William D. Hartung

America's nearly $1.3 Trillion national security budget isn't making us safer

President Biden's first Pentagon budget, released late last month, is staggering by any reasonable standard. At more than $750 billion for the Defense Department and related work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy, it represents one of the highest levels of spending since World War II — far higher than the peaks of the Korean or Vietnam wars or President Ronald Reagan's military buildup of the 1980s, and roughly three times what China spends on its military.

Developments of the past year and a half — an ongoing pandemic, an intensifying mega-drought, white supremacy activities, and racial and economic injustice among them — should have underscored that the greatest threats to American lives are anything but military in nature. But no matter, the Biden administration has decided to double down on military spending as the primary pillar of what still passes for American security policy. And don't be fooled by that striking Pentagon budget figure either. This year's funding requests suggest that the total national security budget will come closer to a breathtaking $1.3 trillion.

That mind-boggling figure underscores just how misguided Washington's current "security" — a word that should increasingly be put in quotation marks — policies really are. No less concerning was the new administration's decision to go full-speed ahead on longstanding Pentagon plans to build a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and missiles, including, of course, new nuclear warheads to go with them, at a cost of at least $1.7 trillion over the next three decades.

The Trump administration added to that plan projects like a new submarine-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile, all of which is fully funded in Biden's first budget. It hardly matters that a far smaller arsenal would be more than adequate to dissuade any country from launching a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies. A rare glimmer of hope came in a recent internal memo from the Navy suggesting that it may ultimately scrap Trump's sea-launched cruise missile in next year's budget submission — but that proposal is already facing intense pushback from nuclear-weapons boosters in Congress.

In all, Biden's first budget is a major win for key players in the nuclear-industrial complex like Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor on the new nuclear bomber and a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); General Dynamics, the maker of the new ballistic-missile submarine; Lockheed Martin, which produces sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs); and firms like Honeywell that oversee key elements in the Department of Energy's nuclear-warhead complex.

The Biden budget does retire some older-generation weapons. The only reason, however, is to fund even more expensive new systems like hypersonic weapons and ones embedded with artificial intelligence, all with the goal of supposedly putting the United States in a position to win a war with China (if anyone could "win" such a war).

China's military buildup remains, in fact, largely defensive, so ramping up Pentagon spending supposedly in response represents both bad strategy and bad budgeting. If, sooner or later, cooler heads don't prevail, the obsession with China that's gripped the White House, the Pentagon, and key members of Congress could keep Pentagon budgets high for decades to come.

In reality, the principal challenges posed by China are diplomatic and economic, not military, and seeking militarized answers to them will only spark a new Cold War and a risky arms race that could make a superpower nuclear conflict more likely. While there's much to criticize in China's policies, from its crackdown on the democracy movement in Hong Kong to its ethnic cleansing and severe repression of its Uyghur population, in basic military capabilities, it doesn't come faintly close to the United States, nor will it any time soon. Washington's military build-up, however, could undermine the biggest opportunity in U.S.-China relations: finding a way to cooperate on issues like climate change that threaten the future of the planet.

As noted, the three-quarters of a trillion dollars the United States spends on the Pentagon budget is just a portion of a much larger figure for the full range of activities of the national security state. Let's look, category by category, at what the Biden budget proposes to spend on this broader set of activities.

The Pentagon's "Base Budget"

The Pentagon's proposed "base" budget, which, in past years, has included routine spending for fighting ongoing conflicts, was $715 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2022, $10 billion more than last year's request. Despite complaints to the contrary by advocates of even higher Pentagon spending, that represents no small addition. It's larger, for instance, than the entire budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No question about it, the Pentagon remains by a long shot the agency with the largest discretionary budget.

One piece of good news is that this year's request marks the end of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. That slush fund was used to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also included tens of billions of dollars for pet Pentagon projects that had nothing to do with current conflicts.

While off-budget emergency spending has typically only been used in the initial years of a conflict, OCO became a tool to evade caps on the Pentagon's regular budget imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. That legislation has now expired and the Biden administration has heeded the advice of good-government and taxpayer-advocacy groups by eliminating the slush fund entirely.

Unfortunately, its latest budget request still includes $42.1 billion for direct and indirect war-spending costs, which means that, OCO or not, there will be no net reduction in spending. Still, the end of that fund marks a small but potentially significant step towards greater accountability and transparency in the Pentagon budget. Moreover, congressional leaders are urging the Biden administration to seize savings from the ongoing Afghan withdrawal to sooner or later reduce the Pentagon's top line.

As for what's in the base budget, there are a number of particularly troubling proposed expenditures that warrant attention and congressional pushback. Spending on the Pentagon's new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile — known formally as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent — has nearly doubled in the new proposal from $1.4 billion to $2.6 billion.

This may seem like small change in such a budget, but it's just a down payment on a system that could, in the end, cost more than $100 billion to procure and another $164 billion to operate over its lifetime. More importantly, as former secretary of defense William Perry noted, ICBMs are "some of the most dangerous weapons in the world" because a president would have only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them upon a warning of an attack, greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war based on a false alarm. In short, the new ICBM is not just costly but exceedingly dangerous for the health of humanity. The Biden budget should have eliminated it, not provided more funding for it.

Another eye-opener is the decision to spend more than $12 billion on the F-35 combat aircraft, a troubled, immensely expensive weapons system whose technical flaws suggest that it may never be fully ready for combat. Such knowledge should, of course, have resulted in a decision to at least pause production on the plane until testing is complete. House Armed Services Committee chair Adam Smith (D-WA) has stated that he's tired of pouring money down the F-35 "rathole," while the Air Force's top officer, General Charles Brown, has compared it to a Ferrari that "you don't drive to work every day" but "only drive it out on Sundays."

Consider that an embarrassing admission for a plane once publicized as a future low-cost bulwark for the U.S. combat aircraft fleet. Whether the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, the three services that utilize variants of the F-35, will stay the course and buy more than 2,400 of these aircraft remains to be seen. Count on one thing, though: the F-35 lobby, including a special F-35 caucus in the House of Representatives and the Machinists Union, whose workers build the planes, will fight tooth and nail to keep the program fully funded regardless of whether or not it serves our national security needs.

And keep in mind that the F-35 is only one of many legacies of failed Pentagon modernization efforts. Even if the Pentagon were to acquire its new systems without delays or cost overruns — something rare indeed — its expensive spending plans have already earned this decade the moniker of the "terrible twenties."

Worse yet, there's a distinct possibility that Congress will push that budget even higher in response to "wish lists" being circulated by each of the military services. Items on them that have yet to make it into the Biden Pentagon budget include things like — surprise! — more F-35s. The Army's wish list even includes systems it claimed it needed to cut. That the services are even allowed to make such requests to Congress is symbolic of a breakdown in budgetary discipline of the highest order.

The base budget also includes mandatory spending for items like military retirement. This year's request adds $12.8 billion to the Pentagon's tab.

Running Tally: $727.9 billion

The Nuclear Budget

It would be reasonable for you to assume that the Department of Energy's budget would primarily be devoted to developing new energy sources and combating climate change, but that assumption would, sadly enough, be wildly off the mark.

In fact, more than half of the department's budget goes to support the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which manages the country's nuclear weapons program. The NNSA does work on nuclear warheads at eight major locations — California, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico (two facilities), South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas — across the country, along with subsidiary facilities in several additional states. NNSA's proposed FY 2022 budget for nuclear-weapons activities is $15.5 billion, part of a budget for atomic-energy-related projects of $29.9 billion.

The NNSA is notorious for poor management of major projects. It has routinely been behind schedule and over cost — to the tune of $28 billion in the past two decades. Its future plans seem destined to hit the pocketbook of the American taxpayer significantly, with projected long-term spending on nuclear weapons activities rising by a proposed $113 billion in a single year.

Nuclear Budget $29.9 billion

Running tally: $757.8 billion

Defense-Related Activities

This is a catch-all category, totaling $10.5 billion in the FY 2022 request, including the international activities of the FBI and payments to the CIA retirement fund, among other things.

Defense-Related Activities $10.5 billion

Running tally: $768.3 billion

The Intelligence Budget

There is very little public information available about how the nation's — count 'em! — 17 intelligence agencies spend our tax dollars. The majority of congressional representatives don't even have staff members capable of accessing any kind of significant information on intelligence spending, a huge obstacle to the ability of Congress to oversee these agencies and their activities in any meaningful way. So far this year there is only a top-line figure available for spending on national (but not military) intelligence activities of $62.3 billion. Most of this money is already believed to be hidden away in the Pentagon budget, so it's not added to the running tally displayed below.

National Intelligence activities: $62.3 billion

Running tally: $768.3 billion

The Military and Defense Department Retirement and Health Budget

The Treasury Department covers military retirement and health expenditures that should be in the Pentagon's base budget. Net spending on these two items — minus interest earned and payments into the two accounts — was a negative $9.7 billion in FY 2022.

Military and Defense Department Retirement and Health Costs: -$9.7 billion

Running tally: $758.6 billion

Veterans Affairs Budget

The full costs of war go far beyond the expenditures contained in the Pentagon budget, including the costs of taking care of the veterans of America's "forever wars." Over 2.7 million U.S. military personnel have cycled through war zones in this century and hundreds of thousands of them have suffered severe physical or psychological injuries, ratcheting up the costs of veterans' care accordingly. In addition, as we emerge from the Covid-19 disaster months, the Veterans Affairs Department anticipates a "bow wave" of extra costs and demands for its services from veterans who deferred care during the worst of the pandemic. The total FY2022 budget request for Veterans Affairs is $284.5 billion.

Veterans Affairs Budget: $284.5 billion

Running tally: $1,043.1 billion

International Affairs Budget

The International Affairs budget includes funding for the State Department and the Agency for International Development, integral parts of the U.S. national security strategy. Here, investments in diplomacy and economic and health activities overseas are supplemented by about $5.6 billion in military aid to other countries. The Biden administration has proposed overall International Affairs funding for FY 2022 at $79 billion.

International Affairs Budget: $79 billion

Running tally: $1,122.1 billion

The Homeland Security Budget

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created by throwing together a wide range of agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Transportation Security Agency, the U.S. Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, and the Coast Guard. The proposed DHS budget for FY2022 is $52.2 billion, nearly one-third of which goes to Customs and Border Protection.

Homeland Security Budget: $52.2 billion

Running tally: $1,174.3 billion

Interest on the Debt

The national security state, as outlined above, is responsible for about 20% of the interest due on the U.S. debt, a total of more than $93.8 billion.

Interest on the debt: $93.8 billion

Final tally: $1,268.1 billion

Are You Feeling Safer Now?

Theoretically, that nearly $1.3 trillion to be spent on national security writ large is supposed to be devoted to activities that make America and the world a safer place. That's visibly not the case when it comes to so many of the funds that will be expended in the name of national security — from taxpayer dollars thrown away on weapons systems that don't work to those spent on an unnecessary and dangerous new generation of nuclear weapons, to continuing to reinforce and extend the historically unprecedented U.S. military presence on this planet by maintaining more than 800 overseas military bases around the world.

If managed properly, President Biden's initiatives on rebuilding domestic infrastructure and combatting climate change would be far more central to keeping people safe than throwing more money at the Pentagon and related agencies. Unfortunately, unlike the proposed Pentagon budget, significant Green New Deal-style infrastructure funding is far less likely to be passed by a bitterly divided Congress. Washington evidently doesn't care that such investments would also be significantly more effective job creators.

A shift in spending toward these and other urgent priorities like addressing the possibility of future pandemics would clearly be a far better investment in "national security" than the present proposed Pentagon budget. Sadly, though, too many of America's political leaders have clearly drawn the wrong lessons from the pandemic. If this country continues to squander staggering sums on narrowly focused national-security activities at a time when our greatest challenges are anything but military in nature, this country (and the world) will be a far less safe place in the future.

Copyright 2021 William D. Hartung and Mandy Smithberger

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

The erosion of civilian control: How the Pentagon is infecting American politics

This month's insurrection at the Capitol revealed the dismal failure of the Capitol Police and the Department of Defense to use their expertise and resources to thwart a clear and present danger to our democracy. As the government reform group Public Citizen tweeted, "If you're spending $740,000,000,000 annually on 'defense' but fascists dressed for the renaissance fair can still storm the Capitol as they please, maybe it's time to rethink national security?"

At a time of acute concern about the health of our democracy, any such rethinking must, among other things, focus on strengthening the authority of civilians and civilian institutions over the military in an American world where almost the only subject the two parties in Congress can agree on is putting up ever more money for the Pentagon. This means so many in our political system need to wean themselves from the counterproductive habit of reflexively seeking out military or retired military voices to validate them on issues ranging from public health to border security that should be quite outside the military's purview.

It's certainly one of the stranger phenomena of our era: after 20 years of endless war in which trillions of dollars were spent and hundreds of thousands died on all sides without the U.S. military achieving anything approaching victory, the Pentagon continues to be funded at staggering levels, while funding to deal with the greatest threats to our safety and "national security" — from the pandemic to climate change to white supremacy — proves woefully inadequate. In good times and bad, the U.S. military and the "industrial complex" that surrounds it, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower first warned us about in 1961, continue to maintain a central role in Washington, even though they're remarkably irrelevant to the biggest challenges facing our democracy.

These days, it's completely normal for military and defense officials to weigh in endlessly on what once would have been civilian matters. As the Biden years begin, it's time to give some serious thought to how to demilitarize our democracy.

Unfortunately, in the America of 2021, the short-term benefit of relying on the widely accepted credibility of military figures to promote policies of every sort is obvious indeed. Who in the political class in the nation's capital wouldn't want a stamp of approval from dozens of generals, active or retired, endorsing their favorite initiative or candidate? (It's something in years past the authors of this piece have been guilty of as well.) As it happens, though, such approval comes at a high price, undermining as it does the authority of civilian officials and agencies, while skewing resources toward the Pentagon that should be invested elsewhere to keep us truly safe.

It's an essential attribute of the American system that the military remains under civilian authority. These days, however, given the number of current or retired military officers who have become key arbiters of what we should do on a dizzying array of critical issues, civilian control is the policy equivalent of an endangered species.

In the last election season, long before the attack on the Capitol, there was already an intense national discussion about how to prevent violence at the polls, a conversation that all too quickly (and disturbingly) focused on what role the military should play in the process. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was repeatedly asked to provide assurances that it would have no role in determining the outcome of the election, something that in another America would have been a given.

Meanwhile, some actually sought more military involvement. For example, in a widely debated "open letter" to Milley, retired Army officers John Nagl and Paul Yingling stated that "if Donald Trump refuses to leave office at the expiration of his constitutional term, the United States military must remove him by force, and you must give that order." Proposals of this sort undermine the integrity of the many laws Congress and the states have put in place to prevent the military or armed vigilantes from playing any role in the electoral process.

Similarly, both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden have identified the military as a key future player in distributing the Covid-19 vaccine, something that could and should be handled by public-health institutions, if only they, like the Pentagon, had adequate resources.

The Military Knows Best?

During and after the attack on the Capitol, officials from the military and national security worlds were given pride of place in discussions about the future of our democracy. Their opinions were sought out by the media and others on a wide range of issues that fell well outside their primary areas of expertise. A letter from 10 former secretaries of defense calling on the Republican caucus to respect the results of the election was given headline attention, while political figures pressed to have retired military officers involved in the January 6th assault tried in military, not civilian, courts.

Before pursuing the second impeachment of Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi typically turned to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs (who isn't even in the civilian chain of command) to seek assurance that he could stop the president from starting a last-minute nuclear war. And none of this was faintly unusual, given that retired military officers have regularly been asked to weigh in on subjects as varied as abortion rights, climate change, and childhood obesity. It's not, of course, that such figures shouldn't be able, like anyone else, to offer their opinions or support on matters of public health and safety, but that their voices shouldn't matter more than those of public-health experts, scientists, medical professionals, or other civilians.

Despite its failure to win a war in decades, the military remains one of America's most respected institutions, getting the kind of appreciation that generally doesn't extend to other more successful public servants. After almost 20 years of forever wars, it's hard, at this point, to accept that the military's reputation for wisdom is deserved. In fact, continually relying on retired generals and other present or former national security officials as validators effectively erodes the credibility of, and the public's trust in, other institutions that are meant to keep us healthy and safe.

In the Covid-19 moment, it should be clear that relying on narrowly defined notions of national security harms our democracy, a subject that none of those military or former military figures are likely to deal with. In addition, in all too many cases, current and retired military officials have abused the public trust in ways that call into question their right to serve as judges of what's important, or even to imagine that they could provide objective advice. For one thing, a striking number of high-ranking officers on leaving the military pass through the infamous revolving door of the military-industrial complex into positions as executives, lobbyists, board members, or consultants for the defense industry. They work on behalf of firms like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics that receive a combined $100 billion annually in Pentagon contracts with little accountability, even as they remain key go-to media figures.

They then use their former rank and the prestige attached to it to lobby Congress and influence the media on the need for endless wars and an ever-increasing military budget to support major weapons programs like Lockheed Martin's troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — all without bothering to disclose that they stand to gain financially from the positions they're taking. And the prospect of a big, fat salary in the weapons sector upon retirement also exerts an unhealthy influence on officers still serving in the military who are often loath to anger, or in any way alienate, their potential future employers.

This revolving-door phenomenon is widespread. A study by the Project on Government Oversight found that, in 2018 alone, there were 645 cases in which the top 20 defense contractors hired former government officials, military officers, members of Congress, and senior congressional legislative staff as lobbyists, board members, or executives. This should hardly inspire public trust in their opinions.

When civilian voices and policies are eclipsed as the central determinants in how our democracy should operate, a larger dilemma arises: continuing to rely on the military as a primary source of judgment for what's right or wrong in the civilian world risks politicizing the armed forces, too. From retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn leading chants of "Lock her up!" at the 2016 Republican National Convention to the competition between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as well as, in the 2020 election campaign, between Joe Biden and Donald Trump to see who could get more retired generals to endorse him or her only helps militarize the civilian election process and politicizes what should be a nonpartisan institution.

In some cases, ex-military officers have even taken to the airwaves and the op-ed pages of newspapers to advocate for war without disclosing their ties to the arms industry. A 2008 New York Times investigation, for example, revealed that a number of retired-officers-turned-media pundits with continuing defense industry ties had, for years, advocated for the Iraq War at the Pentagon's behest. Ex-generals like former Trump administration Defense Secretary James Mattis, who served on the board of General Dynamics before taking the helm of the Pentagon and returned there shortly after stepping down, too often use their stature to refrain from providing basic information to the media while befogging the transparency and accountability that should be a pillar of democracy.

The Politicization of the Military

Given the more than a trillion dollars Americans annually invest in the national security state, it's striking to note, for instance, how such institutions let us down when it came to addressing the threats of white nationalism. Last summer, the Intercept uncovered a buried FBI report on the shortcomings of various federal agencies when it came to dealing with domestic terrorism. Before the 2020 election, the bureau refused to release that report on the domestic threat of white supremacy. Last year, in a similar fashion, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) withheld for months its assessment of the same "lethal" threat of racist extremism in this country.

While there must be a full investigation of what happened at the Capitol on January 6th, reports seem to indicate a striking blindness in the national security state to the possibility of such an attack. It's not that the DHS, the FBI, or the military need an influx of new funds to face the problem. Rather, what's needed at this moment in history is a clearer focus on the real risks to our country, which have little to do with foreign terrorists, the Taliban, or other such groups the U.S. has been fighting abroad for years on end. The Department of Defense typically did itself and the rest of us no favors by burying a report on widespread racism in the ranks of the military, which, though completed in 2017, didn't see the light of day until this January. Only in the aftermath of the riot at the Capitol did that organization finally begin to truly address its own white-supremacy problems.

The military, like so many other American institutions, has failed to reckon seriously with deep-seated racism in its ranks. Even before the January 6th insurrection, it was clear that such racism made it nearly impossible for Black officers to be promoted. And while many questioned the naming of key military bases after Confederate generals, the issue has only recently been addressed (over a presidential veto at that) with the creation of a new commission to rename them. Reports of active duty, reserve, and veteran members of the military aiding the Capitol insurrection only bring into stark relief the inexcusable costs of not having addressed the problem earlier.

More Pentagon Spending Won't Make Us Safer

There are also high costs to be paid for relying on the Department of Defense to handle problems that have nothing to do with its primary mission. Using the armed forces as key players in addressing crises that aren't military in nature only further undermines civilian institutions and is often counterproductive as well.

In the initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of politicians called for President Trump to use the Defense Production Act (as it seems Biden will indeed soon do) and the Department of Defense to ramp up the production of N95 masks, ventilators, and other personal protective equipment. The story of what happened to such funds in the Trump years should be telling. The Washington Post discovered that $1 billion in supposed pandemic relief money was instead funneled directly to defense contractors and $70 million of the funds the Pentagon spent went to ventilators that proved unfit for Covid-19 patients. While some of that money did go to bolster mask supply chains, another Post investigation discovered that such efforts did not come close to addressing national shortfalls and amounted to less than the department spends on instruments, uniforms, and travel for military bands.

Perhaps the most disturbing cost of our overreliance on the military can be found in Congress's budget and policy priorities. In December of last year, a bill to authorize nearly $740 billion in Pentagon spending garnered enough votes to easily overcome President Trump's veto (motivated mainly by his refusal to condone renaming military bases named after Confederate generals) at the very moment when Congress was blocking legislation to give $2,000 relief checks directly to Covid-19 embattled Americans.

By now, two decades into the twenty-first century, it's clear that more money for the Pentagon hasn't made this country safer. It has, however, helped give the military an ever more central role in our previously civilian political world. Biden's selection of retired General Lloyd Austin III to be secretary of defense only emphasizes this point. While it's certainly laudatory to appoint the first Black leader to that position, Austin has retired so recently that he needed a congressional waiver from a law requiring a seven-year cooling off period before taking up such a civilian post (just as Mattis did four years ago) — another sign that civilian control of the military is continuing to weaken. In addition, now that he has retired from his role in private industry, Austin stands to make a small fortune, up to $1.7 million, when he divests his stock holdings in Raytheon Technologies.

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex," President Eisenhower warned Americans in his 1961 farewell address. How right he proved to be! Sixty years later, it's become all too clear that more must be done to deal with that very "unwarranted influence." The immediate crises of the American republic should be clear enough right now: responding to the pandemic and restoring our civilian democracy. Certainly, military leaders like Milley should be appreciated for agreeing on the need to prioritize the pandemic and oppose sedition. However, more Pentagon spending and more military influence will not, in the end, make us any safer.

Copyright 2021 Mandy Smithberger and William D. Hartung

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Mandy Smithberger, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

See All Articles

William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

See All Articles

Why Trump's claims to be a peacemaker are absurd on their face

The United States has the dubious distinction of being the world's leading arms dealer. It dominates the global trade in a historic fashion and nowhere is that domination more complete than in the endlessly war-torn Middle East. There, believe it or not, the U.S. controls nearly half the arms market. From Yemen to Libya to Egypt, sales by this country and its allies are playing a significant role in fueling some of the world's most devastating conflicts. But Donald Trump, even before he was felled by Covid-19 and sent to Walter Reed Medical Center, could not have cared less, as long as he thought such trafficking in the tools of death and destruction would help his political prospects.

Look, for example, at the recent "normalization" of relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel he helped to broker, which has set the stage for yet another surge in American arms exports. To hear Trump and his supporters tell it, he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for the deal, dubbed "the Abraham Accords." In fact, using it, he was eager to brand himself as "Donald Trump, peacemaker" in advance of the November election. This, believe me, was absurd on the face of it. Until the pandemic swept everything in the White House away, it was just another day in Trump World and another example of the president's penchant for exploiting foreign and military policy for his own domestic political gain.

If the narcissist-in-chief had been honest for a change, he would have dubbed those Abraham Accords the "Arms Sales Accords." The UAE was, in part, induced to participate in hopes of receiving Lockheed Martin's F-35 combat aircraft and advanced armed drones as a reward. For his part, after some grumbling, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to one-up the UAE and seek a new $8 billion arms package from the Trump administration, including an additional squadron of Lockheed Martin's F-35s (beyond those already on order), a fleet of Boeing attack helicopters, and so much more. Were that deal to go through, it would undoubtedly involve an increase in Israel's more than ample military aid commitment from the United States, already slated to total $3.8 billion annually for the next decade.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

This wasn't the first time President Trump tried to capitalize on arms sales to the Middle East to consolidate his political position at home and his posture as this country's dealmaker par excellence. Such gestures began in May 2017, during his very first official overseas trip to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis greeted him then with ego-boosting fanfare, putting banners featuring his face along roadways leading into their capital, Riyadh; projecting a giant image of that same face on the hotel where he was staying; and presenting him with a medal in a surreal ceremony at one of the kingdom's many palaces. For his part, Trump came bearing arms in the form of a supposed $110 billion weapons package. Never mind that the size of the deal was vastly exaggerated. It allowed the president to gloat that his sales deal there would mean "jobs, jobs, jobs" in the United States. If he had to work with one of the most repressive regimes in the world to bring those jobs home, who cared? Not he and certainly not his son-in-law Jared Kushner who would develop a special relationship with the cruel Saudi Crown Prince and heir apparent to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman.

Trump doubled down on his jobs argument in a March 2018 White House meeting with bin Salman. The president came armed with a prop for the cameras: a map of the U.S. showing the states that (he swore) would benefit most from Saudi arms sales, including -- you won't be surprised to learn -- the crucial election swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Nor will it surprise you that Trump's jobs claims from those Saudi arms sales are almost entirely fraudulent. In fits of fancy, he's even insisted that he's creating as many as half a million jobs linked to weapons exports to that repressive regime. The real number is less than one-tenth that amount -- and far less than one-tenth of one percent of U.S. employment. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

American Arms Dominance

Donald Trump is far from the first president to push tens of billions of dollars of arms into the Middle East. The Obama administration, for example, made a record $115 billion in arms offers to Saudi Arabia during its eight years in office, including combat aircraft, attack helicopters, armored vehicles, military ships, missile defense systems, bombs, guns, and ammunition.

Those sales solidified Washington's position as the Saudis' primary arms supplier. Two-thirds of its air force consists of Boeing F-15 aircraft, the vast bulk of its tanks are General Dynamics M-1s, and most of its air-to-ground missiles come from Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. And mind you, those weapons aren't just sitting in warehouses or being displayed in military parades. They've been among the principal killers in a brutal Saudi intervention in Yemen that has sparked the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe.

A new report from the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy (which I co-authored) underscores just how stunningly the U.S. dominates the Middle Eastern weapons market. According to data from the arms transfer database compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in the period from 2015 to 2019 the United States accounted for 48% of major weapons deliveries to the Middle East and North Africa, or (as that vast region is sometimes known acronymically) MENA. Those figures leave deliveries from the next largest suppliers in the dust. They represent nearly three times the arms Russia supplied to MENA, five times what France contributed, 10 times what the United Kingdom exported, and 16 times China's contribution.

In other words, we have met the prime weapons proliferator in the Middle East and North Africa and it is us.

The influence of U.S. arms in this conflict-ridden region is further illustrated by a striking fact: Washington is the top supplier to 13 of the 19 countries there, including Morocco (91% of its arms imports), Israel (78%), Saudi Arabia (74%), Jordan (73%), Lebanon (73%), Kuwait (70%), the UAE (68%), and Qatar (50%). If the Trump administration goes ahead with its controversial plan to sell F-35s and armed drones to the UAE and brokers that related $8 billion arms deal with Israel, its share of arms imports to those two countries will be even higher in the years to come.

Devastating Consequences

None of the key players in today's most devastating wars in the Middle East produce their own weaponry, which means that imports from the U.S. and other suppliers are the true fuel sustaining those conflicts. Advocates of arms transfers to the MENA region often describe them as a force for "stability," a way to cement alliances, counter Iran, or more generally a tool for creating a balance of power that makes armed engagement less likely.

In a number of key conflicts in the region, this is nothing more than a convenient fantasy for arms suppliers (and the U.S. government), as the flow of ever more advanced weaponry has only exacerbated conflicts, aggravated human rights abuses, and caused countless civilian deaths and injuries, while provoking widespread destruction. And keep in mind that, while not solely responsible, Washington is the chief culprit when it comes to the weaponry that's fueling a number of the area's most violent wars.

In Yemen, a Saudi/UAE-led intervention that began in March 2015 has, by now, resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians through air strikes, put millions at risk of famine, and helped create the desperate conditions for the worst cholera outbreak in living memory. That war has already cost more than 100,000 lives and the U.S. and the United Kingdom have been the primary suppliers of the combat aircraft, bombs, attack helicopters, missiles, and armored vehicles used there, transfers valued in the tens of billions of dollars.

There has been a sharp jump in overall arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia since that war was launched. Dramatically enough, total arms sent to the Kingdom more than doubled between the 2010-2014 period and the years from 2015 to 2019. Together, the U.S. (74%) and the U.K. (13%) accounted for 87% of all arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia in that five-year time frame.

In Egypt, U.S.-supplied combat aircraft, tanks, and attack helicopters have been used in what is supposedly a counterterror operation in the Northern Sinai desert, which has, in reality, simply become a war largely against the civilian population of the region. Between 2015 and 2019, Washington's arms offers to Egypt totaled $2.3 billion, with billions more in deals made earlier but delivered in those years. And in May 2020, the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that it was offering a package of Apache attack helicopters to Egypt worth up to $2.3 billion.

According to research conducted by Human Rights Watch, thousands of people have been arrested in the Sinai region over the past six years, hundreds have been disappeared, and tens of thousands have been forcibly evicted from their homes. Armed to the teeth, the Egyptian military has also carried out "systematic and widespread arbitrary arrests -- including of children -- enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, collective punishment, and forced eviction." There is also evidence to suggest that Egyptian forces have engaged in illegal air and ground strikes that have killed substantial numbers of civilians.

In several conflicts -- examples of how such weapons transfers can have dramatic and unintended impacts -- U.S. arms have ended up in the hands of both sides. When Turkish troops invaded northeastern Syria in October 2019, for instance, they faced Kurdish-led Syrian militias that had received some of the $2.5 billion in arms and training the U.S. had supplied to Syrian opposition forces over the previous five years. Meanwhile, the entire Turkish inventory of combat aircraft consists of U.S.-supplied F-16s and more than half of its armored vehicles are of American origin.

In Iraq, when the forces of the Islamic State, or ISIS, swept through a significant part of that country from the north in 2014, they captured U.S. light weaponry and armored vehicles worth billions of dollars from the Iraqi security forces this country had armed and trained. Similarly, in more recent years, U.S. arms have been transferred from the Iraqi military to Iranian-backed militias operating alongside them in the fight against ISIS.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, while the U.S. has directly armed the Saudi/UAE coalition, its weaponry has, in fact, ended up being used by all sides in the conflict, including their Houthi opponents, extremist militias, and groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This equal-opportunity spread of American weaponry has occurred thanks to arms transfers by former members of the U.S.-supplied Yemeni military and by UAE forces that have worked with an array of groups in the southern part of the country.

Who Benefits?

Just four companies -- Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics -- were involved in the overwhelming majority of U.S. arms deals with Saudi Arabia between 2009 and 2019. In fact, at least one or more of those companies played key roles in 27 offers worth more than $125 billion (out of a total of 51 offers worth $138 billion). In other words, in financial terms, more than 90% of the U.S. arms offered to Saudi Arabia involved at least one of those top four weapons makers.

In its brutal bombing campaign in Yemen, the Saudis have killed thousand of civilians with U.S.-supplied weaponry. In the years since the Kingdom launched its war, indiscriminate air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition have hit marketplaces, hospitals, civilian neighborhoods, water treatment centers, even a school bus filled with children. American-made bombs have repeatedly been used in such incidents, including an attack on a wedding, where 21 people, children among them, were killed by a GBU-12 Paveway II guided bomb manufactured by Raytheon.

A General Dynamics 2,000-pound bomb with a Boeing JDAM guidance system was used in a March 2016 strike on a marketplace that killed 97 civilians, including 25 children. A Lockheed Martin laser-guided bomb was utilized in an August 2018 attack on a school bus that slaughtered 51 people, including 40 children. A September 2018 report by the Yemeni group Mwatana for Human Rights identified 19 air strikes on civilians in which U.S.-supplied weapons were definitely used, pointing out that the destruction of that bus was "not an isolated incident, but the latest in a series of gruesome [Saudi-led] Coalition attacks involving U.S. weapons."

It should be noted that the sales of such weaponry have not occurred without resistance. In 2019, both houses of Congress voted down a bomb sale to Saudi Arabia because of its aggression in Yemen, only to have their efforts thwarted by a presidential veto. In some instances, as befits the Trump administration's modus operandi, those sales have involved questionable political maneuvers. Take, for instance, a May 2019 declaration of an "emergency" that was used to push through an $8.1 billion deal with the Saudis, the UAE, and Jordan for precision-guided bombs and other equipment that simply bypassed normal Congressional oversight procedures completely.

At the behest of Congress, the State Department's Office of Inspector General then opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding that declaration, in part because it had been pushed by a former Raytheon lobbyist working in State's Office of Legal Counsel. However, the inspector general in charge of the probe, Stephen Linick, was soon fired by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for fear that his investigation would uncover administration wrongdoing and, after he was gone, the ultimate findings proved largely -- surprise! -- a whitewash, exonerating the administration. Still, the report did note that the Trump administration had failed to take adequate care to avoid civilian harm by U.S. weaponry supplied to the Saudis.

Even some Trump administration officials have had qualms about the Saudi deals. The New York Times has reported that a number of State Department personnel were concerned about whether they could someday be held liable for aiding and abetting war crimes in Yemen.

Will America Remain the World's Greatest Arms Dealer?

If Donald Trump is re-elected, don't expect U.S. sales to the Middle East -- or their murderous effects -- to diminish any time soon. To his credit, Joe Biden has pledged as president to end U.S. arms and support for the Saudi war in Yemen. For the region as a whole, however, don't be shocked if, even in a Biden presidency, such weaponry continues to flow in and it remains business as usual for this country's giant arms merchants to the detriment of the peoples of the Middle East. Unless you're Raytheon or Lockheed Martin, selling arms is one area where no one should want to keep America "great."

William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy and the co-author of "The Mideast Arms Bazaar: Top Arms Suppliers to the Middle East and North Africa 2015 to 2019."

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 William Hartung

It’s time to defund our wars — both at home and abroad

Think of it as a war system that’s been coming home for years. The murder of George Floyd has finally shone a spotlight on the need to defund local police departments and find alternatives that provide more genuine safety and security. The same sort of spotlight needs soon to be shone on the American military machine and the wildly well-funded damage it’s been doing for almost 19 years across the Greater Middle East and Africa.

Keep reading... Show less

Can Trump buy his re-election with military funds?

Donald Trump likes to posture as a tough guy and part of that tough-guy persona involves bragging about how much he’s spent on the U.S. military. This tendency was on full display in a tweet he posted three days after an American drone killed Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad:

Keep reading... Show less

How the business of war fueled the Pentagon's exploding spending over decades

I’ve been writing critiques of the Pentagon, the national security state, and America’s never-ending military overreach since at least 1979 -- in other words, virtually my entire working life. In those decades, there were moments when positive changes did occur. They ranged from ending the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1994 and halting U.S. military support for the murderous regimes, death squads, and outlaws who ruled Central America in the 1970s and 1980s to sharp reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals as the Cold War wound down. Each of those victories, however complex, seemed like a signal that sustained resistance and global solidarity mattered and could make a difference when it came to peace and security.

Keep reading... Show less

Here's How Saudi Arabia Took Donald Trump for a Ride

It’s another Trump affair -- this time without the allegations of sexual harassment (and worse), the charges and counter-charges, the lawsuits, and all the rest. So it hasn’t gotten the sort of headlines that Stormy Daniels has garnered, but when it comes to influence, American foreign policy, and issues of peace and war, it couldn’t matter more or be a bigger story (or have more money or lobbyists involved in it). Think of it as the great love affair of the age of Trump, the one between The Donald and the Saudi royals. And if there’s any place to start laying out the story, it’s naturally at a wedding, in this case in a tragic ceremony that happened to take place in Yemen, not Washington.

Keep reading... Show less

Weapons for Anyone: 
Donald Trump and the Art of the Arms Deal

It’s one of those stories of the century that somehow never gets treated that way. For an astounding 25 of the past 26 years, the United States has been the leading arms dealer on the planet, at some moments in near monopolistic fashion. Its major weapons-producers, including Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, regularly pour the latest in high-tech arms and munitions into the most explosive areas of the planet with ample assistance from the Pentagon. In recent years, the bulk of those arms have gone to the Greater Middle East. Donald Trump is only the latest American president to preside over a global arms sales bonanza. With remarkable enthusiasm, he’s appointed himself America’s number one weapons salesman and he couldn’t be prouder of the job he’s doing.

Keep reading... Show less

It’s Going to Be a Good Year for the Merchants of Death

As Donald Trump might put it, major weapons contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin cashed in “bigly” in his first year in office. They raked in tens of billions of dollars in Pentagon contracts, while posting sharp stock price increases and healthy profits driven by the continuation and expansion of Washington’s post-9/11 wars. But last year’s bonanza is likely to be no more than a down payment on even better days to come for the military-industrial complex.

Keep reading... Show less
BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.