"How the Bipartisan War Party Fostered Fiscal Ruin"
by David Stockman
antiwar.com (May 18, 2023)
When big spending Barrack Obama left the White House the national security budget properly measured totaled a staggering $822 billion. That included $600 billion for defense, $46 billion for security assistance and international operations and $177 billion for veterans compensation and services, which reflects the deferred cost of prior wars.
So much for the "peace candidate" of 2008 and the antiwar democratic party of the Vietnam era and its aftermath. To the contrary, that $822 billion national security budget reflected the cost of global hegemony and the Forever Wars to which it gave rise – notwithstanding that the only real threat to homeland security in the postwar period, the former Soviet Union, had been consigned to the dustbin of history 25 years earlier.
Donald Trump came bounding into the Oval Office talking what sounded like a different game – America First. But as his last Attorney General, Bill Barr, recently noted, if you believe in his policies don’t expect him to execute them. He can’t organize or lead his way out of a wet paper bag, and the budgetary fiasco in the national security space provides striking confirmation of Barr’s observation.
To be sure, the Donald did manage to see through the uniparty’s demonization of Putin and the feckless neocon claim that he intends to recreate the former Soviet Empire. After all, in the theater of Washington politics Vlad Putin was simply the Donald’s doppelganger when it came to demonization. So Trump got that part of the equation.
But the Donald actually had no idea what he meant by "America First" except that the line elicited boisterous cheers from the patriotic throngs at his campaign rallies. The fact is, he was historically ignorant beyond measure, lazy as they come when it involves studying your brief and a total sucker for military pomp and circumstance and the medal-bedecked uniforms of the generals.
So while Trump talked about bringing the Empire home, he actually fueled its budget like never before. The vastly bloated, broadly measured national security budget left behind by Obama took on $215 billion more girth on the Donald’s watch. His outgoing national security budget actually broke the trillion dollar barrier, weighing in at $1.035 trillion or 26% more than what Obama and the Congressional uniparty had spent in FY 2017.
It might be supposed, of course, that with control of the veto pen and strong positions in both the House and Senate during these four years that the near quarter-trillion dollars of extra largesse for the national security state would have been offset by some hefty curtailments on the domestic side. The party in power being the fiscally conservative GOP and all.
But not a fat chance. The nondefense budget of $3.38 trillion left by Obama (FY 2017) weighed in at $6.07 trillion when the Donald finally shuffled out of the Oval Office in FY 2021, stolen election or not.
That $2.69 trillion nondefense spending increase amounted to a 79% gain and totaled $675 billion per year. Big spender Obama, by contrast, had increased the non-defense budget by just $112 billion per year and Bill Clinton’s per annum increase figure was but $85 billion.
Nor can you blame the Donald domestic spending bonanza entirely on entitlements and interest payments, even though curtailment of these accounts is exactly the job of the GOP in our two-party democracy. As it happened, however, the Donald also presided over a veritable eruption of spending for appropriated nondefense programs.
That’s right. We are talking about the very corner of the budget where the presidential veto pen is potentially mightier than the beltway’s assembled army of PACs and lobbies or the overflowing pork barrels of hometown goodies. But in round terms, nondefense discretionary spending rose from $600 billion per year to $900 billion during the Donald’s four-years. That’s a 50% gain, yet there was nary a veto to be hurtled at the appropriations bills and 11th hour Omnibus spending extravaganzas.
But here’s the thing. Donald Trump has never made any bones about his complete disregard for government spending and borrowing. Still, he did not accomplish these monster spending increases by defying the will of the GOP congressional delegations. These hideous spending and borrowing eruptions represented, instead, the overwhelming consensus of the bipartisan uniparty.
The majority of both parties devoutly desire to feed the Warfare State monster ever greater rations, even as they give entitlement spending a perennial hall pass and jump at every possible excuse, such as the trillions of Covid Lockdown relief spending and the green energy tax credit scams, to open the fiscal spigot wider.
Alas, that gets us to the dirty secret of the nation’s now $31 trillion public debt. To wit, the once and former conservative anti-spending party has been taken over by neocon warmongers and a permanent class of Washington Republican legislators and staff who live for the power and pelf that manning-up the Empire bestows upon them.
Serving on the broad array of national security committees, grazing at the foreign affairs think tanks and NGOs, junketing far and wide across the planet as latter-day proconsuls, visiting the dozens of occupied countries and inspecting America’s 800 military bases – all are far more thrilling than returning to Green Bay to run a car dealership.
So they feed the Empire and the Empire nourishes their sojourn on the great stage of world affairs. And now, 125 years after America stumbled into Empire during the Spanish-American War, the GOP especially has lost all memory of the noninterventionist tradition on which the Republic was founded and thrived for well more than a century. [emphasis added]
Indeed, the famous words of John Quincy Adams have apparently been deleted from the GOP’s policy vocabulary. After all, the essence of its current policy is defy Adam’s admonition and to justify unnecessary military might by continuously searching the planet for new monsters and demons to oppose. [emphasis added]
Whenever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.
She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.
The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….[America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.
Needless to say, even in relatively recent times the GOP was not always in the thrall of Empire. In the great 1952 primary election race between the Fortress American candidacy of Senator Robert Taft and the supposed internationalism of General Dwight Eisenhower the interventionist slot went fully unoccupied.
While Ike never fully embraced Senator Taft’s view that the great Atlantic and Pacific moats where America’s greatest defense asset and that military power should be strictly devoted to defending the homeland territory and airspace, once in office he did his best to eschew the constant interventionist entreaties of the the Dulles bothers at the CIA and State. And he came within a hair of a breakthrough deal with Khrushchev to end to the nuclear arms race before their final summit was sabotaged in the spring of 1960 by the CIA via the Gary Powers U-2 flight over Russia.
Even then, one of America’s greatest wartime generals and architect of the Normandy victory knew that war was a terrible thing that need be avoided at all hazards. He once became even lyrical about the ultimate costs of the instruments of war:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.
Eisenhower was no windbag on these matters, either. He inherited a FY 1953 defense budget of $565 billion (2012 $) from Truman, which was reduced to just above $400 billion in his outgoing plan for FY 1961. That amounted to a 30% reduction in constant dollar defense spending – a push-back against the ceaseless demands of the military-industrial complex the likes of which has not happened since.
Indeed, Eisenhower’s outgoing budget of $400 billion stands as a great policy benchmark in the perennial defense debate about how much is enough. It came at the apex of the cold war when the Soviet Union was at its industrial prime and had 2,000 nuclear warheads pointing at the West. With its Warsaw pact alliance it also had what eventually became 3.7 million men under arms, 7,800 military aircraft, 59,000 tanks, 71,000 artillery pieces and much more – all arrayed against the West in eastern Europe and Russia.
Still, the greatest general to ever occupy the Oval Office firmly concluded that $400 billion was enough to keep America and its allies secure against this formidable military threat.
Accordingly, his famous warning about the military-industrial complex in his 1961 farewell address has proven to be especially prescient. Today the Soviet menace and military armada is gone and China’s red capitalism ponzi is so utterly dependent upon $3.6 trillion per year of export markets in the West that its $200 billion defense budget is more a vanity project of its rulers than an overt threat to America’s homeland security.
Yet the incoming defense budget for FY 2024 of $707 billion in the same constant dollars (FY 2012 $) is 77% larger than what Ike judged to be adequate against the mighty Soviet Union. He therefore knew whereof he spoke:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes… Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
The chart below tells the same story in graphic form, albeit it measures the defense budget with a slightly different series. Still, by FY 2020 Trump and the congressional uniparty had enacted a budget that represented a 66% gain in real terms compared to the Eisenhower’s benchmark budget of 1961.
What is especially relevant about this chart, however, is the three marked interim surges along the way. They roughly correspond to the tenures of GOP presidents Reagan, Bush the Younger and Donald Trump.
And there is absolutely no doubt as to why this pattern emerged. From the 1980s forward the neocons took control of the GOP lock, stock and barrel on matters of national security. The sought and found countless purported monsters abroad to justify their massive waste on armaments and in so doing pushed defense spending into the realm of sheer madness.
Constant Dollar Defense Spending, 1961 to 2020
The successive surges above all tell successive parts of the story of the neocon capture of the GOP.
We start with the Reagan surge. As it happened, during the Carter tenure constant dollar defense spending leveled out, rising from $355 billion in 1976 to $385 billion in Jimmy Carter’s last full budget for FY 1980.
But by then the incipient neocons had gotten control of the foreign policy and defense machinery in the incoming Reagan Administration and had established the scary predicate that the Soviet Union was on the verge of First Strike capacity on the nuclear front. In fact, that was just a more fanciful and dangerous version of candidate John Kennedy’s infamous "missile gap" myth of 1960, but nevertheless became the foundation for the massive Reagan defense increases.
At the end of the day, the Reagan war-hawks did not get the entire gargantuan increases they sought, in part owing to the quiet backdoor sabotage work of your editors and his allies in the administration. Still, when the dust had settled in FY 1988, real defense spending stood at $565 billion – up by 47% from the perfectly adequate level of the Carter Administration.
Moreover, it wasn’t just the unprecedented size of the number which mattered. For one thing, the relentless campaign led by Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger to extract these massive sums from a still reluctant Congress basically neutered the Reagan effort to drastically shrink the domestic budgets and agencies and to rein in entitlement spending, including sweeping reform of Social Security and Medicare.
As it happened, the GOP rank-and-file on Capitol Hill never had the stomach for a sweeping shrinkage of the Welfare State in the first place, but the exploding budgets for the Warfare State gave them all the excuse they needed: No one, and understandably so, wanted to reallocate food stamp and farm price support spending to the purchase of tanks and cruise missiles.
For all practically purposes, therefore, the incipient crusade to shrink the Welfare State was over and done by May 1981. It only took a few more years of Reagan domestic budgets being pronounced DOA before that became clear to one and all in the Imperial City.
The other reason why the $565 billion outgoing Reagan defense budget was so salient lies in what it funded. To wit, the drumbeat for the massive increase in the DOD "topline" was predicated on countering the alleged Soviet First Strike capacity, but as it happened there was no such strategic nuclear threat to counter.
Aside from the new land-based MX strategic nuclear missile program, therefore, nearly all of the huge increase in the DOD topline got allocated to the procurement of a massive armada of upgraded conventional military capacity. This included the 600-ship Navy, thousands of new main battle tanks, thousands more of conventional attack, fighter and strike aircraft, big increases in battlefield support capacity via airlift, sealift and electronic warfare capabilities, numerous variations of land, air and sea-launched cruise missiles and ammunition and artillery in prodigious quantities, among others.
As it happened, none of this was needed to counter the Soviet Union because the latter was no more after 1991. But when the Soviet Union slithered off the stage of history Reagan’s vastly expanded conventional armada got repurposed to wars of invasion, occupancy and regime change throughout the middle east and Africa. In a relative heartbeat the neocons thought they had died and gone to interventionist heaven.
That is to say, the Forever Wars of the last three decades were made possible by the Gipper’s unknowing and erroneous claim to be fighting and ultimately defeating the Soviet Empire. Had the Bush’s and their neocon comrades been required to raise a new conventional armada to invade Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and the rest of these woebegone nations, up to and including the proxy war against Russia run with US weapons and Ukrainian conscripts, they never would have happened.
Needless to say, however, once the Forever Wars were launched and the production lines for all these categories of conventional weaponry were running hot in Congressional districts all across the land, it was all over except the shouting.
The rank and file GOP legislator and voter alike has always been a sucker for the "strong defense" canard. But now the neocon and military-industrial complex appeal to pork and phony patriotism ruled the Republican roost.
Not surprisingly, the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991 did not lead to the wholesale demobilization and defense budget contraction that was warranted by the drastically more pacific national security equation. The constant dollar budget of $472 billion in FY 1991 did shrink to $432 billion by FY 2001, representing a -8% contraction, but that was a pittance compared to the 50% cut to $200 billion that was warranted by the lack of any significant industrial enemy anywhere on the planet.
But the Clinton Democrats liked the pork from Reagan’s conventional armada, filled their national security policy posts by unreconstructed cold warriors like Robert Gates and Madeline Albright and were deathly afraid of a GOP/neocon attack for being soft on defense. And from that toxic brew there emerged the utter folly of expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep and eventually the proxy war against Putin that is now bleeding the Treasury dry.
But not before Bush the Younger and his pack of neocon jackals drastically escalated the so-called war on terror and pushed the defense budget skyward for a second time. Under the outgoing Bush budget for FY 2009, the constant dollar defense budget grew to $700 billion, representing a gain of 63% from the outgoing Clinton budget. As the man said, the Forever Wars weren’t cheap!
We have no idea what possessed the wanna-be America Firster, Donald Trump, to embrace the third surge of post-1961 defense spending. But by 2017 the Congressional GOP was crawling with neocons, war-hawks, interventionists and defense budget porkers from end-to-end. Consequently, the FY 2021 defense budget reached $662 billion in real terms. And that was just getting started with the Trump Derangement Syndrome infected Dems now fully on board for the war against the Donald’s evil twin, Vladimir Putin.
With the whole-of-government national security budget currently totaling $1.2 trillion there is literally no stopping the fiscal calamity now unfolding – notwithstanding the present ballyhooed showdown over the debt ceiling. The latter will be settled by another fake outyear spending cut just like in 2011 and various points in between.
Again, there is one overwhelming reason why. The fiscally conservative party is owned lock, stock and barrel by the bipartisan War Party. Until that linkage is broken there is no hope at all of slowing down the disaster now coming down the pike.
Then again, perhaps there is an outside chance that Robert Kennedy Jr. will breakup the War Party alliance inside the Democrat Party like his father did in 1968. He clearly understands the folly of Washington’s global hegemony, and perhaps will light the spark that breaks the grip of the bipartisan War Party.
At the least, the the passage below indicates that the voters may finally hear some truths about the folly of scouring the planet for monsters to destroy:
George W. Bush has that same problem. George W. Bush says the worst mistake he made as president was listening to CIA Director George Tenet tell him it was a slam dunk that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And so, the neocons and CIA had to go into Iraq and throw out and do regime change. And we got not now we spent $8 trillion. And what do we get for that 8 trillion?
Nothing. Worse than nothing. Iraq is now much worse off than it was when we went in there. We killed more Iraqis than Saddam Hussein ever did. We may have killed a million Iraqis and nobody knows the number. It is. It is an incoherent country today where Shia death squads or fighting with Sunni death squads in the street. The government is corrupt, the police are corrupt. We created ISIS. We drove 2 million up into Europe, a deep, destabilized democracy for a generation in Europe, they caused Brexit.
This is the cost of the Iraq war, $8 trillion there, 16 trillion for the lockdowns, 24 trillion. Nothing to show except a devastated middle class in the United States of America. [emphasis added]