By lavishing billions of dollars on hundreds of weapon systems, the defense budget has itself become a weapon of mass destruction, decimating our social programs and infrastructure. Republicans have no problem with this arrangement. Democrats, though, are afraid to challenge these military costs for fear of being labeled “soft on defense.”
They need not worry. Our latest research shows that not only can Democrats oppose excessive defense spending, but they will benefit politically by doing so. The progressive position on America’s wars, military spending, and nuclear weapons outpolls the conservative position as much as three to one. We, not the conservatives, have the winning message.
Right now, the United States spends an estimated $1.2 trillion per year on defense. This includes the Pentagon budget, supplemental appropriations for hot wars, nuclear weapons hidden in the Energy Department budget, homeland security, 17 intelligence agencies, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and interest on the debt created by our modern habit of financing wars on a credit card.
Even if we just count direct US military spending, the figures are enormous. At $610 billion in 2017, US military spending accounted for more than a third of the world total. This dwarfs the $294 billion spent by our potential adversaries—Russia spent $66 billion; China, $228 billion. In addition, US allies spent an estimated $600 billion last year on their militaries. So America and its allies outspent our possible opponents by more than four to one. Yet the House Armed Services Committee just authorized raising the Pentagon budget to $716 billion. Pentagon spending now consumes nearly 70 percent of the discretionary federal budget.
The results? We don’t have money for college education for our young people; we don’t have money to rebuild declining schools; we say we can’t afford health care for everyone; we can hardly conceive of spending to house the homeless. Now conservatives are preparing a major assault on our social programs to—wait for it—balance the budget.
This would be bad enough if these expenditures were effective, but they’re not. Endless wars in the Middle East have only given birth to more virulent and dangerous forms of terrorism. A 2008 Rand Corporation study concluded that terrorism rarely ends by military means: “Military force was effective in only 7 percent of the cases examined; in most instances, military force is too blunt an instrument to be successful against terrorist groups.”
This hasn’t prevented many Democrats in Congress from continuing to agree with Republicans to squander trillions of dollars on unnecessary and often counterproductive defense spending just to seem “tough” on defense. Washington think tanks routinely hold conferences with breathless titles such as “Strategic Competition: Maintaining the Edge” as if we are on the verge of losing our military dominance.