Still stuck in a permanent war economy
During his Big Picture speech, President Barack Obama gave a major milestone short shrift. Obama, a man who cares deeply about history, glided rapidly past the biggest historic shift of his presidency. During the waning minutes of his State of the Union address, he mentioned that he’s engineering an end to the longest war in our history. His administration, he noted, is now overseeing an end to what Obama called our “permanent war footing.” It’s hardly surprising that he devoted the bulk of the speech not to this historic moment but to our economic troubles. His citizens are war-weary and economically worried.
But the speech never connected these things. Ending wars means we get to shift military resources to other things we’ve been neglecting. That’s what it has meant, at least, in every war the United States has waged — possibly until now.
Somehow in the budget Obama just signed, spending on those wars we’re winding down went — up? Though we’ll have half as many troops in Afghanistan this year as we had last year, the war budget — mind-numbingly branded as “Overseas Contingency Operations” in Pentagon-speak — will get more dollars in it than it had in 2013. The cuts to the Pentagon’s “regular” (nonwar) budget from the Budget Control Act and sequestration are creating a military downsizing, of a sort. But the recent budget deal wiped away some of those cuts for the next couple of years. And as for the postwar defense downsizing that we’ve had after every one of our wars? Not so much this time.
Adjusting for inflation, we’ll be spending more on the Pentagon budget this year than at almost any time during the Cold War. Only a couple of years at the peak of the Reagan buildup took us any higher.
This is military downsizing hardly worthy of the name. Barely $5 billion will come out of a weapons budget of nearly $100 billion this year. And the list of neglected needs that could really use the savings generated by a real Pentagon downsizing is long. It includes the kinds of investments that will make our economy as a whole more productive — repaired infrastructure, a better educated, healthier workforce, and a transition to sustainably clean energy and transportation.
That’s what’s missing from this picture.
The end to our “permanent war footing” isn’t putting much of a dent in our permanent war economy. As we end the longest period of war in our history, we watch the military contracting industry’s profit margins and stock prices continue to soar. New money is providing those contractors the means to rush into production new weapon systems we don’t need. Topping the list is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken in world history.
Military experts from across the political spectrum — right (American Enterprise Institute), left (Center for American Progress), and center (Center for a New American Security) to name a very few — have questioned the F-35’s need, performance and hidden costs. All told, the Pentagon estimates that this stealth jet will cost taxpayers a total of $1.5 trillion.
The major F-35 contractors have played the trump card, though, overruling these concerns with nearly $11 million in campaign contributions since 2011 doled out to the members of Congress on the key committees who decide its fate. Obama, of course, discussed none of this in his State of the Union address. Instead, he talked about his plans for creating hubs around the country supporting manufacturing innovation — creating the jobs of the future building things we do need.
In his 2013 State of the Union address, he talked about setting up 15 of these hubs. There are only two so far, one in Ohio and another in North Carolina, working on developing new technologies for 3-D printing and energy efficiency. His more expansive plan has been slowed by, you guessed it, a lack of money. The end to what Obama calls our permanent war footing must be accompanied by the end to our permanent war economy. If he wants to realize his goals for our economic prosperity, he’ll need to remember, and to fight, to keep them connected.
Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where she runs its Green Security Project. She wrote this for McClatchy-Tribune News Service. The opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.