Nov. 7, 2021
AROUND MIDDAY ON August 15, the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, was told by an adviser that Taliban fighters had entered the presidential palace and were looking for him room by room. This was not true, but Ghani, aware that ousted presidents do not have long lives in his country, hurried himself and his wife to a military helicopter and fled for Uzbekistan. Without time to fetch any personal belongings, he left Kabul in plastic sandals and a thin coat, according to a Washington Post account of that day.
Afghanistan was supposed to be the “good war” after 9/11, the one with a legitimate purpose and a happy ending. That also didn’t turn out to be true, but while the war’s momentum favored the Taliban for years, its final act had the suddenness of a guillotine, with a lot more pain. At Kabul’s airport, desperate Afghans clung to the sides of a departing U.S. cargo plane. Panicked families tried to get onto the diminishing number of evacuation flights. And 13 U.S. troops helping keep the airport open were killed in a suicide bombing. Just before midnight on August 30, the last U.S. aircraft and the last U.S. soldier got out of Kabul.
This defeat could have been an opportunity to rethink the logic of America’s war machine. That’s what defeats often do: They force you to reconsider the destructive tendencies that got you into the hole. One of those tendencies has been a nearly ceaseless rise in military spending that has little popular support. Even before the fall of Kabul, opinion polls consistently showed that only a minority of Americans think that the U.S. should spend more on its defense — just 26 percent in a survey conducted by Gallup in February. And on the day that the U.S. got out of Afghanistan, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the lone member of Congress to vote against the invasion in 2001, called on Republicans as well as Democrats to finally reconfigure the nation’s spending priorities. “Now is the time to shift our investments away from endless wars and toward addressing human needs,” she said.
Guess what happened?
To understand the next step, you need to go back to April, when President Joe Biden proposed a $715 billion Pentagon budget for 2022, which represented a 1.6 percent increase from 2021. Progressives like Lee were not pleased — and were even less pleased in late July when the Senate Armed Services Committee added $25 billion to Biden’s proposal. This “plus-up,” as it’s called, raised the budget to $740 billion, a 5 percent increase over the previous year. At that rate, military spending over the next decade would easily exceed $7 trillion, or four times more than the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better program that Biden is trying to push through Congress.
That was the legislative prelude to Lee’s call for new priorities. Two days later, on September 2, the House Armed Services Committee met to consider the military budget, and as expected, an amendment was introduced by the ranking Republican to match the Senate increase. This set off a debate in which one of the strongest backers of the plus-up was a Democrat, Rep. Elaine Luria, a former Navy officer whose Virginia district includes the naval station in Norfolk.
“In one word, we can sum up the ‘why,’ and that’s China,” Luria said. “We are ending our longest conflict of 20 years, but more than ever, the world is watching what we do here today. … Right now there are malign actors who seek to attack us and do us harm.”
This has been a reliable power move over the decades: When one threat fades away, another seems to come along at just the right time. The so-called war on terror is a spent force, but now there is China, which devotes two-thirds less to its defense than the U.S. and is not known to be planning any 9/11-style attacks on the homeland — but is having a conveniently timed “Sputnik moment.”
In the end, the committee voted 42-17 to increase the budget, with 14 Democrats joining 28 Republicans. The committee spent far more time debating critical race theory (about two hours) than the amendment to cut the budget (about 30 minutes).
“It’s as if we have learned nothing from the past 20 years,” said Rep. Sara Jacobs, a Democrat from California, during the debate. She noted that rather than pumping money into the military, more resources could go toward diplomacy, education, infrastructure, and public health. “That is what will determine if we are competitive with China, not whether we have one more F-35 that even the Pentagon says they don’t need,” she concluded.
The fundamental idea behind her argument was evoked during the Vietnam War by Martin Luther King Jr., who warned in 1967: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
A Beverly Hills Mansion
If you want to understand the soul-killing trajectory of U.S. military spending, you should look at a recent home purchase in Beverly Hills, California.
Last month, a wealthy buyer paid $20.9 million for a mansion with 8,600 square feet of living space that includes five bedrooms, seven bathrooms, and an interior courtyard with an olive tree. The buyer’s name, according to a news article that was widely shared on social media, is Daoud Wardak. Little is known about Wardak except that his father was a defense minister in Afghanistan and his older brother founded an obscure logistics company that landed more than a quarter billion dollars in U.S. military contracts.
It’s not clear how Wardak was able to purchase his new residence or the $5.2 million condo he also owns in Miami Beach, Florida. But what’s known is that nearly half of U.S. military expenditures since 9/11 — the total is about $14 trillion — have gone to contractors. Some are global brands of lethality, such as Raytheon and General Dynamics, while others are pop-up entities with headquarters that are post office boxes. The money that has vanished through corruption is legendary as well as unknowable, because the Pentagon has never passed an audit, and until recently, it didn’t even try to conduct one.
It’s a scenario of national deformation that was predicted in 1961 by President Dwight Eisenhower, who warned in his farewell address of the rise of a military-industrial complex. The numbers behind this deformation are stunning. Since 2001, the five largest weapons manufacturers in the U.S. have spent more than $1.1 billion lobbying the government — and that statistic doesn’t even include their donations to candidates, their funding of think tanks, or their payments to generals who become board members. These investments have paid off, according to Stephen Semler of the Security Policy Reform Institute, which calculates that those five firms have received more than $2 trillion in government contracts since 2001.
And then there is the revolving door. Biden chose as his defense secretary a board member of Raytheon — retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, who received a payout of up to $1.7 million when he left the company. Austin was also a member of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton’s national security advisory board, for which he was paid $200,000 in the year before he became defense secretary. The revolving door was operational during the Trump administration too: President Donald Trump’s last confirmed defense secretary, Mark Esper, was a senior lobbyist for Raytheon before joining the Cabinet; the company paid him more than $1.5 million in his final year.
The door continues to spin. Just last month, the Pentagon’s head of foreign military sales, Heidi Grant, left her government job and a day later started her new one as Boeing’s vice president for business development. The closeness of the industry and the government, to the point of being indistinguishable at times, was even referenced in a conference call last month between investors and the chief executive of Raytheon, one of the largest weapons producers in the U.S.
“Defense spending is nonpartisan,” noted Gregory Hayes, the Raytheon CEO whose compensation exceeded $20 million last year. “We’re encouraged to see Congress supporting plus-ups to the president’s budget that are also aligned to our business and our investments.”
America Against the World
This is a story about a reckoning that gets mugged every time it ventures into daylight.
A year ago, a group of House Democrats led by Lee and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., banded together to support an amendment to cut U.S. military spending by 10 percent. There were only 96 of them, so their amendment didn’t come close to passing, but it was the start of what progressives knew would be an incremental effort to narrow the distance between military spending and common sense.
Things seemed to look better this year.
The upstarts had created the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus and sent a letter to Biden in March to remind him that if the Pentagon’s budget was cut by 10 percent, it would still be larger than the next 10 largest militaries combined (and most of those are U.S. allies). They argued that a clear lesson could be learned from the war on terror, which not only cost trillions of dollars, but also took the lives of more than 7,000 U.S. soldiers and at least hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians. “The premise of a military-centric foreign policy is a failure,” their letter stated, well before the fall of Kabul.
On September 22, the $740 billion budget, which had been approved by the Armed Services Committee, arrived for a vote on the House floor, where there was a short debate on the amendment to reduce it by 10 percent. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., cited China and warned of “catastrophic effects on our training and readiness” if there were any cuts. His remark drew a sharp response from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who said it wasn’t the military’s readiness that was threatened but “the profit margins of defense contractors.”
The amendment got only 86 votes, all from Democrats, which was fewer than the 93 votes it got a year earlier, before the humiliation in Afghanistan.
There were several reasons it fared worse, including the fact that this year the Pentagon budget came from a Democratic rather than Republican administration; some Democrats were willing to reduce the budget only if the other party was asking for an increase. Additionally, an amendment was offered this year to cut just the $25 billion plus-up, and this less radical proposal got 142 votes, which wasn’t enough to pass but was more than the budget-reducing amendment got. It appears to have functioned as an easy way for Democrats to signal their slight concern about military spending without going against their president or seeking a true reduction.
The House approved the $740 billion budget with strong support from both parties. The budget is now in the hands of the full Senate, which is expected to vote on it soon. Despite the failure in Afghanistan, there seems little likelihood that U.S. military spending will slow down.