Throwing Money at the Pentagon Is About Politics, Not Security

Today the Senate reached a budget deal that would increase spending for the Pentagon and nuclear weapons to a mind-blowing $700 billion this year, while locking in an even higher figure for 2019. This would put the Pentagon budget at one of its highest levels since World War II, and many, many times as high as the military budget of any potential adversary. Do we really need these huge sums of money to defend the country?

The short answer is no. The astronomical figures being considered for the Pentagon have more to do with Washington politics than American security. Republican and Democratic hawks want to burnish their reputations by showing that they are “tough on defense”; too many fiscal conservatives have bent to the will of a president of their own party; and Democratic liberals are willing to accept huge increases for the Department of Defense if they are accompanied by increases in domestic spending, even if those increases lag behind the amount the Pentagon will receive.

Washington’s love affair with overspending on the Pentagon is also rooted in the machinations of the Pentagon and the arms industry — the combination that President Eisenhower aptly described as the military-industrial complex. While the arms lobby asserts that we need tens of billions of dollars in additional spending to take care of the troops, the reality is that almost half of the Pentagon’s annual budget goes to corporations like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics to buy weapons we don’t need at prices we can’t afford. These companies spend tens of millions of dollars on campaign contributions and lobbying, and they are getting their money’s worth and then some.

The weapons industry is a formidable political force in Washington, employing 700 to 1,000 lobbyists in any given year — one and one-half to two lobbyists per member of Congress. The majority of these lobbyists used to work in powerful positions in the Pentagon or the Congress, and they have an open door to their former colleagues in government to make the case for their companies, in a process that has more to do with currying to special interests than it does to promoting the national interest.

When push comes to shove, defense contractors can always fall back on their weapon of last resort — the jobs associated with weapons production. These jobs are carefully distributed across the country in order to achieve maximum influence with key members of Congress. Never mind that almost any other form of spending would create more jobs — from infrastructure to alternative energy to investments in education. The path of least resistance for creating jobs at a time when Congress has not been able to muster a consensus to invest in pressing national needs is to throw more money at the Pentagon. It’s a case of short-term thinking that undermines both our defense and our long-term economic prospects as a nation.

The ultimate question, of course, is whether this flood of new spending will make us safer. But absent changes in our global strategy, and in how the Pentagon is managed, simply pumping up the Pentagon’s already bloated budget is no guarantee that we will be better defended. In fact, it could just reinforce bad habits that have resulted in a policy of endless war and rampant waste, leaving us less secure in the process.

Do we really need to be fighting wars in seven different countries, with more to come if President Trump makes good on some of his more incendiary rhetoric? The Costs of War Project at Brown University has estimated that the post-9/11 wars have cost us $5.6 trillion, more than enough to rein in the deficit and rebuild the country, with funds to spare. Neither wars in Iraq, nor Afghanistan, nor U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s policy of mass slaughter in Yemen have made the world a safer place, for Americans or the people of the regions where these conflicts are being fought. Yet President Trump has doubled down on this strategy with more troops, more bombings, and more civilian casualties.

Instead of lurching from one emergency to another, Congress needs to do its job by carefully scrutinizing our current defense strategy and forcing a thorough rethinking of our “all military, all-the-time” foreign policy. The cost of doing otherwise will be runaway spending and a less secure America. The time for short-term thinking and expedient political deals needs to come to and end, especially when it comes to protecting the United States and promoting a more peaceful world.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.