If Donald Trump is to be believed, everything he does is bigger and better than anything Barack Obama ever did. More often than not these claims are a gross exaggeration. But when it comes to Pentagon spending, Trump’s boasts have more than a grain of truth.
In March, aided by hawks in Congress, Trump signed off on a budget deal that will provide $700 billion to the Pentagon and related agencies in 2018, and an additional $716 billion next year. Those are among the highest levels of Pentagon spending since World War II, topped only by the Obama administration’s total for 2010, when the United States still had tens of thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As my colleague Ben Freeman and I have noted, the $80 billion increase from 2017 to 2019 alone is twice the budget of the State Department, and is more than the entire military budget of any nation in the world but Russia. The numbers are so high that Secretary of Defense James Mattis told President Trump he was surprised that Congress gave his department so much money – a rare admission from the head of the organization that almost always asks for more, more, and more.
Where is all this money going? First and foremost, to fight and prepare to fight wars. Donald Trump inherited seven wars from Barack Obama – Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. And that’s not even counting smaller deployments like the 800 U.S. troops in Niger and the periodic deployment of U.S. special forces to the Philippines.
These wars are expensive. According to a 2017 analysis by the Costs of War project at Brown University, the United States has spent $5.6 trillion on its post-9/11 wars, including the traditional fees for weapons, military bases, combat pay, and aid to allies, along with the extraordinary costs of taking care of the millions of veterans of these conflicts for the rest of their lives. While the pace of spending has slowed somewhat now that the United States no longer has hundreds of thousands of ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the costs are immense nonetheless. Donald Trump has doubled down on Obama’s wars, sending more troops, dropping more bombs, launching more drone strikes, and killing more civilians than his predecessor. And that’s even before Trump starts any new wars of his own, a distinct possibility now that he has appointed uber-hawk John Bolton as his national security advisor and Iran hawk Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State.
In addition to the wars themselves, another massive expense is maintaining the global presence needed to be ready to go to war anywhere on the planet on short notice. That’s why the United States maintains roughly two million troops – active duty and reserve forces – with hundreds of thousands of them deployed overseas in wars, at military bases, or on aircraft carriers and other combat ships. There is no precise estimate, but researchers have determined that the United States has 700 to 1,000 military bases worldwide. And according to the Pentagon, U.S. special forces visited over 140 countries last year. No other country in history has ever had this kind of world-spanning military presence.
Trump has also pledged to take nuclear weapons spending to new heights – no small feat given that the Pentagon already has a plan to spend over $1.2 trillion on a new generation of nuclear weapons over the next three decades. But Trump wants to go them one better by building two new types of nuclear weapons – a smaller, allegedly more “usable” nuclear warhead and a sea-launched cruise missile that can be based on submarines. Add to this a new nuclear bomber, new ballistic missile submarines, a new land-based missile, and new warheads for all of them, and you have a recipe for a new nuclear arms race of a kind we haven’t seen since the Cold War. And if Vladimir Putin is to be believed, he is more than willing to oblige by building a whole new round of Russian nuclear weapons.
The question now is what is to be done about this immense, unnecessary, and dangerous military buildup. There are signs of opposition, both in Congress and in civil society, that give some grounds for hope. Just last month 44 senators voted for a bill sponsored by senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Chris Murphy (D-CT) that would have ended U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen. And although their initiative went down to defeat, it represented an unprecedented effort by Congress to reassert its authority as the only body of the U.S. government with the constitutional authority to declare war. This fight will continue, not just over Yemen but over America’s other far flung wars. Even many Trump supporters have grown tired of the United States policy of perpetual war. The possibility of a new right/left coalition against endless intervention is real.
Finally, during this week that marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a new movement is arising inspired by the Poor People’s Campaign that King was organizing at the end of his life, and that his widow Coretta Scott King carried on in his absence. Like its predecessor, the new Poor People’s Campaign is grounded in opposition to war, poverty, and racism. It is led by Rev. William Barber, a charismatic minister who helped spark the “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina, a network that helped turn back some of the more regressive policies being proposed in that state. This new movement is in urgent need of support if the United States is ever to turn its energies away from war and preparations for war towards more constructive, humane pursuits.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center or International Policy.