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Can Obama Take On the Pentagon? | The Nation

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Can Obama Take On the Pentagon?

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Business as Usual?

About the Author

Frida Berrigan
Frida Berrigan is a Senior Program Associate at the New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative (ASI). She is...

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At the beginning of October, the Pentagon's latest five-year projection of budget needs was revealed in Congressional Quarterly. These preliminary figures--the full request should be released sometime next month--indicate that the Pentagon's starting point in its bargaining with the new administration and Congress comes down to one word: more.

The estimates project $450 billion more in spending over those five years than previously suggested figures. Take fiscal year 2010: the Pentagon is evidently calling for a military budget of $584 billion, an increase of $57 billion over what they informed President Bush and Congress they would need just a few months ago.

Unfortunately, when it comes to military spending and defense, the record is reasonably clear--Obama is not about to go toe to toe with the military-industrial complex.

On the campaign trail, his stump speech included this applause-ready line suggesting that the costs of the war in Iraq are taking away from important domestic priorities: "If we're spending $10 billion a month [in Iraq] over the next four or five years, that's $10 billion a month we're not using to rebuild the US, or drawing down our national debt, or making sure that families have healthcare."

But the "surge" that Obama wants to shift from Iraq to Afghanistan is unlikely to be a bargain. In addition, he has repeatedly argued for a spike in defense spending to "reset" a military force worn out by war. He has also called for the expansion of the size of the Army and the Marines. On that point, he is in complete agreement with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. They even use the same numbers, suggesting that the Army should be augmented by 65,000 new recruits and the Marines, by 27,000. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that these manpower increases alone would add about $10 billion a year--that same campaign trail $10 billion--to the Pentagon budget over a five-year period.

The word from Wall Street? In a report entitled "Early Thoughts on Obama and Defense," a Morgan Stanley researcher wrote on November 5, "As we understand it, Obama has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend.... In addition, we believe, based on discussions with industry sources that Obama has agreed not to cut the defense budget at least until the first eighteen months of his term as the national security situation becomes better understood."

In other words: Don't worry about it. President Obama is not about to hand the next secretary of defense a box of brownie mix and order him to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.

Smarter, Not More, Military Spending

Sooner rather than later, the new administration will need to think seriously about how to spend smarter--and significantly less--on the military. Our nose-diving economy simply will no longer support ever-climbing defense budgets.

The good news is that the Obama administration won't have to figure it all out alone. The contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus's new Unified Security Budget have done a lot of the heavy lifting to demonstrate that some of the choices that need to be made really aren't so tough. The report makes the case for reductions in military spending on outdated or unproven weapons systems totaling $61 billion. The argument is simple and straightforward: these expensive systems don't keep us safe. Some were designed for a geopolitical moment that is long gone--like the F-22, meant to counter a Soviet plane that was never built. Others, like the ballistic missile defense program, are clearly meant only to perpetuate insecurity and provoke proliferation.

To cut the military budget more deeply, however, means more than canceling useless, high-tech weapons systems. It means taking on something fundamental and far-reaching: America's place in the world. It means coming to grips with how we garrison the planet, use our military to project influence and power anywhere in the world, with our attitudes toward international treaties and agreements, with our vast passels of real estate in foreign lands and, of course, with our economic and political relationships with clients and competitors.

As a candidate, Barack Obama stirred our imagination through his calls for a "new era of international cooperation." The United States cannot, however, cooperate with other nations from atop our shining Green Zone on the hill; we cannot cooperate as the world's sole superpower, policeman, cowboy, hyperpower, or whatever the imperial nom du jour turns out to be. Bottom line: we cannot genuinely and effectively cooperate while spending more on what we like to call "security" than the next forty-five nations combined.

A new era in Pentagon spending would have to begin with a recognition that enduring security is not attained by threat or fiat, nor is it bought with staggeringly many billions of dollars. It is built with other nations. Weapons come second.

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