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Parade Proposal Distracts Attention from Military Budget

Parade Proposal Distracts Attention from Military Budget

Published: February 15, 2018

This column by Arnie Alpert, co-director of the NH Program appeared in the Concord Monitor on February 15, 2018. 

Weapons of Mass Distraction

Concerned about militarism? Watch the budget, not the parade

President Trump’s proposal for a massive military parade has aroused bountiful criticism, including from 89% of the 55,000 Military Times readers who responded to an online survey.  But if we’re concerned about a slide into military rule, I’d suggest looking away from the parade and paying more attention to the budget just approved by Congress.  

“There is widespread agreement in both parties that we have cut the military too much,” observed Speaker of the House Paul Ryan just prior to the vote adding some 165 billion dollars to the Pentagon budget over two years.  Of the bi-partisan consensus, the Speaker was correct.  The Democratic Party’s talking points seemed to be that they, too, wanted a higher military budget although they would insist on a boost to non-military spending, as well.  Even the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which to its credit has put forward an annual alternative budget that shifts funds from military programs to domestic priorities, issued a statement about the parade but said nothing about the budget its members had just voted on. 

As to cuts in the military budget, Ryan’s analysis needs scrutiny.  While the military budget has indeed dropped from its peak at the most intense times of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, inflation-adjusted defense spending levels are now higher than they were during the U.S. war in Vietnam and most of the Cold War.  The FY 17 level of spending, $634 billion, takes up more than 50% of the discretionary spending approved by Congress.   And that doesn’t even count the money going to veterans’ affairs, homeland security, the secret budgets that fund the CIA and National Security Agency, or the portion of the Energy Department’s budget devoted to nuclear weapons.  

The deal raises the level of military spending by $80 billion in 2018 and $85 billion in 2019.  As Politico reports, over two years, “the military will receive at least $1.4 trillion in total through September 2019 to help buy more fighter planes, ships and other equipment, boost the size of the ranks, and beef up training — a level of funding that seemed a long shot just months ago.” 

The non-military part of the budget gets boosted by a lesser amount: $63 billion the first year and $68 billion the second, bringing its share to $605 billion.  If you do the math, that means military programs will continue to capture 54% of the funds in the “discretionary budget,” that is, the budget Congress controls with annual appropriations.  It’s that figure, more than the number of generals in the cabinet and the size of Trump’s parade, that I find alarming.

The details of the budget still need to be worked out, but there’s little doubt it will include down payments toward a new generation of nuclear weapons.  Not only is the Trump administration continuing the Obama administration’s plan to replace the entire array of nuclear warheads and the planes, missiles, and submarines designed to deliver them, the recently released Nuclear Posture Review calls, as well, for new mini-nukes that could be deployed and presumably used on the battlefield.  The official price-tag for the package is now $1.2 trillion, but some analysts, including former Defense Secretary William Perry and General James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, think $1.7 trillion is a more realistic estimate.   

Perry and Cartwright believe we’d be safer by spending less.  “If we scale back plans to replace the nuclear arsenal, we will actually improve our security,” they wrote recently in the Washington Post.  They advocate cancelling plans for new land-based and cruise missiles, for starters.

I’d go further, and suggest the militarized approach to security needs to be re-thought.  Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way a little over fifty years ago: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” 

Our actual security is better protected by reducing nuclear threats through multi-lateral reductions consistent with the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, global attention to climate change, creation of civilian jobs that pay living wages, ending racist and patriarchal violence, and prioritizing housing and health care.  That would be worthy of a parade!