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Why the US is paying more for the military after the Afghanistan war is over

It’s not just about China.

US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 20, during the lead up to the complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan 10 days later.
Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

President Joe Biden withdrew from Afghanistan in fiery pandemonium this summer and has continued his predecessor’s scaling down of the US presence in Iraq. Yet Congress last week approved what is by some measures the biggest defense spending bill in history, to the tune of $768 billion. It’s bigger than those passed during the Vietnam and Korean War years, and bigger than Ronald Reagan’s military buildup. The only time this bill has been larger, adjusted for inflation, was in 2011, at a moment when the US had a peak in troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

How could it be that even with those wars ending, Congress has authorized about $30 billion more than President Donald Trump’s last budget?

When the Cold War with Russia ended in the 1990s, military leaders acknowledged that spending could be halved while still maintaining security. President George H.W. Bush successfully slashed defense funding by 9 percent and then President Bill Clinton initially trimmed about 8 percent (or more, depending on the calculation). They sought to reinvest that money back home, in what was called the peace dividend. But Republican lawmakers also pushed back, and Clinton failed to really transform the military budget. Defense spending began climbing in the late ’90s, and then to much higher levels during the post-9/11 years.

In 2021, despite the US mostly leaving Iraq (2,500 troops remain) and Afghanistan, not even a slight peace dividend has materialized. “As we drew down from Afghanistan, we should have been having a real debate about whether there were opportunities to shift funding and make cuts,” said Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight.

It’s a debate that Biden could have sparked. The idea of “building back better” appears about a dozen times in the White House’s interim security strategy, and Biden himself hinted at the potential for a peace dividend during the most chaotic days of the Afghanistan withdrawal in August. He framed the war as wasteful spending: “The American people should hear this: $300 million a day for two decades ... what have we lost as a consequence in terms of opportunities?” But he didn’t go further in reenvisioning how the US approaches its security and the world.

Not enough lawmakers have taken these issues up either, despite a pandemic that has shown the limits of a national security based on weapons systems and troops alone. A few progressive members of Congress were excited about redirecting money to the Build Back Better agenda. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who famously opposed the 2003 Iraq war, and 22 of her colleagues urged Biden in May to reset priorities after “as much as $50 billion will be freed up by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.” So why did this not happen?

The short answer: The US national security establishment sees China as the most urgent threat of the moment, while the entrenched interests of the arms industry endure.

Put another way, although the US is no longer in Afghanistan, taxpayers continue to pay for the American military’s massive global presence. Absent a fundamental rethinking of how the US sees national security and the role the military plays in foreign policy, big cuts are unlikely.

“China, China, China”

Everyone in Washington is talking about “great power competition” or “strategic competition” with China — and given that (real or exaggerated) threat, no one in power is eager to cut the military budget.

“Within the national security community in DC, it’s really all China, China, China,” says defense budget expert Todd Harrison at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Congress didn’t think that Biden had committed enough to combatting China in his original defense budget request, so lawmakers added some $25 billion in all. Congress added $2 billion above Biden’s ask to the Pacific Deterrence Initiative for countering China in its own neighborhood, which brought that budget line to $7.1 billion. Fears surrounding China’s seapower has meant $4.7 billion more for shipbuilding and adding more than $3.5 billion for military base construction beyond what Biden requested.

Washington is particularly concerned about China’s new technological capabilities. Biden proposed a 5 percent boost to research and development; Congress then sprinkled in $5.7 billion more, which brings the military’s R&D pot to $117.7 billion.

Trump’s team articulated this hardline policy toward China in its 2018 national security strategy, building on Barack Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia, and now Biden is using that language and sense of urgency. “There’s been significant bipartisan buy-in to the idea that China is a major military threat. And I think that’s an exaggerated perspective, but it seems to be catching hold except for a minority of champions for reigning in the Pentagon budget,” said William Hartung of the Center for International Policy.

Across the political spectrum, politicians believe US power is contracting as China expands its global influence. Hostile rhetoric from Washington and Beijing has further inflated tensions, which have real-world implications. The US military is “arming itself for an actual war with China, particularly for a war over Taiwan,” says Harrison.

Still, skeptics of the new hawkishness around China warn that it’s unlikely that a conflict with China would take on the conventional forms of previous wars. Defense experts, like Smithberger, say that investment in education, technology, and supply-chain security will protect Americans much more from 21st century conflict than an arms race.

Some Democrats are even more skeptical, and believe the Biden administration is inflating the China threat. “This has nothing to do with any actual threats. It’s just feeding the beast. And until we have an administration or some meaningful number of legislators who would stand up to that beast, we’re just going to keep pouring money down this hole,” said a senior Democratic staffer in the Senate.

“Contractors are the biggest winners”

Almost no one wants to risk being seen as the person who cuts the defense budget: 88 senators voted in favor of the defense authorization for fiscal year 2022, and only 11 voted against. Over the past 60 years, the defense spending bill has passed each year with bipartisan support.

The military-industrial complex has been shaping Washington for almost a century. “Contractors are the biggest winners,” says Hartung of the Center for International Policy, who pointed out that about half the budget goes to contractors, who are outsourced to do everything from logistics to office support, intelligence work and private security. According to the Congressional Research Service, there are 464,500 full-time contractors working for the Defense Department.

The role of lobbying can’t be overstated. The defense industry spent $98.9 million lobbying so far in 2021, according to Open Secrets. Lockheed Martin, one of the largest five military companies in the country, has a presence in every state, a strategy that defangs critics.

There’s also the millions of dollars each year that military contractors donate to Washington think tanks. Many experts who regularly appear in the media are on “the defense industry dole,” according to the Intercept. Lawmakers who receive campaign donations from defense interests are more likely to vote to increase spending.

Even those acting in good faith could be swayed by persistent myths, like an overly strong belief in defense spending’s ability to create jobs. Yes, every dollar does create jobs somewhere. But because military investments are capital-intensive and much of the money is spent abroad, that defense spending creates fewer jobs than money going to other industries.

All of this, progressive critics say, leads to a budget process that looks like a Christmas Tree, with Congress members pinning on goodies to satisfy constituents that don’t fit into a larger, cohesive defense strategy.

“When something is set in motion it is often very hard to unseat that, and we have what I have called the military normal,” said anthropologist Catherine Lutz of Brown’s Costs of War Project.

The defense budget could be trimmed at the margins, but bigger change requires new thinking

The US is engaged in shadow conflicts across the globe, with more than 750 bases or installations in 80 countries. In the past year, special operations commandos deployed to 154 countries.

Take Afghanistan. Sure, the Pentagon will no longer be training and equipping Afghan forces at $3.8 billion a year. But US Central Command is still monitoring threats from potential terrorists, like ISIS affiliates, in the country. The US air war has moved out of Afghan bases and into bases in the broader Middle East and South Asia region.

Big cuts are possible. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) asked the Congressional Budget Office how to achieve a smaller military budget, and the nonpartisan federal agency came back with an option to gradually trim the budget over the next decade — and end up saving $1 trillion.

But most of Washington’s ideas are about snipping away at the margins or finding “efficiencies.”

On the campaign trail last year, Biden didn’t advocate for big cuts in military spending; the 2022 budget proposal he sent to Congress followed suit, trimming defense spending by 2 percent, with minor cuts to base construction and weapons purchases. The Pentagon’s number 2 leader, Kathleen Hicks, conceded in her Senate confirmation hearing, “there are ways for the Defense Department to be more efficient, to be more effective,” but such changes have not been forthcoming.

The military has proposed ideas to save money here and there as well. The Army, the Navy and the Air Force say that there are old weapons systems, unnecessary bases that could be closed, and older ships and planes could be put out of commission — in order to prioritize other costs. The Air Force, for example, has wanted to retire dozens of legacy attack planes known as the A-10, but Congress wouldn’t let that happen in this bill. “We’ve got to get rid of some of those aircraft so we can free up resources, and get on with modernization,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said recently.

Some conservatives, too, find this spending on out-of-date weapons and legacy projects to be wasteful. Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute says that Congress, if it were building a defense program from scratch, could make the budget smaller and still keep Americans safe. Fiscal conservatives also talk about reforming the way the Pentagon purchases weapons and contracts out work, which as it stands leads to fraud, waste, and abuse.

“Why does it cost so much?” Eaglen said. “I get that. Even I am frustrated.”

Biden, like Clinton, has missed the chance for a peace dividend. After some initial posturing, Clinton never fully addressed the holdovers of the 20th century’s wars, and it seems Biden is falling into the same pattern. One analyst explained in 1995: “The most glaring weakness of the Clinton administration is that it is living with the defense budget of the now-dead Cold War era.” Now, Biden is living with the defense budget of the now-dead war on terrorism.

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