The Pentagon, Washington DC. Credit: Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.
Here’s a staggering statistic to start your day: the US government spends more on defense than the next thirteen highest-spending countries combined. That’s right: America’s military budget is equivalent to those of China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy, Brazil, South Korea, Canada and Australia.
In fact, since the attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 11th 2001, the Pentagon’s base budget has increased by nearly 50 per cent when adjusted for inflation, rising to a requested half-a-trillion dollars for fiscal year 2014. And that doesn’t include the costs of the wars the US has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, which would add another trillion dollars or more to the total.
To make matters worse, the Pentagon has a history of cost overruns on weapons systems, many of which were cancelled after billions of dollars had been spent on their development. Even today, Congress continues to fund systems that the Pentagon does not want or need.
For example, the US Army has repeatedly expressed its disinterest in more Abrams M1 tanks, but each year, Congress keeps adding back $3 billion to buy even more of them, which now sit in a desert parking lot in Nevada. In addition, more than $60 billion is being spent on contractors to build the boondoggle F-35 plane, which continues to under-perform against low expectations. Spending for defense contracting is out of control, yet astoundingly, the Pentagon budget has not been audited. In fact, it’s pretty close to un-auditable because its accounting system is totally dysfunctional and Congress has never required the Pentagon to fix the mess.
How has the US military budget become so bloated? Opinions vary, but here are few good reasons: the US has too many military bases; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a huge financial toll; any threat of plummeting job numbers in the defense industry scares Congressional representatives; and the deep pockets of contractors for campaign contributions have swayed Congressional support for maintaining an inflated budget.
Much of the waste in the defense budget reflects the staggering political clout of defense contractors and the military-industrial complex. But the public’s fear and hysteria in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has also been co-opted by defense power-brokers to such an extent that unchecked spending on vaguely-defined “national security” priorities has become synonymous with patriotism.
A few years ago, however, the US political climate began to shift. In 2010 a new wave of fiscal conservative Tea-Party representatives brought a strong libertarian voice to the House of Representatives, calling for less government spending across the board, even for the previously-untouchable Pentagon. Along with a strong desire to see an end to international conflicts funded on the taxpayer’s dime, this new contingent’s goals paralleled anti-war fervor among progressives and their determination to end foreign occupations. And that created a new coincidence of interests to draw down the Pentagon budget in a smart and strategic way. As this new political reality came into focus, opportunities were created to shape a different kind of national debate on "right-sizing" military spending.
In response, in 2012 the Colombe Foundation launched a campaign to reformulate the issue of reduced Pentagon spending as a trans-partisan issue. The campaign included the National Security Network, Women’s Action for New Directions, Win Without War, the Project on Government Oversight and ReThink Media along with many others. Whereas bipartisan approaches imply bargaining between two fixed positions to generate a compromise somewhere in the middle, trans-partisan campaigning means working with those who have very different opinions right from the beginning, in pursuit of one or two long-range goals that all of them can share.
In that spirit, the campaign had to bring people together across a very wide spectrum – wider than the bipartisan approach of two political parties, Democrat and Republican – in order to take advantage of those new voices and alliances in Washington DC. The result was a mix of unusual and unlikely allies such as the National Taxpayers Union and Win Without War. These trans-partisan groups gave the campaign the agility to mobilize groups who shared a common goal, but who also came to the table with very different motivations.
From the beginning, the campaign reached out to groups who disagreed with one another about why reductions were needed, and how to redirect any money saved. As a result, the coalition decided to focus only on achieving ‘significant, sustained reductions in the top line of the Pentagon budget, driven by an alternative vision of the military’s role in US national security.’ That meant remaining agnostic about the allocation of budget savings.
This decision threatened the inclusion of progressive groups whose top priority is to generate more funding for social programs, while those on the conservative side wanted to pay down the growing national debt and return the money to taxpayers. A narrow goal was the only way to maintain the trans-partisan alliance, but this was uncomfortable for many of the members. Nevertheless, it was the only way to transform the conversation on budget issues in a hyper-partisan environment.
By focusing on one long-range objective, the campaign was able to develop messages that resonated across the progressive left, the libertarian right, and the moderate center. A telling example was a letter sent to Congress on February 26, 2013 that highlighted cuts to Pentagon spending of $50-100 billion each year for the next ten years.
At first, these different groups were reluctant to work with one another. Discussions took place off-the-record, enabling free and open conversation among people with opposing views who had never collaborated before. Many were uncomfortable with the prospect of appearing on the same platform in public (and denied an invitation to speak on-the-record for this article), but they confided in private that the campaign has helped to develop a new understanding of the “other side” through a process of defining shared goals and strategies to meet them.
Crucially, the campaign has focused on building personal relationships across enormous ideological differences, and on launching a real dialogue based on long-range vision - building relationships among people rather than negotiating with fixed, position-based institutions. Much work lies ahead, but important relationships have been seeded. Although the campaign still doesn’t have a public face, behind the scenes a firestorm of activity is taking place among a tight network of groups.
This sense of solidarity was tested by the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2014, which was passed by the highly-partisan House of Representatives on June 14, 2013. A briefing to highlight campaign-endorsed amendments featured key members of the trans-partisan coalition and was attended by over eighty staff members from a majority of Republican offices. In private meetings after the bill was passed, Congressional staff praised the campaign for their “insider/outsider” strategy - working closely with legislative staff in addition to drumming up support from national groups outside Washington DC to put pressure on elected representatives. This made for a more effective and less chaotic process.
More importantly, the reality of a smaller military budget is beginning to sink in across the political spectrum. The campaign has helped to ensure that the Pentagon has not been immune to sequestration - the automatic across-the-board cuts to the federal budget that were implemented as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. The Pentagon sustained a ten per cent cut for fiscal year 2013. Campaign staff continue to meet with Congressional offices in an effort to show them how the Pentagon can maintain these cuts into 2014, further reducing military spending for the second year in a row.
These early results demonstrate that the debate is shifting, and that the campaign is beginning to realign traditional relationships and alliances in order to rein in the Pentagon’s wanton spending. The challenge will be to sustain and deepen these new alignments; expand the critique of budget priorities; and permanently bend the cost curve of the biggest military spending machine in history.