A budget to make America go to war again

March 2, 2018

The Republicans and Democrats in Congress seem completely split on party lines--until the time comes to vote for more weapons and war, writes Khury Petersen-Smith.

AS STUDENTS across the country call attention to mass shootings in schools and the abundance of military-grade weapons available for sale, the spotlight is on lawmakers to see how they respond.

Congress' unwillingness to have a genuine conversation about the crisis of gun violence in U.S. society is explained in part by the fact that they are beholden to the powerful, right-wing National Rifle Association (NRA).

But it's also no coincidence that lawmakers of both parties are very busy at the moment investing in violence--in the form of the U.S. military.

In December, Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) after it passed by overwhelming margins in both houses of Congress. The NDAA sets out a record-breaking $700 billion military budget.

There will no doubt be money for AR-15s, the semi-automatic rifle that has become notorious in the domestic gun debate as a killing machine. But the new Pentagon budget will also fund much larger and more destructive weapons--ships, aircraft, missiles--and other tools for invading, intimidating and controlling countries and people the world over.

Donald Trump speaks on board the USS Gerald R. Ford in Norfolk, Virginia
Donald Trump speaks on board the USS Gerald R. Ford in Norfolk, Virginia

TRADITIONALLY, THE NDAA lays out the contours of military budget priorities, setting out in broad strokes what spending will look like. Congress is currently in the midst of the next phase of the process--passing legislation to appropriate funding, which involves a negotiation that takes into account the overall federal budget.

The Senate made headlines in September when it approved a version of the NDAA that included billions of dollars more in funding than the Trump administration actually requested. This despite the fact that Trump and other administration officials had spent the better part of the year threatening to "annihilate" North Korea.

In fact, the bipartisan support for authorizing another enormous Pentagon budget--without any substantial debate or dissent--is the clearest indication that, whatever problems Congressional Democrats have with Trump's agenda, they support his vision of a more belligerent U.S. militarism.

If anyone hopes that Congress will be a "check and balance" to reign in Trump's recklessness, they need to look at lawmakers' approach to the Pentagon budget--and the agenda and strategy that it funds--which shows the very opposite. At every step of the budget process, members of Congress tried to outdo Trump's vision for a more muscular military force.

The bill that the Senate Armed Services Committee recommended to the Senate last June, for example, designates $10.1 billion the purchase of 90 F-35 warplanes--(the long-protested Joint Strike Fighter--20 more than Trump requested. It authorized $26.2 billion for building 14 new warships, which is $6.3 billion and five vessels more than the president asked for.

And there was $1.2 billion for 12 new V-22 Osprey aircraft--notorious for their tendency to crash--which is $522 million and six more aircraft than the administration's request.

The list goes on and on.

The Senate Armed Services Committee also included a prohibition on funds to close the U.S. torture and detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and a severe restriction on transferring detainees out of the camp.

The committee's proposal was approved unanimously by the bipartisan committee, which includes liberal Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

THE CONTRAST between Congress' efficiency when it comes to feeding the Pentagon and its dysfunction on so many other issues is striking.

For example, despite the overwhelming popularity of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program--and the precarious position of hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients as its March 5 end date approaches--Congress seems incapable of saving the program.

More generally, there has been support for "comprehensive immigration reform" over many years, but lawmakers failed to find even partial solutions--regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats were in charge. The same can be said for any number of pressing social issues.

But when it comes to funding the Pentagon, members of Congress are able to put aside all differences.

In fact, despite the ups and downs of U.S. politics over the past several decades and the various battles over spending, Congress has routinely passed the NDAA for the past 55 years.

The latest outcome of budget negotiations was a Senate agreement on a deal at the beginning of February that funds military spending over the next two years. The deal not only aims to pre-empt haggling over the budget so that military operations can be unaffected by the Congress' erratic behavior, it actually raises the budget for the military $700 billion in 2018 to $716 billion in 2019.

Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, emerged from these budget talks bursting with pride. "After months of fiscal brinkmanship, this budget deal is the first real sprout of bipartisanship," he said.

MUCH OF the conversation among lawmakers regarding the Pentagon budget involves rhetorical sympathy for U.S. military personnel.

"We are gambling with the lives of the best among us and we're now seeing the cost--the tragic but foreseeable costs of an overworked, strained force with aging equipment and not enough of it," Sen. John McCain declared in September when the Senate passed the NDAA. McCain was referring to multiple naval vessel crashes in the Pacific in 2017--accidents that resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors.

But if McCain is suggesting that the massive increase in Pentagon spending is an example of the government taking care of U.S. soldiers, the reality is far different.

The naval crashes last year were the result of an overextended force working under draconian conditions in which sleep deprivation has become the norm. While demanding work schedules with little sleep are understood to be typical of Navy life, it's no coincidence that the accidents took place in the U.S. Seventh Fleet, whose area of responsibility is the Pacific--where the U.S. Navy's posture has been most aggressive.

"Over the last three or four years, there's been a realization that the Navy is being stretched pretty thin," Bryan Clark, former special assistant to the chief of naval operations, told the Christian Science Monitor in August. "It can all be taken back to this major root cause, which is supply not being able to keep up with demand."

When the Senate Armed Services Committee deliberated on the NDAA, it approved the expansion of the number of active-duty personnel by 9,500 beyond the president's request and a modest 2.4 percent pay raise for members of the armed forces.

But the heightened posture behind the high level of stress among soldiers and sailors shows no signs of abating.

Also, the cuts in social programs that coincide with the increase in military spending will be disastrous for military personnel in the same way that they are for other working-class families.

The White House announced a proposal to cut $17 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, in mid-February, for example. While the Pentagon obscures the number of personnel on food stamps, the cuts will undoubtedly affect thousands of people in uniform and their families.

Moreover, lawmakers have drafted a budget that actually adds more costs to the lives of military families. Part of the deal worked out in the Senate, for example, increases pharmacy co-pays for military personnel and their dependents to generate revenue for the Department of Defense.

UPON SIGNING the NDAA in December, Donald Trump said: "We need our military, it's gotta be perfecto."

But the actual effect of the military weapons systems and operations that the budget will fund is wildly out of step with the president's careless and lighthearted commentary.

The past few months have seen a more aggressive U.S. military posture, particularly regarding the Korean Peninsula. As representatives from the North and South Korean governments sat down to negotiate in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the U.S. Air Force was deploying B-2 Stealth bombers and 200 airmen to the U.S. territory of Guam in a show of force.

Trump's wild rhetoric about North Korea and his insults to Premier Kim Jong-un are, therefore, more than just words. In fact, as Congress works out the funding of the military machine, Trump administration officials are openly considering a first strike against North Korea. The situation could easily slip out of control and develop into a conflagration that threatens millions of lives in the region.

As immediate and scary as the showdown over Korea is, the U.S. government's designs in the Pacific are actually aimed at a larger goal: Stopping the rise of an increasingly assertive China. The Pentagon's recently released National Defense Strategy spells it out, "The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition."

This strategic outlook--that rising powers like China and Russia have the future potential to challenge U.S. supremacy on the world stage--is the understanding that anchors the increased military spending.

While Trump's "America First" nationalism, including his desire for a military parade, seem idiosyncratic, the belief that the U.S. needs to rally behind a more aggressive posture is shared among U.S. political and military elites.

Upon signing the NDAA in December, Trump repeated the myth that the Obama administration starved the Pentagon for funds. But far from "weakening" the military, Obama expanded the "war on terror" to more countries and escalated the drone war to new heights.

While the Obama administration aimed to reduce the number of ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, this was part of a larger strategy involving a greater focus on--and more personnel and weapons in--Asia and the Pacific.

If Trump is able to threaten North Korea today, it is with weapons, troops and expanded base facilities provided by Obama yesterday.

Trump's strategy is a more nakedly belligerent one than Obama's. But far from the about-face that Trump is claiming, his approach builds on what Obama started. And Congress' enthusiasm for funding U.S. aggression shows the level of unity in both parties for Trump's posture.

With Congress and the White House speaking with one voice in support of a Pentagon gearing up for a future of war, anyone who places hopes in the Democratic Party to act as an opposition to Trump's jingoism and an increasingly militarized world needs to think again.

A brighter, more inspiring and plainly more realistic hope lies in protest and political action--along the lines of the mobilizations in the streets of Seoul, Manila and elsewhere when Trump toured Asia and the Pacific to promote militarization and trade deals.

Similarly, there is hope that the emerging protests by young people in the U.S. calling attention to the nightmarish violence of this society can include a challenge to the U.S. violence abroad in the new and urgent conversation.

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