The Trump $700 Billion Pentagon Budget – Sustainable, Or A Risk To Our Empire?

by Richard Cameron

Donald Trump, a few days ago,

signed a $696 billion dollar defense package, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  During the signing ceremony in the Roosevelt Room, Trump commented, “Today with the signing of this defense bill, we accelerate the process of fully restoring America’s military might.”

Trump acknowledged the reality that Congress still must appropriate the funds. “Now Congress must finish the job by eliminating the defense sequester and passing a clean appropriations bill. I think it’s going to happen. We need our military; it’s got to be perfecto.”


Anyway, the ‘defense sequester’ Trump refers to, is one of many sequesters based on the Budget Control Act of 2011, which was a compromise adopted in order to avert a government shutdown. The act enables the White House and Congress to lift the debt ceiling by $1.2 Trillion, but subsequently requires Congress to make spending reductions to control deficits.  Except it doesn’t – really.

The insatiable appetite of the Department of Defense

The Pentagon always attempts to sound the alarm that cuts must not impact defense spending. Obama Administration Def Sec Ash Carter, for example stated:

“In a complex, unsafe world with increasing global demands on American leadership, it’s our people, our soldiers, and their unmatched ability to seize and dominate physical and human terrain, shape the strategic environment and prevent conflict.”

Trump’s NDAA package includes provisions for recruitment of 7,500 active-duty soldiers to the Army, 4,000 active-duty sailors to the Navy, 1,000 active-duty Marines and 4,100 active-duty airmen to the Air Force plus additions to reserves for the Navy, Air Force and the Army, and increases in the ranks of National Guard units.

And Trump touted the plans included to procure new arms systems. “Brand new beautiful equipment is on its way, the best you’ve ever had by far.”

GWOT and the ballooning of the debt

The $696 billion budget for the Pentagon, is an increase of more than the $54 billion increase proposed by the Trump administration earlier in Spring of this year. It includes $64.6 Billion for the ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’ – the euphemism adopted for what used to be titled the “Global War On Terror” or GWOT. Evidently, ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’ sounds more nebulous and less transparent as to what it represents.

photo of U.S. coalition strikes against Islamic State positions in Mosul, Iraq

In the past 13 years, since the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, (according to official DOD estimates) over $1.6 Trillion has been spent on the GWOT, although when other components of spending such as the “Black Budget” ($60 Billion / annually) are added, the number is considerably higher.

And in fact, a host of studies, typified by that of the cost of war project of the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, estimate the actual costs of America’s endless wars post 9/11 at $5.6 Trillion, or $23,000 per taxpayer. That 23,000 in war taxes, is not the taxpayer’s entire tax burden resulting from cumulative debt. That figure is even more staggering. Wars have pretty long tails.

American already spends absurd amounts on the armed forces

What is also not acknowledged by the Trump administration, Congressional leaders and mass media reporting, is that the United States currently spends nearly more than what the next top 14 nations spend on defense. What is wrong with this picture? Quite a bit, as we shall discover.

chart demonstrating that the Pentagon budget is equal to that of the next 14 largest national militaries combined.

Global intervention results in global chaos

If, in fact, the Pentagon, the GOP Congress and the White House claim that the United States military’s maintenance and preparation have been eroded – the blame for this condition can be laid precisely at the feet of Imperial presidents and Congresses that have mostly written them blank checks. Blank checks that have made the global security environment even more destabilized by our serial involvement in civil and sectarian conflicts, most of which involve forces we have provided arms and weapon systems to. 

One example is Saudi Arabia, who, with our participation, created in Yemen, what has been described as the largest humanitarian crisis in modern history, in which 80 percent of the population lacks access to food, water, healthcare and a million people have contracted cholera

In the following chart, you can see the role we play in making conflicts larger, more interminable and more deadly, not to mention the toll on innocent civilians caught up in them.

chart illustrating the fact that the United States is well out in front of other industrial nations in supplying weapons globally, including to various warring factions

Will America’s Global Police Operation bankrupt the country?

Whenever defense appropriations are discussed in media engagements, one essential question is virtually never asked – which is this.  Is this level of spending on maintaining what is estimated at between 800 and 900 American military bases spanning the globe and the interminable wars and the resulting military opportunism, sustainable over time?

In his 2005 Foreign Affairs article, “Sinking Globalization”, Harvard professor Niall Ferguson, echoed the alarm sounded decades earlier by Yale historian Paul Kennedy and Kennedy’s assessment of “Imperial Overstretch” in his book, (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict) .

The United States now carries a debt balance of over $20 billion and all of the so-called ‘overseas contingencies” are fought with a national credit card.  Just the interest payments to international creditors are running for this fiscal year alone, at $475 billion. That’s a bit more than two-thirds of the defense budget!  America spends 7% more than our annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Ultra optimistic and likely un-achievable projections of economic growth in America resulting from the effects of the tax reform plan are not going to halt the debt landslide. 

Instead of re-assessing the meaning and threat of empire overreach, Donald Trump, who campaigned on a fictitious “America First” platform, is repudiating his pledges and pushing for more defense bloat, waste and unaccountability. Adding to this is the moral hazard of maintaining excess forward deployment and power projection that begs to be justified by more interventions throughout the world.

Indeed, the 5th Century BC writer Sun Tzu, or whomever may be attributed the writing of “The Art Of War”, observes that, “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

That is a historical reality born by the examples of many empires that have preceded our own. It is good reason to form a modified calculus of what our actual national security goals and legitimate national interests should be and how they can be realized while living within our means – not spending ourselves into ultimate ruin.

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