Last week, Bush signed the 2009 Defense Authorization Act, allowing $611 billion to be spent this fiscal year on defense. Though the number was not a surprise - the money in the bill had already been appropriated over the last few months - this bill makes it official, placing ceilings on spending, granting authority on who gets to spend what, and nailing the 2009 defense budget into place. It is the highest defense budget since World War II, and Pentagon officials estimate that it will increase by $450 billion over the next five years. Coming in the midst of global economic chaos, the defense authorization bill casts a sharp light on the US's budgetary priorities.
A report by the nonpartisan think tank Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF), released in late September, notes that an increasing number of experts, both inside and outside of government, have favored a rebalancing of defense funds: spending less on military projects and more on nonmilitary, preventative security efforts. The FPIF report, titled "A Unified Security Budget," outlines $61 billion that could be trimmed from military programs without compromising national security. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates has encouraged this mentality, stating last November, "Funding for non-military foreign affairs programs … remains disproportionately small relative to what we spend on the military."
Yet, the Bush administration's 2009 defense budget actually increased the imbalance between military and nonmilitary spending, and, as the fiscal year's budget is finalized, Congress has done little to alter the administration's plans.
If public opinion had its way, Congress would rein in the military budget, according to Kate Gould, legislative program assistant at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, citing a February 2008 Gallup poll.
"A majority of Americans who identify as both Republicans and Democrats believe that military spending should be capped at current levels or cut - and those polls were taken before the financial crisis captured global attention," Gould told Truthout. However, she noted, both presidential candidates support an increase in military spending, and Congress has consistently approved the Bush administration's bloated defense budgets, year after year.
The explanation for this disconnect may simply be that the government is used to a large military budget, and changes would require the Defense Department to undergo a major reprioritization.
"This year's enormous base budget is really just a continuation of bad habits the Pentagon has picked up," military policy analyst Travis Sharp, one of the FPIF report's authors, told Truthout.
Over the past eight years, the Pentagon has developed a pattern of requesting war spending through supplemental bills, which are not included in the general defense budget, making the defense budget look much smaller than it is, even as it grows. This is why the $611 billion authorization bill looks so huge: it includes both war and nonwar defense costs, which aren't grouped together in any other single bill.
Moreover, Sharp noted that the Pentagon regularly inserts war-related funding into its general defense budget, and tacks general defense costs, like new equipment, onto the supplemental bills that are used to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This type of messy budgeting can conceal skyrocketing military expenditures, many of which are unnecessary, according to Sharp.
"If the defense budget is indeed going to decline, the Pentagon will have to do something it hasn't done in years," Sharp said. "It will have to choose what to spend money on instead of just buying everything it wants."
Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, points out in a recent report in Armed Forces Journal that, in contrast with their price tag, our military forces are smaller than they have been since the end of World War II, and major military equipment is older than it has ever been. Wheeler attributes this strange disparity to gross misappropriation of funding, with more money now being used to buy fewer weapons - some of which will not even be used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Additionally, Sharp noted the high price tag of "high-risk missile defense programs," as well as Cold-War-era weapons systems that are not only costly, but also out of date.
"There's lots of low-hanging fruit, if ever there were a Congress or a Secretary of Defense willing to make cuts," Wheeler told Truthout.
Rethinking military spending right now is trickier than it might look, according to Craig Jennings, federal fiscal policy analyst at the government watchdog group OMB Watch. In a time of deep economic crisis, Jennings told Truthout, it doesn't make sense to cut government funding. Yet, a shifting of funds from the military to other priorities could work well.
"Defense spending is largely a white-collar jobs program and is responsible for funding untold thousands of jobs," Jennings said. "If, however, there was a one-to-one trade off in defense expenditures for other government spending aimed at lower-income families, then we could see a boost in economic growth."
Increasing funding for diplomacy would also fuel jobs, according to Sharp, who cites a recent Stimson Center report showing that the employment vacancy rate at the State Department and US consulates is nearing 15 percent.
Decreasing funds for military operations and increasing funds elsewhere could do more than stimulate the economy, though: it could pave the way for a more peaceful world, Sharp noted. One significant way to cut costs would be reducing our nuclear arsenal, according to the FPIF report, which states that cutting the arsenal down to 1,000 warheads would save the US $14.5 billion.
"This type of arrangement clearly would have to be negotiated with countries like Russia, but there is momentum growing in Washington to start working towards a world free of nuclear weapons, a proposal that enjoys support from both liberals and conservatives," Sharp said.
Funding nonmilitary prevention programs would also save billions of dollars by stopping wars before they start, according to a new report by the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The report recommends increased funding for civilian conflict management, the UN Peacebuilding Commission and development assistance to address the root causes of conflict, among other areas.
Such a rebalancing of priorities would be best initiated at the presidential level, because special protections for the Pentagon budget prevent Congress from cutting defense funds to pay for other priorities, according to Bridget Moix, a co-author of the report. So, while members can easily slash spending for diplomacy and humanitarian aid, they can't mess much with the defense budget. Instead of transferring funds from military to nonmilitary areas, asking for more money for nonmilitary priorities is the best way to start, Moix told Truthout.
"The most effective way to increase spending for diplomacy and development is a higher request for nonmilitary programs from the presidential level," Moix said.
With a new administration entering the White House during a historic economic downturn, Gould said that the peace movement has an opening to push for a wholesale shift in priorities.
"It is a tragedy that it took such a financial crisis for closer analysis of military spending to happen, and we hope that such lessons can be learned before it gets much worse," Gould said. "Few initiatives would be as cost effective as decreasing the bloated military budget and investing in human security during the next administration and the 111th Congress. It is in the interests of all of us that we pressure our decision-makers to reprioritize [their] spending before greater financial catastrophes do."