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The killing of Osama Bin Laden did not put cuts in national security spending on the table, but the debt-ceiling debate finally did. And mild as those projected cuts might have been, last week newly minted Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was already digging in his heels and decrying the modest potential cost-cutting plans as a “doomsday mechanism” for the military. Pentagon allies on Capitol Hill were similarly raising the alarm as they moved forward with this year’s even larger military budget.
None of this should surprise you. As with all addictions, once you’re hooked on massive military spending, it’s hard to think realistically or ask the obvious questions. So, at a moment when discussion about cutting military spending is actually on the rise for the first time in years, let me offer some little known basics about the spending spree this country has been on since September 11, 2001, and raise just a few simple questions about what all that money has actually bought Americans.
Consider this my contribution to a future twelve-step program for national security sobriety.
Let’s start with the three basic post-9/11 numbers that Washington’s addicts need to know:
1. $5.9 trillion: That’s the sum of taxpayer dollars that’s gone into the Pentagon’s annual “base budget,” from 2000 to today. Note that the base budget includes nuclear weapons activities, even though they are overseen by the Department of Energy, but—and this is crucial—not the cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, even without those war costs, the Pentagon budget managed to grow from $302.9 billion in 2000, to $545.1 billion in 2011. That’s a dollar increase of $242.2 billion or an 80 percent jump ($163.6 billion and 44 percent if you adjust for inflation). It’s enough to make your head swim, and we’re barely started.
2. $1.36 trillion: That’s the total cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars by this September 30, the end of the current fiscal year, including all moneys spent for those wars by the Pentagon, the State Department, the US Agency for International Development and other federal agencies. Of this, $869 billion will have been for Iraq, $487.6 billion for Afghanistan.
Add up our first two key national security spending numbers and you’re already at $7.2 trillion since the September 11 attacks. And even that staggering figure doesn’t catch the full extent of Washington spending in these years. So onward to our third number:
3. $636 billion: Most people usually ignore this part of the national security budget and we seldom see any figures for it, but it’s the amount, adjusted for inflation, that the US government has spent so far on “homeland security.” This isn’t an easy figure to arrive at because homeland-security funding flows through literally dozens of federal agencies and not just the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A mere $16 billion was requested for homeland security in 2001. For 2012, the figure is $71.6 billion, only $37 billion of which will go through DHS. A substantial part, $18.1 billion, will be funneled through—don’t be surprised—the Department of Defense, while other agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services ($4.6 billion) and the Department of Justice ($4.1 billion) pick up the slack.
Add those three figures together and you’re at the edge of $8 trillion in national security spending for the last decade-plus and perhaps wondering where the nearest group for compulsive-spending addiction meets.