The mirage of military cuts

January 17, 2011

The Pentagon's claims that it is making of "hard choices" and "painful cuts" are designed to perpetuate the fiction of "shared sacrifice," explains Zach Zill.

IT'S BEING hailed as a huge "cut," but the truth is that U.S. military spending will increase slightly next year.

At a somber January 6 press conference, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a proposed 2012 Pentagon budget of $553 billion, touting $78 billion in "savings" generated at the behest of the White House.

That base spending figure, which excludes the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, represents an increase of $4 billion from the 2011 budget of $549 billion. Total defense and national security spending is still projected to account for more than a quarter of the roughly $3.8 trillion federal budget.

The slight budget increase for the Pentagon is being inaccurately described as a "spending cut" by Congress, the Obama administration and the mainstream media. What's actually being cut is the rate at which military spending increases year over year. The projected Pentagon budget for 2012 was $566 billion. The new figure of $553 billion means that total military spending still will rise from 2011, just not as quickly as was planned.

An M1 Abrams tank, worth more than $6 million each, deployed in the occupation of Iraq
An M1 Abrams tank, worth more than $6 million each, deployed in the occupation of Iraq (Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon)

There is an intense effort underway to portray this lower spending increase as a "painful cut," originating with Gates and the Obama administration, and unquestioningly repeated in media outlets across the country. The Washington Post, reporting on the first time in years that the Pentagon didn't get everything it asked for handed to it on a silver platter, crowed: "The military [will] see annual budget increases that barely exceed inflation in coming years."

The Wall Street Journal, reporting breathlessly on this "salvo in the budget war," lumped the $78 billion in "savings" together with $100 billion in already-announced "efficiency savings" from the military. Alongside a January 7 story headlined "Pentagon faces the knife," the Journal published a graphic that makes it seem as if the military budget was being cut by $178 billion.

Yet the $100 billion in "efficiency savings"--such as $500 million from reducing Air Force fuel consumption--is being completely reinvested in the military, meaning that money will simply be spent elsewhere by the Pentagon. Of the remaining $78 billion, not one penny of it is coming from an actual spending decrease--or what's commonly referred to as "cuts." All of it is coming from lowering the projected budget increases over the next five years--or about $16 billion a year.

The lowered rate of spending for the Pentagon does mean cutbacks in several military programs. Examples include proposed troop cuts to the Army and Marines, and the elimination of unnecessary weapons and vehicle programs. Significantly, the troop cuts are not scheduled to start until 2015, yet the immediate cutbacks will freeze salaries for civilian workers in the Department of Defense and force veterans to pay more for their health care.

News of the lowered military spending increases generated outrage among politicians who have become accustomed to celebrating huge increases in Pentagon spending year after year. Republicans, so vehemently against any kind of spending increase that doesn't involve tax handouts to billionaires or buying gold-plated Abrams tanks, predictably lashed out in opposition.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), who is the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee, was quoted in the Washington Post complaining bitterly that he "will not stand idly by and watch the White House gut defense when Americans are deployed in harm's way."

Among other politicians and some in the media, the news created an atmosphere of self-congratulatory back-patting, praise that the Obama administration is "serious about controlling the deficit" and more rhetoric about "shared sacrifice." As the Washington Post editorialized: "In trying to cut Pentagon waste, Mr. Gates has taken on one of the most necessary jobs in Washington--but also one of the hardest."

LOWER SPENDING for the Pentagon--such as the possibility that spending will be frozen in 2015 and 2016--could be celebrated by antiwar activists, were it not for the fact that these "cuts" are insignificant compared to the overall size of the military budget.

The truth is that the Pentagon budget remains at obscene levels and accounts for more than 40 percent of global military spending, dwarfing the combined size of its nearest competitors: China, Russia, France and England.

Defense spending in the U.S. includes hundreds of billions of dollars that fall outside the scope of the Defense Department, such as nuclear weapons production and research under the Department of Energy. There is also the Department of Veterans Affairs with a roughly $125 billion budget, as well as the State Department's financing of foreign arms sales, counter-terrorism spending by the FBI, and intelligence-gathering spending by NASA. And, of course, there is the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which totals roughly $200 billion.

The $78 billion in savings over five years from the military, though quite large in comparison to the budgets of essential social services, appears tiny when compared to the total size of military spending. Over this same five-year period, that figure will amount to almost $4 trillion.

Every day, politicians in Washington choose to prioritize fighting unpopular wars and developing new weapons programs over fighting poverty, homelessness and hunger. The budget cuts that are wreaking havoc across the country are aimed at social programs that benefit working-class people--while the Pentagon budget continues to have what Gates himself referred to as "modest growth."

Even with the expected cuts in troop levels coming into effect in 2015 and 2016, the military will still be at least 50,000 troops bigger than it was in 2006 when Gates took office under George W. Bush.

Comparing the military "cuts" to the real cuts that other federal programs are facing reveals how willfully inaccurate is the rhetoric of "shared sacrifice" coming from the administration. The pay freeze for all federal employees during the next two years is a real cut, as are the proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and the billions cut from state education spending since the economic crisis hit several years ago.

Of course, the proposed military "cutbacks" have absolutely nothing to do with the ongoing and deeply unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the day before the $78 billion savings were announced, Gates announced that an additional 1,400 Marines are being sent to Afghanistan as soon as this month in order to shore up "progress" allegedly made in fighting the Taliban in Kandahar.

The spending for this troop increase does not factor into the base defense budget, showing how malleable the figures are--and how overall military spending could continue to rise dramatically next year if the war efforts are deemed to need more money.

Real cuts should be made to the military budget--first and foremost by ending the wars abroad that have sucked more than $1 trillion out of the U.S. economy since 2001. By contrast, the current discussion about Pentagon "cuts" actually masks the reality of a grossly bloated budget for war while essential services for working people are cut to the bone.

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