The Democrats Keep Capitulating on Defense Spending

On domestic policy, the party is moving left. On foreign and defense policy, the party barely exists.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Since earlier this month, when Congress passed a budget deal that massively boosts both defense and non-defense spending, liberal commentators—and even some Republican politicians—have accused the GOP of hypocrisy. Republicans, they noted, are supposed to loathe debt. They’re supposed to loathe government spending. Yet, in large numbers, they voted for much more of both.

Fair enough. But what about the Democrats? If Republicans are supposed to worry about the United States bankrupting itself with social-welfare spending, aren’t Democrats supposed to worry about the United States bankrupting itself with military spending? Not anymore. In the run-up to the deal, Nancy Pelosi’s office fired off an email to House Democrats proclaiming that, “In our negotiations, Congressional Democrats have been fighting for increases in funding for defense.” Chuck Schumer’s office announced that, “We fully support President Trump’s Defense Department’s request.” Not all congressional Democrats voted for the budget agreement: Thirty-eight percent of Democrats backed it in the House and 76 percent did in the Senate. But even those who voted no mostly did so because they were upset about its lack of protection for immigrant “dreamers”—not because they oppose a higher defense budget. Last year, in fact, when Democrats were offered a standalone vote on big increases in military spending—in the form of House and Senate defense authorization bills—large majorities in both bodies voted yes.

What makes this so remarkable is that the arguments for a large increase in defense spending are extraordinarily weak.

Those arguments can be divided into two types: The first is that America needs a much bigger military budget because the world has gotten much more dangerous. The second is that America needs a much bigger military budget to make up for the savage cuts of the Obama years.

Start with argument number one. The National Defense Strategy, which the Trump administration issued in January to buttress its call for higher defense spending, declares that, “We are facing increased global disorder … creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.” In other words, threats are increasing. But if you look back at previous Pentagon documents you realize that threats are always increasing. The Pentagon’s 2015 National Military Strategy (not to be confused with the National Defense Strategy) begins with then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey declaring that, “Today’s global security environment is the most unpredictable I have seen in 40 years of service.” In 2014, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (which the National Defense Strategy replaces, confused yet?) warned of “a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable, and in some instances more threatening to the United States.” In 2010, the United States faced “a complex and uncertain security landscape in which the pace of change continues to accelerate.” In 2006, it confronted “the increasingly dangerous security challenges of the 21st century.” The world, in other words, is always getting more complicated, more uncertain, more disorderly and more frightening—and the Pentagon always needs more money to deal with it.

But has the world actually become more dangerous in ways that this boost in defense spending will remedy? For the last decade and a half, the threat that worried the Defense Department most was jihadist terrorism. For the last few years, the jihadist terrorist group that worried it most was ISIS. Yet in his State of the Union Address, Donald Trump declared himself “proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated almost 100 percent of the territory once held by these killers.” In other words, the organization that was most frequently blamed in recent years for making the world scarier and scarier has just lost virtually its entire base of operations. Yet the world is getting scarier nonetheless.

As if to preempt this objection, this year’s National Defense Strategy declares that, “Interstate strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” But if the United States is no longer as worried about terrorism and yet the world is becoming more dangerous overall because of “strategic competition” with other great powers, then those great powers—China and Russia—must have become a lot more dangerous in a short time.

One might argue that Russia, because of its meddling in the 2016 election, actually has become a lot more dangerous. The problem with using Russian hacking to justify a bigger defense budget is that the Trump administration devotes only a tiny percentage of its funding boost to countering it. Trump plans to spend $716 billion on defense in Fiscal Year 2019 (which starts this October). Of that, $8.5 billion—a bit more than 1 percent—is allocated to the Pentagon’s budget for cyber defense. Another chunk of money—the figures are classified but Gordon Adams, who oversaw the national-security and foreign policy budgets at the Office of Management and Budget during much of the Clinton administration, estimates it at perhaps $10 billion—is going to the National Security Agency. Add that in and you’re between 2 and 3 percent of Trump’s defense budget. In fact, Trump is raising the public part of the cyber defense budget by a much smaller percentage (4.2 percent) than he’s raising the defense budget overall (more than 11 percent). The military may worry about Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Syria too, but in terms of conventional military strength, Russia is hardly a real threat to the United States. So unless Vladimir Putin is planning on bombing America’s polling booths in 2020, it’s hard to see how Russia’s election meddling justifies Trump’s huge defense increases much at all.

For its part, China is a formidable long-term “strategic competitor” to the United States. But that’s not exactly news. Hillary Clinton announced a “pivot” of America’s national-security focus to Asia way back in 2011. China’s growing military power may well justify increasing U.S. defense spending for Asia. But given that the Pentagon is now less worried about jihadist terrorism, shouldn’t that free up some more money for containing China? What exactly has China done since Trump took office that requires the Pentagon to boost its budget by a whopping 11 percent between Fiscal Years 2017 and 2019 even as it concedes that terrorism—formerly the number one threat—is now no longer the major worry? When I asked a version of this question to Gordon Adams he explained that “Threats are always better for budgets than peace.”

The second major justification for a big boost in military spending is that as a result of budget caps passed in 2011 (which Trump wrongly dubs a “sequester”), the Obama administration’s defense budgets were dangerously low. The National Defense Strategy warns that the Pentagon endured “a period of strategic atrophy” in which “Our backlog of deferred readiness, procurement, and modernization requirements has grown.” In his State of the Union address, Trump demanded that Congress “end the dangerous defense sequester.”

But the budget caps didn’t slash defense spending. It’s a myth. According to Todd Harrison, the director of Defense Budget Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, total defense spending did decline from $714 billion in FY 2010 to a low of $586 billion in FY 2015. That sounds like a big drop. But it’s almost entirely because, between 2010 and 2015, the U.S. largely pulled its troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2010, the United States had 200,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The costs of keeping them there were mostly paid through something called the Overseas Contingency Operations Fund (OCO), which is supposed to pay for temporary expenditures like wars. Between FY 2010 and 2015, OCO spending went down from $163 billion to $63 billion, which makes sense when you realize that by 2015 the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had dropped to only 10,000. Take away the OCO and look only at the Pentagon’s “base budget”—which covers everything except ongoing wars—and the gap between FY 2010 and the depth of the supposed defense spending “atrophy” in FY 2015 drops to only $28 billion.

But even that overstates the drop. Even as troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq fell, the Pentagon kept spending $63 billion for what it claimed was war fighting. How did it do that? By shifting roughly $30 billion that should have been in its base budget into the OCO because the OCO was not subject to budget caps. By doing so, the Pentagon made it appear that the base budget was $28 billion lower in FY 2015 than it had been in FY 2010. But that was an accounting gimmick. Had the $30 billion been in the base budget, where it belonged, it would have been clear that—when you subtract actual war-fighting—the Pentagon’s budget in FY 2015 was almost exactly what it had been in FY 2010, before the budget caps began.

Ironically, one of the members of Congress who denounced this budget-busting accounting trick was Mick Mulvaney, who is now Trump’s director of Office of Management and Budget. But he couldn’t stop it. The Pentagon kept that $30 billion in the OCO for the rest of the Obama administration, even as the base budget began going back up. By Obama’s last year in office, notes Harrison, overall defense spending (including the OCO) was higher in inflation-adjusted terms that at any point since World War II.

Yes, that’s right. The supposedly atrophied defense budget from which Trump is rescuing America was itself higher in constant dollars than the defense budget at the height of the Vietnam War or the Reagan buildup. Which helps explain why in 2016, in an essay in Foreign Affairs, General David Petraeus and the Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon declared that, “America’s awesome military” had “few, if any, weaknesses” and that “No radical changes or major buildups are needed.”

In fact, not only does the American military not require a “major buildup” to be “awesome,” it could probably be awesome for a lot less. In 2015, the Defense Review Board—a panel of corporate leaders and management consultants appointed by the Pentagon itself—looked at the Department’s “back office” activities: things like “accounting, human resources, logistics and property management.” The Board estimated that simply by making these non-battlefield functions more efficient, the Pentagon could save $25 billion per year, almost the entire budget of the State Department. But none of these savings occurred because, as Bob Woodward reported, “The Pentagon imposed secrecy restrictions on the data making up the study, which ensured no one could replicate the findings. A 77-page summary report that had been made public was removed from a Pentagon website.”

Adams, who oversaw the defense budget at OMB for part of the 1990s, told me he thought the $25 billion figure was low. The actual potential savings are probably higher. It’s impossible to know for sure because the Pentagon has never produced an auditable financial statement. This is despite the fact that Congress in 1990 passed a law requiring that every federal department do so by 1992. Every department has, except the Pentagon. In 2009, Congress passed another law specifically requiring that the Pentagon produce a financial statement that outside experts could examine. It still hasn’t. When the accounting firm Ernst and Young last year audited just one section of the Pentagon, the Defense Logistics Agency, it found, in the words of Politico, which broke the story, that the Agency’s “financial management is so weak that its leaders and oversight bodies have no reliable way to track the huge sums it's responsible for.”

Despite all this, many Democrats agreed to boost defense spending by more than what Bernie Sanders estimates it would cost to make every four-year public college and university in America tuition-free and by more than what Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University, estimates it would cost to end the opioid crisis.

The vote illustrates how strange a beast the contemporary Democratic Party has become. On domestic policy—immigration, criminal justice, health care—the party is moving left. On foreign and defense policy, the party barely exists. This month’s budget deal was a perfect example. Some Democrats voted for it because the agreement boosted domestic spending. Others voted against it because it didn’t take care of immigrant “dreamers.” The huge increase in military spending didn’t matter much one way or the other.

No wonder Pentagon leaders are happy. The one party that might be ideologically inclined to question their spending habits has decided it doesn’t care.