- Interview by
- Branko Marcetic
Last month, Trump submitted yet another budget that pairs sky-high military spending with severe cuts to the rest of the government. Trump wants to use a budget gimmick to raise military spending to a colossal $750 billion; at the same time, supposedly concerned by the deficit, Trump is looking to cut domestic spending $2.7 trillion over ten years, slashing Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, student loan programs, and funding for the EPA and most other government departments — even, at one point, gutting the Special Olympics. Bernie Sanders called it “breathtaking in its degree of cruelty.”
As usual, Trump’s budget request escalates a Washington tradition of turbo-charging military spending while demanding austerity from everyone else — and this at a time when the public is clamoring for public action on health care, climate change, and the opioid crisis. Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic spoke with Lindsay Koshgarian, program director of the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, to discuss these lopsided budget priorities — including how to cut the government’s gargantuan military spending and what that money could be directed to instead.
Is there anything you’d say is particularly egregious in this latest military budget?
One thing that stands out as particularly egregious, and a vanity project, is this establishment of a sixth military branch, a space force. And they haven’t actually put a dollar figure on what that exactly will cost. It’s probably not, at this stage, a big part of the increase, but it is pretty much a vanity project. There are lots of people who believe that you could perfectly well do what you need to do as part of the already existing Air Force.
And this is really just something where it makes Trump feel fancy to have a “space force,” it makes him feel like a big man. I mean, it’s not something that the military have been calling for before President Trump put it on the agenda. It’s just completely a vanity project.
But I guess contractors and the like are supportive of it because it would put more money in their pockets?
Yes. Well, I don’t think contractors have ever seen a Pentagon program or increase that they didn’t like.
It will be interesting to see whether the space force is one of the things that actually makes it through to some eventual legislation or not. I’m not sure; its reception in Congress is not fabulous. But there are definitely people there who would champion it.
I’ve read that Trump is using some sort of budget gimmick to increase defense spending past the congressionally mandated cap.
They’re using a budget gimmick that has been used for years, including during the Obama years, but they’ve ramped it up to way more than it’s ever been before.
Back in 2001, Congress established this fund called Overseas Contingency Operations that would fund, initially the war in Afghanistan, and then the war in Iraq. What happened was that in 2011, when Congress passed anti-deficit legislation that capped government spending, including for defense, increasingly administrations began putting their requests for military money into this Oversees Contingency Fund. And the reason they did that is because it doesn’t count toward the spending limits that Congress set.
The dollar amount has fluctuated in recent years. Last year it was $80 billion and this year they’re proposing that it should be $174 billion. And that’s actually a combination of a couple of different emergency funds that don’t count against the limits. They’re doing that entirely so they can claim that they’re following these spending limits. They’re certainly following the spending limits for the non-military programs that they want to see cut. But in the meantime, they’re putting a huge amount of money into this stash for the Pentagon that officially doesn’t count, but in real life, of course, it absolutely adds to the deficit.
This is one of our biggest political problems right now. We talk about things like wanting Medicare for All, and we’re told we can’t afford that. We’ve talked about ambitious new plans to address climate change. People say we can’t afford it. But when it comes to another $170 billion for the Pentagon, suddenly that’s not a problem.
A lot of your focus is on how military spending can be diverted to productive uses back home. How would you reduce the defense budget? What would you aim at?
Well, there are some cuts that are widely considered to be good ideas. One of the most prominent ones, of course, is the F-35 jet fighter, which has been under development now for twenty years at least and is billions of dollars over budget, years behind schedule, has run into all sort of problems, having engine fires on runways — almost literally a dumpster fire of a project.
And they keep just buying more and more of them. So, that’s a project that definitely could stand to be cut and possibly eliminated entirely. That’s about $10 billion a year. Another is that funds are starting to ramp up for this nuclear modernization project that’s been talked about. It was planned under the Obama Administration. Depending on who you ask, it may cost anything up to about $2 trillion dollars over the next thirty years or so. And what it is, is reinvesting in nuclear weapons, which are something that the United Nations has said we should be moving away from.
Right now, we have Trump pulling the United States, or attempting to pull the United States, out of all kinds of nuclear weapons treaties that had helped to get the number of nuclear weapons somewhat under control. By any reasonable measure, the United States has far more nuclear weapons than we need for deterrence, which is supposed to be the rationale for nuclear weapons.
So, reinvesting in nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century, at a time when everyone sensible recognizes that we can never use these weapons — that they exist only as deterrents and that we therefore only need a few of them, if any — is really bad judgment. It’s a bad use of money, it’s going to make the world more dangerous.
There are certain parts of the nuclear modernization in particular that are seen as making the world a more dangerous place. There’s a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that’s on the agenda. There’s so many reasons not to do this, it’s just really discouraging that it seems to be something that the military establishment in the United States has thoroughly bought into.
Luckily, the new chair of the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives, Adam Smith, has said that he thinks many parts of this nuclear modernization plan are a very bad idea. So, there’s someone with a position to do something about it who thinks that this should not go forward. So that’s definitely something that could use some cuts.
But, another place where the US really ought to be cutting, and it’s not getting as much attention, is in our deployments around the world, both in Afghanistan and Syria — which have gotten quite a bit of attention, especially as Trump has made possibly empty promises to pull out from those places — but also in Somalia, where we’re hearing about drone strikes, Japan and Germany and South Korea, where the United States still has tens of thousands of troops, basically hold-overs from World War II and the Korean War. And we don’t need all of those troops in all of those places. We should begin bringing them home.
And we did begin bringing them home, but we’ve stalled. I would like to think that by the time we hit the one hundredth anniversary of World War II, maybe we would have brought our troops home.
One of these things that a lot of people don’t know, and I certainly didn’t know until I read about it, was that that the United States never actually had troops permanently stationed in allied countries until the Korean War — that was really the event that kicked into gear this kind of permanent militarization. We’re conditioned to think of such deployments as something permanent, that things have always been that way. But in fact, it looked very different until the 1950s.
Yes, that’s definitely true. There was a huge build-up that had to happen for World War II, and then, pretty much immediately after World War II there was a huge draw-down. So, in today’s dollars, at the peak of World War II the United States was spending about a trillion dollars on the military, which is more than we’re spending now and more than we’ve spent anytime since then. But, immediately afterward, they drew the spending down to about 10 percent of that — below $100 billon — because they just didn’t think they needed to have that big a military at all times.
What’s horrifying is that there was a national security strategy document released last year that called for a trillion-dollar military budget again. Not because they’re saying that we’re going to be in World War III — but the idea that we need to be ready for World War III should be a very scary thought.
Is there an indication of how much all these different deployments across the world cost?
There are various estimates. I’ve seen $150 billion for overseas bases. I think that actually could be an understatement.
Let’s look at some alternatives — where could that money go instead?
Well, for example, there is a renewable energy program in the Energy Department budget. Right now, it’s about $2 billion. So, you could have a budget that’s one hundred times as big for renewable energy by cutting some of these things from the Pentagon. So, there are some big things that you can do.
And the military in a lot of ways is really a kind of a large, federal job program — not just for the people who work directly in the military, but also for contractors around the country.
That’s exactly right. There’s a study that’s been done a few times from the University of Massachusetts that shows that yes, we create jobs by investing in the military but, we would create more jobs if we invested in health care or education or clean energy. Any of those would create more jobs for the same dollars, and that’s for a few reasons. It’s partly because military jobs are expensive in ways that other jobs aren’t. There’s a lot of equipment and overhead involved — in fact, for military personnel, the amount of overhead has more than doubled since 1980. So, it’s only getting bigger.
Obviously doing all this would require a reorientation of foreign policy as it stands now. If we were to change things to the point that you could make these reductions, what would that look like?
Well, anytime you say you want to make a cut to national security, people who don’t want those cuts to happen are going to say it’s going to make us less safe. So, what we need to do is to demonstrate that it won’t make us less safe — that, in fact, in many cases, it might make us more safe. So, the first thing we need to do is stop preventative wars.
We should not have another Iraq. There should be no war with Iran. Right now this administration is hovering around the edges of indicating that the United States may take some military action against Iran. That would be a terrible idea. One estimate is that it would cost ten to fifteen times what the Iraq War has cost, which is trillions and trillions of dollars — a staggering amount of money and a staggering number of lives.
A lot of people who oppose Trump but are not on the Left find it hard to understand why there’s so much frustration on the Left around Russiagate and the increasing nationalistic hostility towards Russia. A few of the things you mentioned were the the nuclear modernization program and the US deployment in Syria. And then you have commentators like Rachel Maddow, the most highly rated liberal pundit on TV, who argues directly against taking troops out of Syria, against pulling troops out of South Korea, and casting those ideas as some sort of Russian plot.
Do you see that as an obstacle to a reorientation of US foreign policy?
Yeah. Definitely the poisonously partisan nature of politics is a huge obstacle. It means that anytime a Democrat proposes something, Republicans have to be against it and anytime a Republican proposes something, Democrats have to be against it. Something heartening was that Elizabeth Warren came out and said that Trump is actually right, that we do need to pull troops out of Syria. And Bernie Sanders said a slightly weaker version of the same thing — that, yes, we need to pull the troops out, but maybe not right away.
There is a lot of sudden concern from the left that maybe we needed to have troops in Syria, and we do not. The situation is terrible and there is a limited amount that the United States can do about it. We should do everything that we can, military intervention is not fixing that situation. And I think it’s unfortunate that there may have been a missed opportunity for the Left to to step up and support that position.