Americans are worried about the impending recession and the Wall Street crisis, as well as the exhilarating and unpredictable presidential contest. But another threatening force is bearing down on the nation: our out-of-control military machine. The ever-voracious Pentagon is using this fragile moment as cover for seizing an even greater share of the nation’s dwindling resources–trillions more in federal indebtedness to fight a phantom “war on terror.” In constant dollars, next year’s proposed military budget will be the largest since World War II–around $700 billion.

It reveals not only bureaucratic greed but clever politics. What makes the money grab scary is the silence. Only recently has Barack Obama begun to link the money drained by the disastrous Iraq War to the need for universal healthcare and other domestic proposals. But neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton has been willing to criticize this year’s bloated military budget and declare, “Not on my watch. Not if I become President.” The military planners think they have Democrats in a box; any candidate who raises questions now can be accused of aiding terrorists. But the obscenely expensive weapons systems (designed to combat a Soviet military long gone) have nothing to do with terrorism. If the generals get away with this, the next presidency will be wretchedly compromised before it starts.

The United States, the world’s sole superpower, already spends more on its military than most of the rest of the world combined. And those who assume military spending will subside when we get out of Iraq–if we get out–haven’t been paying attention. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, have been beating the tom-toms for greater spending after withdrawal. Various “experts,” including those at the centrist Brookings Institution, are on board for sustaining the pace of Pentagon spending. Obama and Clinton have both endorsed an increase in the size of the active-duty military by 90,000 troops, while John McCain, their presumed rival this fall, wants to increase it by 150,000 (as he gives the word “quagmire” new meaning with his call to stay in Iraq for as long as 100 years).

The real reasons driving the military budget have nothing to do with terrorism, says Gordon Adams, a budget expert at American University. “The absence of budget discipline has allowed unit costs for major new hardware programs to soar,” he explains. The unit cost of satellite design for missile defense, for example, has risen by more than 300 percent. The price tag on the already obsolete F-22 stealth fighter has inflated by nearly 190 percent. The estimated cost of the Army’s Future Combat System increased by 54 percent.

In other words, the shocking waste displayed by military contractors in Iraq merely replicates what has long been standard practice in Washington. This is not a secret. The Government Accountability Office and sharp-eyed critics in Congress like Henry Waxman have been exposing the reckless, even criminal, practices of military contractors for years. A courageous presidential candidate would start by making two patriotic accusations: the armed forces have undermined themselves by this scandalous misuse of scarce public money, and the swollen military budget is all about feeding the hogs in the military-industrial complex.

Citizens must fight the militarism that’s choking our democracy. Given the power and money of the military lobby, we’re not likely to get any encouragement from either party or any presidential candidates, at least not at first. But we can force the issue into the dialogue and remember who listened and who didn’t. Call it politics for the long run, the politics of hope with a sharper edge.