Saturday, June 20, 2009

More Bucks. More Bangs

More bucks, more bangs

America's runaway military spending is threatening its economic security and failing to make the country safer

Ian Williams

o, Friday 12 June 2009 17.00 BST

Osama bin Laden must be crowing in his cave. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released its latest figures last week showing that the US spent $607bn on the military in 2008 – almost as much as the rest of the world put together. And even that figure might be an understatement, according to some analysts. Indeed, the White House itself puts spending on "national defence" at over $675bn for this year.

Within weeks of the gruesomely low tech 9/11 massacres, the Bush administration rushed, successfully, to get every defence contractor's boondoggle through the budget in the same way they railroaded the Patriot Act through unread. It was treachery to quibble.

This may be al-Qaida's biggest triumph. By feeding congressional paranoia and arming the US defence industries' lobbyists, Bin Laden has been helping to bring about the economic collapse of the US, the bankruptcy of the federal government and the eventual loss of the dollar's position as the world's reserve currency. Not to mention maintaining a steady supply of weaponry for the Taliban to replace all those Stingers we used to send them.

It has certainly caused more economic damage than the destruction of the World Trade Center, and may, if you totalled up the cost of the misdirected resources away from health, education and other discretionary items, have led to more loss of life.

Somehow, when members of Congress call for tightening belts and complain about runaway federal spending, it is always about the Social Security or Medicare "entitlements" of people who have worked all their lives, rather than the entitlement of aerospace contractors to slurp at the federal trough, foisting off unsuitable and frequently unworkable military systems on Pentagon officers who look forward to post-retirement careers with their vendors.

In general, honest representatives and senators risk forfeiting defence industry campaign money, and even worse, having that money going to opponents who habitually challenge the patriotism of anyone who questions a military project, no matter how palpably useless. And then there is the indirect pressure of local employment in the industries. Of course, this too has its economic effects. While Toyota was making the Land Cruiser, the US was making the Hummer – the most vulnerable military vehicle in world.

A prime example of how the defence budget blows back is the B1 long-range bomber, which the US is using against villages in Afghanistan despite the protests of the government in Kabul. Designed as strategic nuclear bombers and of questionable use even on the drawing board, 10 years ago when they were bought, they cost $283m each.

Reportedly, to back up the lobbying efforts to keep their programme in the air, the Jack D Rippers of the US air force spread the procurement around as many congressional districts as they could to get more leverage in the representatives. The planes' main military effect when used in the totally inappropriate way for anti-insurgency operations seems to be enhancing support for the Taliban and cutting the feet from under our ally, Karzai.

But there are also more direct reasons for bin Laden to applaud the US defence budget. There is so much equipment knocking around, we could be arming enterprising terrorists worldwide the same way we inadvertently provide small arms for Mexican narco-gangs. As Gregory Kutz of the Government Accountability Office told a congressional panel:

"The lack of legal restrictions over domestic sales of these items, combined with the difficulties associated with inspecting packages and individuals leaving the United States, results in a weak control environment that does not effectively prevent terrorists and agents of foreign governments from obtaining these sensitive items."

Obama has threatened to look carefully at the defence budget. But the resistance to his attempts to pare back the biggest boondoggle of all, the Star Wars missile defence system that has cost over $100bn so far, shows the difficulties he faces. So far, the money has produced the equivalent of a system that can hit a flounder nailed to the bottom of a barrel – if it is covered in luminous paint. But he will face opposition from Democrats as well as the likes of Sarah Palin.

Of course, there are some brave souls, like congressman Barney Frank, prepared to risk accusations of treachery by calling for taking a battleaxe to the sacred cow of the Pentagon budget. With the courage one would expect from the first American politician to come out of the closet, he is also one of the few prepared to come out of the bunker. As he said, it should be easy to persuade Americans "that their well-being is far more endangered by a proposal for substantial reductions in Medicare, Social Security or other important domestic areas than it would be by cancelling weapons systems that have no justification from any threat we are likely to face."

We need more representatives like him to stop playing into Bin Laden's hands. Cut all that pork from the Pentagon budget, and there might be enough left to pay the troops better as well as to fund healthcare.

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