Downsize the Pentagon for a change

It’s been five years since the demise of the Soviet Union. The Cold War is finished. Not a single nuclear missile remains aimed at U.S. cities and industrial centers. Even the most hawkish commentators admit that none of America’s real or potential military adversaries pose a significant threat to our security. We spend more on our armed forces than Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Cuba put together. In fact, we spend more then all of them combined by a ratio of three to one. Our military is the most powerful and technologically sophisticated war machine on the planet. No other country’s fighting force — friend or foe — even comes close. Oh yeah, and we’ve got enough nukes in our stockpile to blow up the Earth several times over.
You’d think, given the circumstances, that we could afford to stop buying so many costly tanks, guns, warships and planes. You’d think the government would consider diverting some of our precious tax dollars from building bombs to more socially useful endeavors, like providing affordable health care for all, paying for quality schools or fighting child poverty. That would certainly be the morally right, fiscally responsible thing to do. And it’s definitely what the public — in one opinion poll after another — says it wants.
Unfortunately, the politicians who set federal spending priorities aren’t exactly known for doing the right thing, and they rarely listen to their constituents. Thus, this year Congress approved a $265.4 billion defense budget that includes an extra $11.2 billion that neither the Clinton administration nor the Joint Chiefs requested. The president — not wanting to alienate defense political action committees in an election year — happily signed the increased expenditures into law. And bizarre as it might sound, the Republican’s now almost forgotten candidate for president, Bob Dole, has actually been saying that we should force the Pentagon to take even more money it doesn’t want or need.
This sort of profligate indulgence of the military-industrial complex isn’t exactly new. For the past 50 years, politicians from both parties have consistently gone out of their way to funnel endless amounts of public money to Lockheed Martin, General Electric and other giant manufacturers of weapons. Perhaps such a freewheeling attitude toward military spending was justified back in the bad old days of the Iron Curtain and the Warsaw Pact. These days, however, it seems positively insane.
“There has been no meaningful reevaluation of military strategy and spending since the end of the Cold War,” explains Bob Lamb of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Today we’re still spending at 90 percent of Cold-War levels.”
Just think: Though we’re safer from foreign attack than at any time since World War II, we continue to fund our already bloated military at levels comparable to those reached during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Congress can’t scrape together enough money to fund Aid to Families With Dependent Children and appears incapable of balancing the budget, but it can always come up with the cash whenever the Pentagon wants to buy more $900 hammers or $6,000 toilet seats. Democrats and Republicans alike say they’re committed to eliminating government waste, yet they continue to hand over hundreds of billions of dollars every year to the largest and most inefficient bureaucracy in human history.
If our lawmakers ever decide to get serious about shrinking the armed forces to sensible proportions, they’ll find no shortage of pork to trim. The 1996 Congressional Budget Office Report on reducing the deficit identifies 49 different defense cuts that would save us billions without compromising American military supremacy in the least. For instance, canceling the Air Force’s overpriced, bug-prone F-22 fighter (which crashed during its only test flight) would save $18.2 billion over six years. Buying commercial airlifters instead of more expensive C-17 transport planes would save another $7.2 billion. Reducing the number of aircraft carriers and air wings from 12 to 10 would free up an additional $6.3 billion. Reducing the number of the Army’s rarely-used light divisions from four to two would save a whopping $16.3 billion. Billions more could be saved by closing overseas bases and cutting subsidies for weapons exports to U.S. allies. And God only knows how much could be recouped by disbanding the CIA, that notorious breeding-ground for drug-dealers and assassins.
Indeed, some analysts — like Robert Borosage of the Campaign for New Priorities — argue that the United States could get by with shelling out as little as $150 billion a year for defense. That amount would still be four times as much as any other nation spends. And it would still leave us with the capacity to single-handedly mount an operation bigger than Desert Storm.
Sadly, hardly anyone with clout on Capitol Hill supports scaling back dramatically on military spending. That’s because the leadership of both major parties — from Newt Gingrich to Bill Clinton — take millions in campaign contributions from defense contractors. And the fact that defense industries employ so many people in electorally-important states like California and Texas is no doubt also a factor. We can’t realistically expect our political leaders to stand up to the Pentagon and the defense lobby; most of them are fully owned and operated subsidiaries of the military-industrial complex.
We’ll get major reductions in military spending only when there is widespread grass-roots outcry demanding them. Until then, the generals will continue to squander tax dollars as if the Cold War never ended while our cities rot and our children go hungry.
Steve Macek’s column appears in the Daily every Tuesday.