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Ukraine's Crisis Doesn't Justify Overspending on the Pentagon

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Russia's military takeover of Crimea is an unacceptable violation of international law, but it provides no justification for increasing the Pentagon's already bloated budget, as many observers have been asserting in recent weeks.

For example, Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson writes that "The crisis in Ukraine reminds us that the future is unpredictable, that wars routinely involve miscalculation and that brute force -- boots on the ground, bombs in the air -- counts."

In fact, the situation in the Ukraine is an example of the limits of military power, not the need for more of it. No U.S. president would be reckless enough to launch a land war against Russia on or near its borders. Although Sen. John McCain has publicly lamented the lack of a "military option," not even he is calling for a land war with Russia over Ukraine, nor has he explained what his "military option" would look like.

The last time our policy was governed by advocates of "brute force" -- the U.S. intervention in Iraq -- the results were disastrous. Trillions of dollars, thousands of U.S. lives, and over 100,000 Iraqi lives later, Iraq is ruled by an authoritarian regime that has exacerbated sectarian tensions and created fertile ground for the growth of violent extremist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Keeping U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the decade they spent there would most likely have postponed this result, not altered it.

Perhaps bearing this in mind, the Obama administration has crafted its latest Pentagon budget plan on the premise that the United States should no longer have as a primary objective the ability to launch "prolonged stability operations" like those undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that therefore the Army can be reduced from its post-9/11 high of 570,000 troops down to 440,000 to 450,000. This is a step in the right direction, but if the United States is truly to implement a policy of avoiding large land wars, that figure can go considerably lower.

Unfortunately, the administration's sensible instinct to avoid more Iraqs and Afghanistans, and to structure U.S. forces accordingly, has drawn fire in the media and from hawkish critics like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). A common refrain in this chorus of criticism has been the assertion that the United States Army is on course to be at its smallest level since 1940, as if this were relevant measure of its ability to address 21st century challenges. Today's army is far better equipped and trained than the one that existed in 1940, and it is augmented by hundreds of thousands of experienced reservists. It is also backed up by the U.S. Air Force, which did not even exist as a separate service until after World War II. The real issue isn't whether the U.S. military is strong enough or whether the army has enough troops, it is how to determine when it is appropriate to use the military. Occupying countries to alter their political and economic trajectories is one use that has proven to be both dangerous and counterproductive.

Then there is the numbers game. If only the United States were throwing more money at the Pentagon, some critics suggest, other nations would be duly impressed and avoid engaging in aggressive behavior in their regions. Robert Samuelson puts the point as follows:

"Even if every Pentagon spending cut were desirable -- manifestly untrue -- their collective size symbolically undermines deterrence. It telegraphs that the United States is retreating, that it is war-weary and reluctant to deploy raw power as an instrument of national policy."

The idea that more Pentagon spending equals more influence over the behavior of other countries is, to borrow a phrase from Samuelson, "manifestly untrue." Vladimir Putin is not huddled in Moscow toting up the figures in the Pentagon's latest budget proposal, and then using it as a guide as to whether to take military action. Nor is any other world leader. They are following their perceived interests, weighing them against the consequences that might result from any given course of action. Even if the United States were spending twice the half trillion dollars per year it now spends on the Pentagon, it would not have deterred Putin from moving into Crimea. The challenge is to find a mix of diplomatic and economic measures that can persuade Russia to reverse course and recognize Ukraine's sovereignty. This may or may not work, but it offers the best hope for resolving the situation. There is no military solution, and to suggest otherwise merely distracts from the difficult task at hand.

Finally, all discussions of the proper level of Pentagon spending should start with an understanding of how high it is already. Just a few years ago, Pentagon and related spending had reached the highest levels since World War II. The Pentagon's base budget has come down modestly since then, and will level off at about $500 billion per year in inflation-adjusted dollars if the caps imposed under current law hold. And that doesn't even take into account the fact that the Pentagon has been dipping into the war budget - known in Washington-speak as the budget for Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO - to the tune of tens of billions of dollars in recent years for items and activities having nothing to do with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to padding it in times of war, the Pentagon would now like to keep the OCO slush fund going well beyond the end of the war in Afghanistan, an unacceptable budget gimmick that is being opposed by a broad network of groups from across the political spectrum.

The Pentagon is not spending too little. It is spending too much, with too little discipline, and without a clear justification grounded in a careful assessment of the most likely challenges to U.S. security in a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan world. That's where the debate should be centered, not on misleading assertions about the size of the army or the mystical notion that keeping the Pentagon budget high for its own sake provides for the common defense rather than just draining the Treasury of scarce resources.

William D. Hartung 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 (Nation Books).

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