The pentagon asked congress last week for the biggest defence budget since the Second World War: $515 billion, plus an additional $70 billion to cover the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for part of the coming year.
The U.S. is proposing to spend more on the armed forces, quite apart from the running costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, than it did at the height of the Cold War against the Soviet Union – and yet almost all the commentary has focused on spending on the two wars.
Even that is a lot of money. The U.S. Congress has already approved $691 billion in spending on Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and the total estimate for this year alone is $190 billion. But there is a great deal more money in the current U.S. defence budget – probably three times as much – that has nothing to do with the “war on terror.” Even if you accept the deeply suspect proposition that invading foreign countries is a useful way to fight terrorism, invading the target countries does not require 11 aircraft carriers and fleets of stealth bombers.
So what is all the rest of the money for? According to Michael Klare, defence correspondent for The Nation, the answer is obvious.
“The U.S. military posits its future on the China threat. That is the ultimate justification. There is no other plausible threat. If you look at the new budget, it calls for vast spending on new weapons systems that can only reasonably be justified by what they call a ‘peer competitor,’ a future superpower that could threaten the U.S., and only China can conceivably fill that bill. Not Iran, not Iraq or some [other] rogue state.”
It’s obvious, when you think about it. If the U.S. had no present or prospective “peer competitor,” how could the Pentagon justify spending huge amounts of money on next-generation weapons?
For beating up on “rogue states,” last-generation-but-one weapons are more than adequate.
So what is the alleged competition about? Energy, of course, and mostly oil. Michael Klare again: “The Pentagon and U.S. strategists talk openly about U.S.-China competition for energy in Africa, in the Caspian Sea basin and in the Persian Gulf, and they talk about the danger of a China-Russia strategic alliance.”
What the U.S. military is not doing, for the moment, is telling the American public that China is why it wants all that money.
The amorphous, infinitely expandable “war on terror” can be used to cover all sorts of other expenditures as well.
But that happy time is probably coming to an end. As the “terrorist threat” gradually shrinks down toward its true, rather modest dimensions in the minds of American voters and even politicians, the wisdom of spending so much money on a strategic confrontation with China that does not yet exist – and may never actually come to pass – is bound to come into question.
As for an enduring Chinese-Russian alliance, the notion is about as credible this time round as it was back in the early days of the Cold War. Since China is the country that poses the greatest potential threat to Russia, it can be a good short-term strategy for Moscow to hug China close.
But the alliance lasted only 13 years last time (in the early years of the Cold War), and it would probably not survive even that long on a second occasion.
This year’s U.S. defence budget will probably go through more or less uncut, because few members of Congress who face re-election in November will want to leave themselves open to accusations of being “soft on terror.”
But next year will almost certainly be a different story. For the Pen-tagon, the good old days are coming to an end.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.