Pentagon Cries Poverty as Trump Marches to War

(Flickr/David Owen)

 By William D. Hartung

When Donald Trump’s administration ordered the bombing of a Syrian air base in response to a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians, the decision was greeted warmly in the mainstream media, as if it were a well-considered decision designed to dissuade the Assad regime from engaging in further chemical attacks. It was not. It was at best an emotional outburst, at worst an effort to distract attention from the growing scandal over the Trump team’s ties to Russia. It had no military significance, as the airfield that was hit by 59 cruise missiles—at a cost of $89 million—was up and operating the next day. But it did risk escalation of a war in Syria in which the United States has been far from passive, dispatching Marines and Special Forces to the battlefield and dropping 12,000 bombs on Syrian targets in the past year alone. Assad’s killing of civilians in the hundreds of thousands is a crime against humanity, but dropping more bombs will only make matters worse.

Soon after the Syria bombing, the administration ordered the use of the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever dropped by the United States—the so-called “Mother of All Bombs” (MOAB)—against ISIS forces in Afghanistan. The bombing did little to reduce the group’s capability to do harm in Afghanistan and beyond, but it did allow Trump to posture as a tough guy while simultaneously diverting attention from his woes at home, from allegations of collusion with Putin’s Russia in the 2016 elections to his inability to ram through some of his high-profile policy proposals.

The Syria and Afghanistan strikes are just one element of a sharp escalation in U.S. military activity in the greater Middle East in Trump’s first months in office. He has unleashed U.S. Special Forces and increased U.S. drone strikes in Yemen; relaxed regulations on avoiding civilian harm in bombings in Iraq and Syria; lifted restrictions on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has been engaged in a U.S.-backed bombing campaign that has killed thousands of civilians and committed what independent human rights groups have suggested may be war crimes; and discussed increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Let’s be clear: Barack Obama was no peacenik. He sharply increased drone strikes while waging war in at least seven nations—Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Pakistan—and he reversed course on his pledges to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. But Obama also helped seal a multilateral deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, concluded an arms control treaty that will reduce deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons by one-third, and opened relations with Cuba after decades of misguided sanctions and enmity. It is precisely these achievements that Trump seeks to undermine, even as he flails about, motivated as much by what he sees on Fox News and CNN as by any plan. Obama was a hawk, as is Hillary Clinton, but Trump represents a unique threat to our safety, security, and even our survival, given that he has the ability to launch a nuclear attack on a whim—not likely, perhaps, but possible, which is in itself a frightening new feature of our foreign policy landscape.

Trump has backed up his aggressive policies with requests for a massive increase in Pentagon spending, with every dollar coming at the expense of diplomacy, the environment, and our already frayed social safety net. His proposed $54 billion increase in Pentagon spending for fiscal year 2018 is huge. To give some sense of scale, the Trump increase in Pentagon spending is comparable to the entire military budget of the United Kingdom and higher than the military budgets of France, Germany, or Japan. This is on top of a budget that already weighs in at almost $600 billion per year, more than the next eight nations in the world combined, and higher than the peak year of the Reagan buildup of the 1980s. The Pentagon has no lack of money, but you wouldn’t know it when a parade of generals and defense bureaucrats routinely goes up to Capitol Hill to cry poverty and ask for hundreds of billions more over the next five years.

Meanwhile, Trump’s proposed domestic cuts will cost lives even as they attempt to dumb down America and create an even more docile, under-informed, and misguided citizenry. Shortly after he was confirmed, Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney assembled a “hit list” of programs that would be eliminated or defunded altogether, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Planned Parenthood. These programs’ combined costs come to about $3 billion a year, or about one-half of one percent of what the Pentagon receives per year, even before the proposed Trump increases. In fact, the programs on the hit list are less than one-eighth the amount of yearly bureaucratic waste in the Pentagon, according to its own business advisory board. These cuts have nothing to do with fiscal restraint and everything to do with conservative ideology. Some of the programs targeted by the Republicans have been in their sights since the Reagan era, while they had designs on eliminating others since the so-called “Gingrich revolution” of the 1990s.

Mulvaney’s hit list is just the beginning. When the outline of Trump’s budget plan was released in March, it included unprecedented cuts in the State Department (29%), the Environmental Protection Agency (31%), and crucial domestic programs such as Medicaid, which would be converted into a block grant in which each state would get a set amount of money regardless of the level of need of its population. Needless to say, the amount of the Medicaid block grants would be far below current levels. On the foreign policy front, one of the most tragic choices is the decision to slash funding for UN refugee and humanitarian aid programs at a time when countries from Nigeria to South Sudan to Yemen are on the brink of famine and people continue to flee the Syrian civil war in large numbers. And deep cuts in spending on diplomacy will deprive us of the expertise and initiative needed to come up with nonmilitary solutions to the wide array of challenges facing the United States in the Middle East and beyond—challenges that not only can’t be resolved by force, but also have been made far worse by the military interventions of this century.

So, what is to be done? We need an all-hands-on-deck coalition of the kind we have not seen in decades to oppose Trump’s twisted budget priorities. Successful efforts to block Trump’s Muslim ban and slow his efforts to repeal Obamacare (rather than expanding it into a system of universal health coverage, as should be done) offer some hope that a coalition that promotes human needs and Pentagon cuts could have success if we stay at it. Of course, neither health care nor basic human security is safe under Trump and his team—as evidenced by the escalation of deportations of undocumented immigrants whose only crime has been to try to build a better life for themselves and their families and efforts to eliminate Department of Justice programs to monitor the activities of local police forces. But without abandoning these urgent issues, opposition to the militarization of foreign policy and the slashing of basic services should become an integral part of the growing resistance movement.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.