William Hartung, Lessons From Battling the Pentagon for Four Decades

NPP Pressroom

William Hartung

Why has it been so hard to reduce the Pentagon budget, regardless of the global security environment? The power of the arms lobby, strengthened by the merger boom of the 1990s, was certainly one factor. Fear of terrorism generated by the 9/11 attacks, which set the stage for 18 years of ill-advised military adventures, including the never-ending (and disastrous) war in Afghanistan, is certainly another. The political fear of losing elections by being seen as either “soft” on defense or unconcerned about the fate of military-industrial jobs in one’s home state or district made many Democrats view taking on the Pentagon as the true “third rail” of American politics. And the military itself has blindly adhered to a strategy of global dominance that’s essentially been on autopilot, no matter the damaging consequences of near-endless war and preparations for more of it.

Still, even decades later, hope is not entirely lost. It remains possible that all of this might change in the years to come as a war-weary public -- from progressives to large parts of Donald Trump’s base -- has tired of the country’s forever wars, which have minimally cost something like $6.4 trillion, while resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, according to the latest analyses by Brown University’s Costs of War project.

As even Donald Trump has acknowledged, those trillions could have gone far in repairing America’s infrastructure and doing so much else in this country. In truth, as Lindsay Koshgarian of the National Priorities Project has pointed out, that sort of money could have underwritten significant parts of major initiatives like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All that would change the nature of this society rather than destroying other ones.

But that money’s gone. The question is: What will the nation’s budget priorities be going forward? Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have called for reductions in Pentagon spending, with Warren singling out the Pentagon’s war budget, the so-called Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO, in particular for elimination. OCO has been used as a slush fund not only to pay for those wars, but also to fund tens of billions of dollars in Pentagon pet projects that have nothing to do with our current conflicts. Eliminating it alone could save up to $800 billion over the next decade for other uses.

There has recently been a surge of proposals aimed at cutting the soaring Pentagon budget in significant ways. My own organization, the Center for International Policy, for example, has created a Sustainable Defense Task Force made up of ex-White House and congressional budget experts, former Pentagon officials and military officers, and analysts from think tanks across the political spectrum. Our group has already outlined a plan that would save $1.25 trillion from current Pentagon projections over the next decade.

Meanwhile, a group of more than 20 progressive organizations called #PeopleOverPentagon has proposed $2 trillion in cuts over that decade and the Poor People’s Campaign, working from an analysis done by the Institute for Policy Studies, would up that to $3.5 trillion, while investing the savings in urgent domestic needs.

Whether any of this succeeds in breaking the pattern of ever-rising budgets remains an open question. The most urgent threats to the safety of the planet today are climate change, nuclear weapons, epidemics, the rise of extreme right-wing nationalism, poverty, and grotesque levels of inequality. As a recent report from the organization Win Without War noted, none of these challenges can be addressed through military means. The rationale for spending more than $700 billion a year on the Pentagon -- and well over $1.2 trillion for national security writ large -- simply does not exist.

There are, of course, no guarantees that the Pentagon budget will finally be downsized, but 40 years after beginning my own work on this issue, I’m not giving up and neither is the growing network of organizations and individuals working to demilitarize foreign policy and impose budget discipline on the Pentagon. Unfortunately, neither are the giant defense contractors and those who run the national security state.

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