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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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This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

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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On the 64th anniversary of atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki the threat of a nuclear war remains potent. US nuclear policy hasn't changed enough since the Bush years.

World War II defense spending helped pull us out of a depression, but don't count on that happening this time.

Even saddled with a two-front, budget-busting war and a collapsing economy, President Barack Obama may be able to accomplish a lot. With a friendly Congress and a relieved world, he could make short work of some of the most egregious overreaches of the Bush White House--from Guantánamo to those presidential signing statements. For all the rolling up of sleeves and "everything is going to change" exuberance, however, taking on the Pentagon, with its mega-budget and its mega-power, may be the hardest task he faces.

The Mega-Pentagon

Under President George W. Bush, military spending increased by about 60 percent, and that's not including spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eight years ago, as Bush prepared to enter the Oval Office, military spending totaled just over $300 billion. When Obama sets foot in that same office, military spending will total roughly $541 billion, including the Pentagon's basic budget and nuclear warhead work in the Department of Energy.

And remember, that's before the "Global War on Terror" enters the picture. The Pentagon now estimates that military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost at least $170 billion in 2009, pushing total military spending for Obama's first year to about $711 billion (a number that is mind-bogglingly large and at the same time a relatively conservative estimate that does not, for example, include intelligence funding, veterans' care or other security costs).

With such numbers, it's no surprise that the United States is, by a multiple of nearly six, the biggest military spender in the world. (China's military budget, the closest competitor, comes in at a "mere" $120 billion.) Still, it can be startling to confront the simple fact that the United States alone accounts for nearly half of all global military spending--to be as exact as possible in such a murky area, 48 percent according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. That's more than what the next forty-five nations together spend on their militaries on an annual basis.

Again, keep in mind that war spending for 2009 comes on top of the estimated $864 billion that lawmakers have, since 2001, appropriated for the Iraq War and occupation, ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and other activities associated with the GWOT. In fact, according to an October 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service, total war spending, quite apart from the regular military budget, is already at $922 billion and quickly closing in on the trillion-dollar mark.

Common Sense Cuts?

Years late, and with budgets everywhere bleeding red, some in Congress and elsewhere are finally raising questions about whether this level of spending makes any sense. Unfortunately, the questions are not coming from the inner circle of the president-elect.

Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) drew the ire and consternation of hard-line Republicans and military hawks when, in October, he suggested that Congress should consider cutting defense spending by a quarter. That would mean shaving $177 billion, leaving $534 billion for the US defense and war budget and maintaining a significant distance--$413 billion, to be exact--between the United States and our next "peer competitor." Frank told a Massachusetts newspaper editorial board that, in the context of a struggling economy, the Pentagon will have to start choosing among its many weapons programs. "We don't need all these fancy new weapons," he told the staff of the New Bedford Standard Times. Obama did not back him up on that.

Even the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, John Murtha (D-PA), a Congressman who never saw a weapons program he didn't want to buy, warned of tough choices on the horizon. While he did not put a number on it, in a recent interview he did say: "The next president is going to be forced to decrease defense spending in order to respond to neglected domestic priorities. Because of this, the Defense Department is going to have to make tough budget decisions involving trade-offs between personnel, procurement and future weapons spending."

And now, President-elect Obama is hearing a similar message from the Defense Business Board, established in 2001 by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to give advice to the Pentagon. A few weeks ago, in briefing papers prepared for the president-elect's transition team, the board, hardly an outfit unfriendly to the Pentagon, argued that some of the Defense Department's big weapons projects needed to be scrapped as the United States entered a "period of fiscal constraint in a tough economy." While not listing the programs they considered knife-worthy, the board did assert that "business as usual is no longer an option."

Desperate Defense

Meanwhile, defense executives and industry analysts are predicting the worst. Boeing CEO Jim McNerney wrote in a " note" to employees, "No one really yet knows when or to what extent defense spending could be affected, but it's unrealistic to think there won't be some measure of impact." Michael Farage, Sikorsky's director of Air Force programs, was even more colorful: "With the economy in the proverbial pooper, defense budgets can only go down."

Kevin G. Kroger, president of a company making oil filters for Army trucks, offered a typical reaction: "There's a lot of uncertainty out there. We're not sure where the budgets are going and what's going to get funded. It leaves us nervous."

It's no surprise that, despite eight years of glut financing via the "Global War on Terror," weapons manufacturers, like the automotive Big Three, are now looking for their own bailout. For them, however, it should probably be thought of as a bail-up, an assurance of yet more good times. Even though in recent years their companies have enjoyed strong stock prices, have seen major increases in Pentagon contracts and are still looking at boom-time foreign weapons sales, expect them to push hard for a bottom-line guarantee via their Holy Grail--a military budget pegged to the gross domestic product.

"We advocate 4 percent of the GDP as a floor for defense spending. No question that has to be front and center for any new president's agenda," says Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group representing companies like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

Listening to defense industry figures talk, you could get the impression that the Pentagon's larder was empty and that the pinching of pennies and tightening of belts was well under way. While the cuts suggested by the Defense Business Board report got a lot of attention, the Pentagon is already quietly laying the groundwork to lock the future Obama administration into what is possibly only a slightly scaled-down version of the over-the-top military spending of the Bush years.

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