Why you should care
Because there’s a $740 billion elephant in the room.
On Jan. 3, as a bleary-eyed and holiday-hungover world awoke to the news that a U.S. drone strike had just killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Capital Alpha Partners analyst Byron Callan wrote a note to investors: “We expect the immediate knee-jerk reaction to be improved sentiment for defense as a safe haven.” U.S. defense stocks rose in step with Callan’s prediction and continued to rise as Iran launched a counterattack on two U.S. military bases in the region. In the days that followed, arguments about a lack of “military readiness” began rolling in. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise — it’s the same pattern we’ve been ignoring for years.
In the coming days, the Trump administration is expected to unveil a $740 billion defense budget, as agreed to in Congress’ 2019 budget deal. Some reporters and analysts will point out that this budget is “essentially flat” — that it offers the Pentagon just about what it received last year. Others will argue that the threats from Iran, North Korea, Russia and China necessitate further increases.
What they won’t point out is that defense spending is nearly as high today as it was at the peak of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and trending upward. That Congress’ budget deal increased the cap on defense spending in 2020 by $90 billion, or that it raised the 2021 budget cap by $81 billion. They definitely won’t let slip that Congress has penned five of these deals, upping defense and nondefense spending each time, despite passing the Budget Control Act in 2011 that specifically called for funding cuts in those areas. To many analysts, this history is irrelevant to the need for military supremacy.
When all you have is a hammer, well, we all know the end.
Except that these continual funding increases have come, paradoxically, at a time of diminishing threats. While the U.S. maintains a large deployment presence, troops are no longer actively fighting. ISIS is weakened and President Donald Trump has stated he intends to further reduce military presence abroad.
Iran, North Korea, Russia and China all present great diplomatic challenges, but while the U.S. State Department is growing, it remains small and, according to diplomats, has been “hollowed out.” The U.S. military, in contrast, is far from unprepared. But a well-prepared military cannot replace a functioning State Department — much like a hammer cannot replace a screwdriver. And when all you have is a hammer, well, we all know the end.
As military spending continues to grow, analysts seem to be moving the goal posts. What was once a seemingly unrealistic call for a 350-ship Navy, for example, has grown to a 400-ship goal. Calls for more defense easily conflate with calls for more safety, giving those who would see the Pentagon move toward less waste and more responsibility a hard-to-win argument. So why stop when you’re ahead? You can never have too many aircraft carriers.
The truth is that the American military enjoys greater resources than any other military on earth and receives more money than it knows what to do with. The first-ever audit of the Department of Defense revealed it failed to spend almost $28 billion from 2013 to 2018, all the while asking for more funding. That same military spending has ballooned to nearly 60 percent of our discretionary budget. Critics say that any reduction in defense spending reduces the security of all Americans, but rarely does the public debate what security might be gained by trading off some of those funds to support other issues voters are concerned about.
As the national debt fades from concern in the midst of a comfortable economy, economists have predicted a new recession on the horizon. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the national debt will approach the size of the entire U.S. economy by the end of the 2020s, adding more than $1 trillion per year to an already staggering $23 trillion, with no end in sight.
Meanwhile, health care, wages, student debt and climate change dominate the minds of voters as the Democratic presidential primary begins. The 2020 candidates have a lot of plans to address those issues, only a few of which include addressing the $740 billion elephant in the room.
If voters want change, they’ll have to give that elephant a name.
Laicie Heeley is founder and CEO of the publishing platform Inkstick Media and a partner with the Truman National Security Project.
Jefferson Brehm is an editor at Inkstick, Inkstick Media’s foreign policy magazine.