Our new issue, “From Socialism to Populism and Back,” is out now. Get a discounted $20 print subscription today.

The Lie of ‘Rebuilding’ the Military

A right-wing misinformation campaign and timid liberal pushback has obscured how absurdly bloated the US military budget is.

US Air Force / Wikimedia Commons

The United States has the largest, most expensive military in the entire world. In light of the Trump administration’s new budget, which proposes a sizable boost to military spending while making drastic, in some cases debilitating, cuts to domestic programs, it’s a fact worth repeating.

The US military has a vastly larger airforce, navy, and number of aircraft carriers than any of its closest rivals. While it commands less manpower than China and India, its nuclear stockpile — a mind-boggling 6,970 warheads — is second only to Russia. The massive three hundred warheads held by France in third place looks piddling by comparison. According to a 2015 Credit Suisse report, all of this and more means the United States far outmatches any other country in terms of military strength.

This military dominance comes with a staggering price tag: $622 billion in 2016, or about 40 percent of the entire world’s military spending. In 2014, the US military cost more than that of the next nine countries combined. In 2012, by one estimate, it was the next thirteen combined.

This is high even by historic standards. According to the Department of Defense’s 2016 Green Book, in terms of 2009 dollars, the more than $600 billion regularly spent by Obama on the military were easily the highest sums since World War II.

A steady drumbeat of obfuscation from the Right (and a nearly nonexistent pushback from Democrats) has served to obscure all of this. A key plank in Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign was restoring” the military to its former greatness on the basis that Obama was “hollowing out our national defense.” During his campaign, supposedly sober and sensible Jeb Bush falsely claimed Obama was responsible for a “swift, mindless drawdown” of the military and had “gutted” US weapons systems to a point “where we can’t even project force.”

This campaign of misinformation has worked. According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who see the United States as the world’s top military power has fallen to a twenty-three-year low. And now, in his first budget, President Trump is proposing a $54 billion increase in military spending, telling the National Governors Association that it’s to “rebuild the depleted military” — repeating a falsehood he told when he was still a candidate.

Even if the increase proposed by Trump isn’t quite as big as advertised, it’s nonetheless an unnecessary expense, and one the administration has already signaled is going to come at the expense of “most federal agencies.”

What’s on the chopping block? The EPA will see a “devastating” cut of as much as a quarter of its budget. The State Department budget would be cut by 37 percent. The administration is also floating eliminating the Legal Services Corporation, depriving the poor of essential free legal services, hitting NPR and PBS by cutting the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and slashing the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.

Ultimately, it will target much more, given that cutting these last three programs will make barely a dent.

Of course, for war hawks, it’s never enough. Ever the maverick, John McCain swiftly put out a statement decrying the White House’s shady accounting and complaining that the spending increase should actually be bigger, to make up for the fact that Obama had “left our military underfunded, undersized, and unready to confront threats to our national security.” McCain instead called for a massive military budget worth $640 billion — nearly $40 billion more than Trump’s proposal.

Meanwhile, bashing “entitlements” and complaints about spending and the national debt are virtually a pastime in Washington.

Dire warnings about spending and entitlements have infused just about every presidential debate since they began to be held, and it’s virtually impossible to avoid hearing a politician — particularly one from the GOP — talk about the need to cut spending and “save” (read: cut) programs like Social Security and Medicare.

The willingness to “take on” the government programs that ordinary Americans rely on is considered such a benchmark for being taken “seriously” in Washington that successive Democratic presidents have tried to do conservatives’ work for them: first Clinton, by dismantling welfare and then trying to overhaul Social Security (an effort derailed in the nick of time by his affair with Monica Lewinsky); and then Obama, who for years tried to make a “grand bargain” with Republicans over social spending (also read: cut it), but failed due to the GOP’s intransigence.

All the while, during the Obama years at least, military spending continued to balloon with nary a peep from supposed fiscal conservatives. In fact, when the Obama administration attempted to draw down military spending over the course of a number of years, owing to the growing role of military technology in waging war rather than investing in flesh-and-blood soldiers and the fact that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were both theoretically coming to a close, conservatives bitterly opposed it.

The Heritage Foundation claimed in 2012 that Obama’s defense budget (which was still a massive $647 billion in 2013 and worth $566 billion in 2014) “makes protecting America its lowest priority.” Joe Lieberman called it an “unacceptable risk to our national security.” Ben Shapiro (then of Breitbart) warned that the administration’s plan to cut the army to its pre-World War II size would “spell disaster.”

This is a consistent pattern throughout the decades: those most in favor of bigger military budgets are often the most vociferous opponents of other types of government spending.

The Heritage Foundation, which has provided the blueprint for Trump’s budget, promised in its model budget to overhaul entitlements and rein in spending while making a pledge of “fully funding national defense” by “moving resources from less critical domestic programs” to the military.

Paul Ryan, whose entire political career has been one long, Ayn Rand-inspired mission to eliminate what remains of an American welfare state, also criticized Obama’s attempt to shrink the military budget in 2014, and just last year got into a tussle with the Pentagon over his attempt to give it more money that it didn’t want.

Joe Lieberman actually suggested on the Senate floor in 2011 that the United States would have to cut Social Security and other entitlements if it wanted to successfully fund the combatting of Islamic terrorists. John McCain, who just this year accused Trump’s nominee for budget director of “pitting the debt against the military” for advocating for defense cuts, also endorses “entitlement reform” and spent his 2008 campaign warning that spending was “completely out of control” while pledging to extend Bush’s tax cuts.

Bush himself promised the public he had a plan that “reduces the national debt, and fast,” and later attempted to privatize Social Security — all while embroiling the United States in two of the costliest wars in its history.

Long before that, Ronald Reagan, a virtual evangelist for antigovernment belief who wasted no moment to make apocalyptic warnings about the failure of entitlements and the dangers of government spending, also introduced huge military budget after huge military budget, ushering in the largest peacetime military build-up in US history. Together with his tax cuts, it led conservatives’ dreaded national debt to balloon.

The Right and many liberals will continue to carp about the need to rein in spending. But there’s only one area in which the United States vastly outspends its closest rivals — and providing social services certainly isn’t it.