Selling a Military Budget That Will “Make the Rubble Bounce”

“A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” 
—attributed to Everett M. Dirksen, Republican who represented Illinois in the U.S. Senate from 1950 to 1969

A WEEK BEFORE HE SLIPPED ON ICE and broke his arm and a month before the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was sitting before the House Armed Services Committee defending a $515.4 billion budget, which in truth is far larger than $515.4 billion. The 2009 fiscal year budget includes a 7.5 percent increase over the previous year’s spending on the military and consumes about four percent of the gross domestic product.

When Washington Democrat Rick Larsen asked Gates how “four percent of gross domestic product” became the defense budget baseline, Gates explained that he begins the process determined to ensure “absolute real growth.” Then, like his predecessors, he somehow arrives at four percent.

After the hearing, I had to check my notes against the transcript. The three words—”absolute real growth”—lost in four hours of testimony seemed stunningly newsworthy. The United States currently spends more on defense than the combined defense expenditures of all the other countries in the world. “Absolute real growth” in such circumstances recalls Churchill’s cold war warning that additional missiles could only serve “to make the rubble bounce.”

Yet the secretary of defense was laying out an expansive budget while the economy was contracting, the Treasury running huge deficits, and the president refusing to raise taxes to pay for two wars that will cost the next two generations billions in principle and interest—much of it paid out to strategic adversaries such as the Chinese, who are underwriting the war in Iraq by serving as America’s creditor.

MORE THAN FOUR—Four percent of GDP has become a prix fixe, accepted by most members of Congress as the cost of doing business. A few of them are eager to pay more. Arizona Republican Trent Franks tried to get Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Michael Mullen to admit that four percent isn’t enough. “[C]an I ask you, do you honestly believe that four percent GDP as a floor for defense spending in this country is enough?” Franks asked the admiral. Admiral Mullen reassured the Congressman that four percent is adequate.

In truth we’re already beyond four percent. Secretary Gates—by all accounts a decent, competent, and straightforward public servant cleaning up behind Donald Rumsfeld—is low-balling the truth by a few hundred billion. First there is the war supplemental, by definition additional money requested to supplement a budget after it becomes evident that funding is not adequate. Gates is requesting another $70 billion up front, explicitly to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the supplemental itself is understated. Based on previous Bush war supplementals, $70 billion will keep American boots on the ground in Iraq only through the first few months of the next administration. Gates knows that, but for political reasons can’t admit it.

John Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat, who is free from the constraints of a Republican White House, is better with the numbers. “We talk about how much we’re spending for defense,” Spratt said, “and you have to go to a lot of different places to put together the bottom line, the total. DOD, as I read your documents, is asking for $515.4 billion. . . . But DOE [the Department of Energy] has a piece of the defense action, too, mainly for the nuclear program, and that’s $16 billion. There are other executive agencies like the Coast Guard who added $5.2 billion. That brings total discretionary spending in your request to $537 billion. There’s some mandatory spending, about $4 billion, that takes you to $541. And then we’ve got this plug [the supplemental]. We don’t know what the number’s going to be. We do know what it’s been in the past. In the recent past, it was about $190 billion for supplemental expenditures to support the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“If you put $190 billion onto the $541 billion total we’ve got, the total comes to $730 billion. If you back it down a bit and assume that we’ll have lower costs, less costs this year than last year, then let’s say it’s $150 billion instead of $190. You’re still at $700 billion.”

Jack Murtha, the Democratic chair of the House military appropriations subcommittee, predicts a $200 billion supplemental, so the three-quarters of a trillion figure is probably closer to the truth. But even $700 billion, as Everett Dirksen, the former Illinois senator whose gravely baritone was balm for a nation scarred by JFK’s death, might have said, is “real money.” (Consider that the Bush war expenditures on Iraq alone would fully fund Hillary Clinton’s proposed health care plan for more than five years.)

Spratt reminded Gates that the defense budget in 2000 was $300 billion. “So we’re up more than 100 percent in less than a decade,” he said. “And that has to be a matter of concern, because we do have, in the end, finite resources. Am I missing something? Don’t these numbers strike you as a pretty substantial sum of money for the defense effort?”

The numbers are substantial.

Yet even at three-quarters of a trillion dollars, some defense programs are getting short-changed. The Bush administration has moved our money and our military into Iraq, ignoring larger strategic threats—which Iraq never was.

CREDIT CARD SPENDING—Steve Kosiak at the non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments does a quick analysis of each military budget presented to Congress. Kosiak sees the expanding ground forces required to fight the war the Bush administration has started in Iraq as a threat to investment in weapons systems “such as long-range strike aircraft (manned and unmanned).” Other spending needs created by a huge and overextended Army, such soaring health costs, have also become a drag on procurement of weapons systems that will be needed to fight wars in the future.

Scott Lilly at the Center for American Progress reports that “big ticket” ships and aircraft projects that got 50 percent of the defense procurement budget in 2001 now get only five percent of procurement spending. The money has been shifted to trucks, mine protection equipment and High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles that are being used up in Iraq. After seven years of increased spending, the American military has lost ground.

Kosiak predicts that hard fiscal reality—paying the tab for the baby boomer retirees, and the growing deficit—will result in flatter defense spending. Perhaps the end of absolute real growth.

Rep. Murtha argues that you can’t “fight a trillion-dollar war on a credit card.” But the war tax he and Appropriations chair David Obey (D-WI) proposed was shot down by a House Democratic leadership fearful of going into an election cycle after raising taxes.

The war continues on the credit card.

Speaking for an hour at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Murtha advanced some of the arguments that Kosiak and other defense analysts make. Then he got around to the nation that actually won the war in Iraq.

The Chinese, Murtha said, have become our strategic competitors for oil. “They’re all over Africa because of Nigeria’s oil supplies. They’re all over Iran. They’re all over Venezuela, competing with us for oil.”

Seven years ago an administration with one former secretary of defense as vice president and another former secretary of defense as secretary of defense set out to retool and modernize the American military. Now they’re looking over their shoulder at the Chinese and pouring our money into a ground army that Don Rumsfeld once considered obsolete.

A SOFA’S NOT A SOFA—The status of force agreement (SOFA) between the Iraqi and U.S. governments has tied the Congress in knots, as Democrats and a few genuinely conservative Republicans try to divine what the Bush administration has agreed to provide the Iraqi government in the future. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) confronted Gates at the February 6 House Armed Services Committee hearing, demanding a guarantee that the SOFA will include no permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.

There was pathos in Tauscher’s request. “But we have the Status of Forces Agreement that’s being negotiated that we want to have some input into,” she said, “especially since it has very long-term effects.”

“I mean, we have passed in the House very strong legislation that there will be no permanent bases. The president has had a signing statement basically saying he’s going to do what he wants,” Tauscher said.

Tauscher’s plaintive appeal seemed reasonable. The contents of the SOFA were (and remain) vague, and Bush indeed attached a signing statement to the 2008 Defense Authorization Act. It claims the authority to bypass a provision prohibiting the establishment of “any military establishment or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq.”

Gates reassured Tauscher that he, the president and the secretary of state “do not want and will not seek permanent bases.” The SOFA “will not contain any commitment—any security commitment to Iraq.”

Gates described an administration committed to an open and transparent process—”in consultation with the Congress so that the Congress is aware of what’s being negotiated in the SOFA.”

He must not have gotten the memo.

If the administration had not kept the Congress in the dark about the SOFA, Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), and Representatives Ike Skelton (D-MO), Joe Courtney (D-CT), and Ellen Tauscher wouldn’t have been asking the same question about it on the same day.

Even if Gates hasn’t drunk the Kool Aid with Bush, Cheney, and Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington, he serves an administration committed to the principles of a unitary executive, a novel philosophy that concentrates power in the executive while relegating the other two branches to “second among equals” status.

Congressman Tom Lantos (D-CA) had been around long enough to understand the unitary executive. Lantos was looking for the truth behind the SOFA when he died on February 11, having asked the State Department to send a witness to the House Foreign Affairs Committee to explain the status of U.S.-Iraqi negotiations. In late January Lantos said he had made three requests and was told that no one from State would testify because the agreement was still preliminary.

Ray Delahunt (D-MA), who chairs a Foreign Affairs subcommittee, said he read in the New York Times that a fifteen-page draft proposal on the negotiations already had been prepared. Delahunt persuaded Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to agree that someone from the State Department will testify on the status of the SOFA negotiations. A small victory for the Congress and a vindication of the public’s right to know where the war in Iraq is headed. But it might be too late.

At a seminar at the Heritage Foundation, Iraq’s ambassador Samir Shakir Mahmoud Sumaida’ie was asked about Gates’s promise that the SOFA would include no security agreements with Iraq. “Well, he’s entitled to express that view,” the ambassador said. “But from our perspective, because of and as a result of an intervention, Iraq’s ability to defend itself has been diminished. . . .

“We need time to build up our air force, our navy, and our land forces. During this time we believe that the United States has a moral obligation to protect us. . . .” (A position I agree with, which puts me at odds with many whose political philosophy I share.)

“If all foreign troops disappear from Iraq over night, that would create a vacuum,” Sumaida’ie said. “We have gained the upper hand now and we have built up our advantage for moving forward at great cost. Tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died. Thousands of Americans have died. A lot of money has been spent. We must not squander that.”

The Iraqis are angling for a longterm, if not permanent, U.S. presence. And the fight over the SOFA might miss the point; the deal might have already been done. The Declaration of Principles President Bush signed with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on November 25, 2007 might put the administration where it wants to be regarding Iraq:

It is an agreement that pledges U.S. support “for the Republic of Iraq in defending its democratic system against internal and external threats; providing security assurances and commitments to the Republic of Iraq to deter foreign aggression against Iraq that violates its sovereignty and integrity of its territories, waters, or airspace; supporting the Republic of Iraq in its efforts to combat all terrorist groups, at the forefront of which is Al Qaida, Saddamists, and all other outlaw groups regardless of affiliation, and destroy their logistical networks and their sources of finance, and defeat and uproot them from Iraq.”

That reads like a commitment, even if Rice told Delahunt that nothing has or will be negotiated that will bind future administrations.

THE BUSH LEGACY—Whoever takes the oath of office in January 2009 will find that the small surplus the final Bush administration budget predicts for 2012 is an illusion. The president’s budget predicts a $410 billion deficit next year, $407 billion for 2009, and a surplus three years later. It fails to take into account the additional $130 billion needed to fund the war supplemental that will come due soon after the next president takes office. And it includes no funding for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2010 onward—difficult to imagine even if the next president begins the process of disengaging the military from the Iraq war and rescinding the security commitments the Bush administration is trying to lock in.

The budget assumes that all the Bush tax cuts—the president’s greatest legacy beyond the Iraq War—will remain in place at a cost of $900 billion over the next five years and $2.4 trillion over the next decade. It provides no permanent fix for the Alternative Minimum Tax, which Republicans and Democrats in Congress agree must be reformed to avoid an onerous tax burden on middle-class Americans never intended to be caught in the AMT bracket. (The cost of eliminating the AMT could add as much as $2 trillion to deficits over the next ten years if taxes are not raised elsewhere, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)

President John McCain would find it impossible to make the Bush tax cuts permanent while increasing military spending, as he has promised to do.

President Hillary Clinton or President Barack Obama—who are committed to eliminating the Bush tax cuts for higher income brackets—would still face difficulty funding their proposed health-care programs, at a cost of $65 to $110 billion per year.

“Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes,” then-Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay said on the eve of the invasion of Iraq five years ago. The Republican Congress followed DeLay’s direction into the fiscal disaster hidden in Bush’s current $3 trillion budget. The next president confronts the Bush deficit on “Day One.”

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