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A greeting to arms

Published: April 24, 2009
Section: Opinions


Despite right-wing claims that President Obama is “gutting the military,” the President’s proposed 2010 budget actually calls for an increase in defense spending. In 2009, total defense spending—which includes the base defense budget and the supplementary budgets that fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—will amount to $655 billion. In 2010, this number is expected to rise to $664 billion.

This is not necessarily a good thing.

The defense budget, already an enormously bloated federal document, does not need any more padding. Consider the fact that United States defense spending makes up almost half of the world’s total defense expenditure—meaning that our government spends almost as much on the military as the rest of the world combined.

Nowhere is this discrepancy more apparent than on the high seas. According to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the United States Navy’s battle fleet is larger than the combined fleets of the next 13 navies. Not that we really need to worry about competing with 13 navies at once. Out of those 13, Gates claims, 11 belong to nations that are American allies or partners.

Our overwhelming dominance looks rather impressive on paper, but continuing to fuel it is not practical in the post-Cold War era. We are no longer facing a powerful superpower like the Soviet Union; instead, our enemies are small groups of ragtag terrorists scattered across various corners of the globe. Do these terrorists pose a threat to the US and its allies? Absolutely. The attacks of Sept. 11 tell us that much. But common sense should tell us that the ships, planes, and other expensive weapon systems originally designed for a massive confrontation with the Warsaw Pact nations will do little to protect us against terrorism.

Secretary Gates seems to realize this—to a certain degree—and has advised against spending money on certain programs that are obviously unnecessary. He has, for instance, called for an end to production of F-22 Raptors: ridiculously expensive advanced fighters that have yet to actually prove themselves in combat in either of our two current theaters of war.

And yet when it came time to offer a budget proposal, even Gates couldn’t resist putting forward something reminiscent of the Cold War. His proposal has been described as “10 percent small wars-centric, 50 percent large wars-centric, and 40 percent dual-use.” Meaning that at least half the defense budget, if not more, is being wasted in preparation for imaginary “large wars” between the US and other great powers.

Some may disagree with me. In fact, I think it is safe to say that a majority of Americans disagree with me. The public seems to, at least at the moment, favor the continuation of high levels of military spending. For example, a recent Gallup poll found that 41 percent of respondents felt that defense spending levels were “about right,” while 24 percent felt that levels were “too little.” Only 31 percent thought the government was spending “too much.” Along that same vein, another Gallup poll taken at about the same time found that only 6 percent of respondents felt that our national defense was “stronger than it needs to be,” while 54 percent felt that it was “about right” and 37 percent felt that it was “not strong enough.” Perhaps we’re afraid of a massive attack by an invisible enemy and we want to be ready. Or maybe we just like to show off.

But the hard truth is that every dollar spent on expensive weapon programs that we don’t need will ultimately hurt us because it is a dollar taken away from worthier projects at home. This is particularly important to consider at the present time, with the US facing a record debt and an economic crisis. If we don’t get our priorities straight, we will find that there just isn’t enough money to invest into our education system, or into “green jobs,” or even into a reformed healthcare system. And when that happens, we will likely find our economy in even worse shape.

Some lawmakers, especially those who represent districts or states that are home to defense manufacturing, will naturally try to tell you the opposite. They will argue that defense spending is good for the economy because it creates manufacturing jobs. While at least part of that is technically correct—defense contractors do employ thousands of American workers—I would argue that propping up our economy with defense spending is unwise whether the economy is strong or not. That would mean falling deeper into what President Eisenhower once called the “military-industrial complex,” a too comfortable relationship between the government, the military, and the private sector that has only grown larger and created more wars since being first named in that famous farewell address. Basically, the more money there is to be made from the manufacture of weapons, the greater the incentive to start wars in order to use the weapons.

It won’t be easy to end a cycle that has been growing for so long, but our only hope for improving our situation is to make a switch—from a perpetual wartime economy to a true peacetime economy. There are billions of dollars worth of defense projects that can be cancelled and their money channeled into peaceful infrastructure projects, without a major job loss. If done right, we might even be able to save some money and ultimately cut overall spending.

But to do anything, to make even the slightest dent in the established defense spending protocol, would take some serious political courage. The kind of courage that allows a leader to say no to the politicians and businessmen who insist that even the slightest drop in defense spending will spell certain doom and destruction. We’re still waiting on that courage.