Trying to Rule the World Ain’t Cheap

Amid the ongoing “fiscal cliff” negotiations, too little attention has been given to the bloated defense budget.

English: U.S. President Barack Obama meets wit...

“Maybe we could stop throwing money at the military?”     “No, let’s just keep screwing over poor people.”

President Obama has taken heat from the GOP for suggesting that increases in defense spending could be cut in order to help balance the budget.  Keep in mind that he is not advocating actually cutting the funds for defense, merely slowing the rate at which these funds increase.

But, Republicans demand that defense spending should continue to grow unabated, as they believe that the only way to truly show the world that we are a strong country that should not be messed with is by amassing a ridiculously large military and spending more on waging war than the next thirteen highest-spending nations combined. This is despite the fact that top military brass have not asked for increased funding and have raised no objections to Obama’s defense budget proposal.

Lost in this debate over how much should be spent on our national war-making machine is exactly how much is being spent and exactly what it is being spent on.

A recent article by David Vine, originally posted at TomDispatch.com has shed some light on the exorbitant cost of attempting to seed the world with American military bases. The entire piece is well worth reading, but here are some of the highlights:

  • The U.S. maintains more than 1,000 military bases worldwide, with 550 in Afghanistan alone, as well as another 505 that existed in Iraq during the war there.  These are in addition to the 4,000 or so here in the United States. While most of these bases are small, little more than a store of supplies and a few dozen troops, many are the size of small towns, complete with fast-food restaurants, transportation systems, hospitals, and other infrastructure.
  • The Pentagon’s “Overseas Cost Summary” places the expense for these bases at $22.1 billion per year. But, Vine calculates the true cost to be $168 billion and possibly even higher. The discrepancy is due to the Pentagon omitting numerous bases from their tally, as well as other costs, including naval vessels, health care for military personnel, fees paid to the nations where these bases are located, non-military intelligence spending (like the CIA-sponsored drone program), and the bases in Afghanistan and Iraq that are not included in the OCS report. Vine believes that his figure is still too low, and estimates the actual cost to be closer to $200 billion, more than nine times what the Pentagon claims.
  • In addition to the money spent by the government on these overseas bases, the money spent in those countries by the personnel stationed there is an additional hit to the U.S. budget, since that money is not being spent here in America.  Vine asserts that this amounts to billions of dollars a year being spent by American military and contractors overseas instead of here at home.
  • Money being spent on the military means that money is not being spent on other things, like education or health care.  For the cost of a single military base, 260,000 children could receive health care.  Or, if that money is kept within the military system, that same base could pay for VA care for 65,000 veterans.

So, with this rampant spending, and with the cuts to other programs that take place to enable it, the natural question is whether it is necessary.  These bases are scattered across the globe, often against the wishes of the people who live in the occupied nations.  The original intention in building many of these bases was to protect the world from the perceived threat of the Soviet Union, but the end of the Cold War has made them obsolete.  But, in the years since the fall of the U.S.S.R., the number of bases has increased.  They are protecting America from a threat that does not exist.  Eliminating even a few of them would save billions of dollars without a single negative consequence.

When Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are stuck in a stalemate over how to avoid the fiscal cliff, it makes sense to consider cuts to unnecessary defense spending.  Yet, Boehner has taken defense cuts off the table, instead suggesting cuts to essential programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and Obama has not put up much of a fight.  These are programs that help millions of Americans, and they would be sacrificed for a network of military bases that does nothing to protect the people of this country and actually builds animosity with the rest of the world.

So, to summarize, there is an impending fiscal crisis, and both sides agree that spending cuts are necessary. But, instead of cutting a bloated and unnecessary part of the budget that actually takes money out of the American economy by spending huge sums of money overseas as well as causing hostility among nations that are forced to host unwanted military bases and personnel, Obama and Boehner are considering cuts to programs that are essential and already arguably underfunded.  Billions of dollars are being wasted and misused, and negotiators refuse to consider an obvious solution.

There is some reason for optimism, however, as a bipartisan group of lawmakers, composed of 11 Republican and 11 Democrat members of the House of Representatives signed a letter urging Obama and Boehner to cut defense spending as part of their fiscal cliff negotiations.  Whether they listen to reason remains to be seen.

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