2023 was a year marked by devastating conflicts from Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine to Hamas’s horrific terror attacks on Israel, from that country’s indiscriminate mass slaughter in Gaza to a devastating civil war in Sudan. And there’s a distinct risk of even worse to come this year. Still, there was one clear winner in this avalanche of violence, suffering, and war: the U.S. military-industrial complex.
In December, President Biden signed a record authorization of $886 billion in “national defense” spending for 2024, including funds for the Pentagon proper and work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy. Add to that tens of billions of dollars more in likely emergency military aid for Ukraine and Israel, and such spending could well top $900 billion for the first time this year.
Meanwhile, the administration’s $100-billion-plus emergency military aid package that failed to pass Congress last month is likely to slip by in some form this year, while the House and Senate are almost guaranteed to add tens of billions more for “national defense” projects in specific states and districts, as happened in two of the last three years.
Of course, before the money actually starts flowing, Congress needs to pass an appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2024, clearing the way for that money to be spent. As of this writing, the House and Senate had indeed agreed to a tentative deal to sign onto the $886 billion that was authorized in December. A trillion-dollar version of such funding could be just around the corner. (If past practice is any guide, more than half of that sum could go directly to corporations, large and small.)
A trillion dollars is a hard figure to process. In the 1960s, when the federal budget was a fraction of what it is now, Republican Senator Everett Dirksen allegedly said, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” Whether he did or not, that quote neatly captures how congressional attitudes toward federal spending have changed. After all, today, a billion dollars is less than a rounding error at the Pentagon. The department’s budget is now hundreds of billions of dollars more than at the height of the Vietnam War and over twice what it was when President Eisenhower warned of the “unwarranted influence” wielded by what he called “the military-industrial complex.”
To offer just a few comparisons: annual spending on the costly, dysfunctional F-35 combat aircraft alone is greater than the entire budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2020, Lockheed Martin’s contracts with the Pentagon were worth more than the budgets of the State Department and the Agency for International Development combined, and its arms-related revenues continue to rival the government’s entire investment in diplomacy. One $13 billion aircraft carrier costs more than the annual budget of the Environmental Protection Agency. Overall, more than half of the discretionary budget Congress approves every year — basically everything the federal government spends other than on mandatory programs like Medicare and Social Security — goes to the Pentagon.
It would, I suppose, be one thing if such huge expenditures were truly needed to protect the country or make the world a safer place. However, they have more to do with pork-barrel politics and a misguided “cover the globe” military strategy than a careful consideration of what might be needed for actual “defense.”
The road to an $886-billion military budget authorization began early last year with a debt-ceiling deal negotiated by President Biden and then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. That rolled back domestic spending levels, while preserving the administration’s proposal for the Pentagon intact. McCarthy, since ousted as speaker, had been pressed by members of the right-wing “Freedom Caucus” and their fellow travelers for just such spending cuts. (He had little choice but to agree, since that group proved to be his margin of victory in a speaker’s race that ran to 15 ballots.)
There was a brief glimmer of hope that the budget cutters in the Freedom Caucus might also go after the bloated Pentagon budget rather than inflict all the fiscal pain on domestic programs. Prominent right-wing Republicans like Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) pledged to put Pentagon spending reductions “on the table,” but then only went after the military’s alleged “woke agenda,” which boiled down to cutting a few billion dollars slated for fighting racism and sexual harassment while supporting reproductive freedom within the armed forces. Oh wait, Jordan also went after spending on the development of alternative energy sources as “woke.” In any case, he focused on just a minuscule share of the department’s overall budget.
Prominent Republicans outside Congress expressed stronger views about bringing the Pentagon to heel, but their perspectives got no traction on Capitol Hill. For instance, Kevin Roberts, the head of the Heritage Foundation, perhaps America’s most influential conservative think tank, made the case for reining in the Pentagon at American Conservative magazine:
“In the past, Congress accepted the D.C. canard that a bigger budget alone equals a stronger military. But now, facing down a record debt to the tune of $242,000 per household, conservatives are ready to tackle an entrenched problem and confront the political establishment, unaccountable federal bureaucrats, and well-connected defense contractors all at once in order to keep the nation both solvent and secure.”
Even more surprising, former Trump Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller released a memoir in which he called for a dramatic slashing of the Pentagon budget. “We could,” he argued, “cut our defense budget in half and it would still be twice as big as China’s.”
Ultimately, however, such critiques had zero influence over the Pentagon budget debate in the House, which quickly degenerated into a fight about a series of toxic amendments attacking reproductive freedom and LGTBQ and transgender rights in the military. Representative Colin Allred (D-TX) rightly denounced such amendments as a “shameful display of extremism” and across-the-board opposition by Democrats ensured that the first iteration of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2024 would be defeated and some of the most egregious Republican proposals eliminated later in the year.
In the meantime, virtually all mainstream press coverage and most congressional debate focused on those culture war battles rather than why this country was poised to shove so much money at the Pentagon in the first place.
Threat Inflation and the “Arsenal of Democracy”
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the strategic rationales put forward for the flood of new Pentagon outlays don’t faintly hold up to scrutiny. First and foremost in the Pentagon’s argument for virtually unlimited access to the Treasury is the alleged military threat posed by China. But as Dan Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight has pointed out, that country’s military strategy is “inherently defensive”:
“[T]he investments being made [by China] are not suited for foreign adventurism but are instead designed to use relatively low-cost weapons to defend against massively expensive American weapons. The nation’s primary military strategy is to keep foreign powers, and especially the United States, as far away from its shores as possible in a policy the Chinese government calls ‘active defense.’”
The greatest point of potential conflict between the U.S. and China is, of course, Taiwan. But a war over that island would come at a staggering cost for all concerned and might even escalate into a nuclear confrontation. A series of war games conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found that, while the United States could indeed “win” a war defending Taiwan from a Chinese amphibious assault, it would be a Pyrrhic victory. “The United States and its allies lost dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft, and tens of thousands of servicemembers,” it reported. “Taiwan saw its economy devastated. Further, the high losses damaged the U.S. global position for many years.” And a nuclear confrontation between China and the United States, which CSIS didn’t include in its assessment, would be a first-class catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions.
The best route to preventing a future Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be to revive Washington’s “One China” policy that calls for China to commit itself to a peaceful resolution of Taiwan’s status and for the U.S. to forswear support for that island’s formal independence. In other words, diplomacy, rather than increasing the Pentagon budget to “win” such a war, would be the way to go.
The second major driver of higher Pentagon budgets is allegedly the strain on this country’s arms manufacturing base caused by supplying tens of billions of dollars of weaponry to Ukraine, including artillery shells and missiles that are running short in American stockpiles. The answer, according to the Pentagon and the arms industry, is to further supersize this country’s already humongous military-industrial complex to produce enough weaponry to supply Ukraine (and now Israel, too), while acquiring sufficient weapons systems for a future war with China.
There are two problems with such arguments. First, supplying Ukraine doesn’t justify a permanent expansion of the U.S. arms industry. In fact, such aid to Kyiv needs to be accompanied by a now-missing diplomatic strategy designed to head off an even longer, ever more grinding war.
Second, the kinds of weapons needed for a war with China would, for the most part, be different from those relevant to a land war in Ukraine, so weaponry sent to Ukraine would have little relevance to readiness for a potential war with China (which Washington should, in any case, be working to prevent, not preparing for).
The Disastrous Costs of a Militarized Foreign Policy
Before investing ever more tax dollars in building an ever-expanding garrison state, the military strategy of the United States in the current global environment should be seriously debated. Just buying ever more bombs, missiles, drones, and next-generation artificial intelligence-driven weaponry is not, in fact, a strategy, though it is a boon to the military-industrial complex and an invitation to a destabilizing new arms race.
Unfortunately, neither Congress nor the Biden administration seems inclined to seriously consider an approach that would emphasize investing in diplomatic and economic tools over force or the threat of force. Given this country’s staggeringly expensive failures in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in this century (which cost trillions of dollars), resulting in hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, and leaving staggering numbers of American veterans with physical and psychological injuries (as extensively documented by the Costs of War Project at Brown University), you might think a different approach to the use of your tax dollars was in order, but no such luck.
There are indeed a few voices in Congress advocating restraint at the Pentagon, including Representatives Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), who have proposed a $100 billion reduction in that department’s budget as a first step toward a more balanced national security policy. Such efforts, however, must overcome an inhospitable political environment created by the endlessly exaggerated military threats facing this country and the political power of the arms industry, as well as its allies in Washington. Those allies, of course, include President Biden, who has labeled the U.S. an “arsenal of democracy” in his efforts to promote a new round of weapons aid to Ukraine. Not unlike his predecessor, he is touting the potential benefits of arms-production investments in companies in electoral swing states.
Sadly, throwing more money at the arms industry sacrifices future needs for short-term economic gains that are modest indeed. Were that money going into producing green jobs, a more resilient infrastructure, improved scientific and technical education, and a more robust public health system, we would find ourselves in a different world. Those should be the pillars of any American economic revival rather than the all-too-modest side effects of weapons development in fueling economic growth. Despite huge increases in funding since the 1980s, actual jobs in the arms manufacturing industry have, in fact, plummeted from three million to 1.1 million — and, mind you, those figures come from the arms industry’s largest trade association.
The United Auto Workers, one of the unions with the most members working in the arms industry, has recognized this reality and formed a Just Transition Committee. As noted by Spencer Ackerman at the Nation, it’s designed to “examine the size, scope, and impact of the U.S. military-industrial complex that employs thousands of UAW members and dominates the global arms trade.” According to Brandon Mancilla, director of the UAW’s Region 9A, which represents 50,000 active and retired workers in New York, New England, and Puerto Rico, the committee will “think about what it would mean to actually have a just transition, what used to be called a ‘peace conversion,’ of folks who work in the weapons and defense industry into something else.”
The UAW initiative parallels a sharp drop in unionization rates at major weapons makers (as documented by journalist Taylor Barnes). To cite two examples: in 1971, 69% of Lockheed Martin workers were unionized, while in 2022 that number was 19%; at Northrop Grumman today, a mere 4% of its employees are unionized, a dip that reflects a conscious strategy of the big weapons-making firms to outsource work to non-union subcontractors and states with anti-union “right to work” laws, while exporting tens of thousands of jobs overseas as part of multinational projects like the F-35 program. So much for the myth that defense industry jobs are more secure or have better pay and benefits than jobs in other parts of the economy.
A serious national conversation is needed on what a genuine defense strategy would look like, rather than one based on fantasies of global military dominance. Otherwise, the overly militarized approach to foreign and economic policy that has become the essence of Washington budget-making could be extended endlessly and disastrously into the future, something this country literally can’t afford to let happen.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.