Clinton and, in the general election, by the Republican nominee (probably Trump or Cruz).
Though a valid concern, it should take a back seat to plugging the Bernie-is-just-a-dreamer narrative Hillary’s camp is framing him with. He’ll never be able to out-militarist Hillary or the Republicans, who will try to brand him as the second coming of Vladimir Lenin anyway. Why bother to try?
(Ted Rall is the author of “Bernie,” a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Bernie” is now on sale online and at all good bookstores.)
Antiwarriors Are Citizens Without a Party
Antiwar sentiment is the majority opinion when it comes to the prospect of future conflicts. Of the two countries the U.S. is currently most likely to attack militarily, nearly seven out of ten people are against invading Syria; even polls that ask leading questions (“do you favor a military strike to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?”) find public opinion running opposed to attacking Iran, by 52% to 41%.
Not only are most Americans against wars present and future, we want to slash defense spending in general. According to a National Journal poll, 60% want to cut the Pentagon budget. Thirty-five percent don’t.
Eleven years after America lost the Twin Towers and then its collective mind, something remarkable has happened. We’ve come to our senses.
We’re a nation of pacifists.
So how is a pacifist—in other words, an average American—supposed to vote this fall? Obviously not Republican: Romney says he’ll cut every department except Defense. He wants to spend more on weapons, is open to fighting against Afghanistan and Iraq indefinitely, and is so ignorant that he doesn’t know that the people of Afghanistan are called Afghans.
But with all the veteran and war messaging that went on at last week’s national convention, Democrats look like a mirror image of the GOP: jingoistic, militaristic, and gung-ho for war. Between pogo-dancing on Osama bin Laden’s corpse, the airing of a mawkish “Honoring the Sacred Trust with Our Veterans” video that spread the debunked right-wing myth that returning Vietnam vets got disrespected, the First Lady donning a Dubya-inspired “support our troops” T-shirt, and Democrats’ petty attack on Mitt Romney for omitting to name-check vets in his nomination acceptance address, it felt like the 2002-03 build-up to the invasion of Iraq—except, this time, the president speaks fluent English.
It’s official: the Dems are a war party.
Why the new bellicose tone? In part it’s an attempt to counter the old canard that Democrats are weak on defense, a charge that Republicans used to their electoral advantage throughout the Cold War. As the probably doped Lance Armstrong advised, turn your biggest weakness into your strongest strength. (The Machiavellian Karl Rove, who attacked John Kerry’s war record of all things, put it the other way around: turn their biggest strength into their biggest weakness.) It’s also a reflection of the triumph of Democratic Leadership Council-inspired conservatives, who have cowed, purged and marginalized liberals and pacifists from the party.
Militarism may be unpopular, but it still rules the ruling class. The military-industrial complex enjoys more direct political and economic influence among government officials than ever. The post-9/11 Cult of the Noble Soldier, coupled with the myth of a beleaguered U.S. defending the world from barbarians in an epic clash of civilizations, merely recasts old-fashioned fascist militarism—and it’s just as effective at confusing leftie opponents and putting them off-balance.
Truth be told, the Democrats’ new hawkish tone is catching up with their party’s hawkish history. Ronald Reagan gets credit for the defense build-up of the 1980s that supposedly bankrupted the Soviet Union, but it was Jimmy Carter who started it in 1978. No one remembers now, but “wimpy” Carter also gave us draft registration (in response to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan). Mr. Habitat for Humanity sent arms to the Afghan mujahedeen (some of whom formed Al Qaeda) and provoked the Iran hostage crisis by admitting the recently deposed Shah to the U.S. Bill Clinton launched an optional war of choice against Serbia based on sketchy justifications, and waged an incessant aerial bombing campaign against Iraq that went on so long that the media got bored and stopped covering it, and U.S. pilots ran out of targets.
President Obama may not have been popular with the SEAL team he sent to assassinate bin Laden, but thousands of Pakistanis, Afghans, Yemenis and Somalis victimized by the reign of terror unleashed by his unprecedented, expanded program of drone plane bombings can attest to his credentials as a happy warrior. “Barack Obama,” Aaron David Miller, Middle East policy adviser to Republican and Democratic administrations, wrote recently, “has become George W. Bush on steroids.”
Democrats have always been pro-war. They’d might as well shout it from the rooftops.
Most Americans are against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cult of militarism and the untouchable status of Pentagon spending on weapons. Yet there is no political home for people who oppose our current wars, or war in general.
Where is a pacifist to go?
COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL