Congress is working to spend more on bolstering military capabilities than it has in years, but that's not enough for neoconservative war hawks who see escalating global military might as central to protecting national interests, despite years of seemingly endless war.
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an influential neoconservative think tank with close ties to the architects of the invasion of Iraq and other Bush administration wartime policies, released a report last week calling for a sweeping expansion of the nation's global military footprint and budget increases at the Pentagon that would exceed congressional caps by $672 billion over the next five years.
Daniel Gouré, a conservative commentator and vice president at the Lexington Institute, called the report a "must read for Trump's national security team." The report could have considerable influence on the White House, which issued an executive order in January directing federal agencies to "pursue peace through strength" by rebuilding and modernizing the United States armed forces.
In fact, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech at AEI on Tuesday, declaring that the Trump administration is working with Congress to pass the "largest investment in our national defense since the days of Ronald Reagan."
The Trump administration has struggled to build a cohesive foreign policy around a president who campaigned on quasi-isolationist themes but has since raised international tensions with explosive rhetoric and bombastic tweets, and staffers often look to think tanks and the military itself for guidance. Trump has already placed military generals in top cabinet positions and left the armed forces with considerable decision-making power over how to proceed with the war in Afghanistan.
The AEI report is also intended for the Republican-controlled Congress, which is working this week to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The legislation outlines defense spending for the next fiscal year, and the bills would authorize up to $640 billion in base defense spending and an additional $60 to $65 billion for overseas combat missions in countries, such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
The bills would provide $30 to $40 billion more than President Trump originally requested, but that's not enough for the neocons. AEI argues defense spending should be increased to $679 billion in 2018 in order to provide "credible down payments on rebuilding the armed forces."
The US already spends more on its military than any other country by a long shot. The Pentagon accounts for more than half of discretionary domestic spending, which is the money allocated by Congress each year. When the costs of incarceration and drug and immigration enforcement are factored in, the US "militarized budget" sucks up 64 percent of discretionary spending, according to the National Priorities Project.
However, AEI and other conservatives argue the armed forces are worn out and in need of new weapons and technology after two decades of what Gouré calls "continuous operations," during which time potential enemies in other nation-states have bolstered their own defense forces. Of course, the wear and tear on the US armed forces is partly due to the fact that they've been busy fighting seemingly endless wars in the Middle East that were launched by neoconservatives in the first place.
So, where do neocons propose that the money for military improvement come from? AEI argues that domestic programs such as Social Security and Medicare "eat up" too much of the nondiscretionary budget, and Congress should shift some of this money to overseas military deployments in order to achieve its "three theater strategy" for asserting US power across the globe.
In order to protect the US from an apparently evolving assortment of vicious enemies around the world, AEI says the policymakers must return the military to "a much more robust permanent forward posture" and move away from "rotational deployments" in three main global "theaters" where US interests lie: Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Protecting the homeland and US economic interests, according to AEI, requires building a larger empire abroad.
Isolationists and anti-war activists on both the left and right see a glaring hole in this logic. They argue spending huge sums of money on the military leads to unnecessary and violent entanglements overseas and creates more enemies to fight in the future. For example, the chaos caused by the war in Iraq created a breeding ground for ISIS (also known as Daesh). This locks the US into a brutal cycle of bloated military budgets and seemingly perpetual war-making.
As news broke this week about the CIA expanding its bloody and covert missions to hunt down the Taliban in Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh, a senior fellow with the Center for International Policy who resigned from a State Department position in protest over the Obama-era escalation in Afghanistan, said current CIA operations are "direct descendants" of US-sponsored death squads in Latin America and Shia torture and murder militias in Baghdad.
"The results will assuredly be the same: war crimes, mass murder, torture and the terrorization of entire communities of men, women and children in their own homes," Hoh said in a statement. "This will lead to more support for the Taliban and a deepening of the war in Afghanistan. The CIA should ask itself, where has this worked before?"
Congress had a chance to reinsert itself into this debate last month, when Sen. Tim Kaine and Sen. Rand Paul introduced an amendment that would have sunset the authorization for the use of military force Congress gave the White House after 9/11. This would have forced Congress to debate overseas military operations individually, deciding on a case-by-case basis whether the US should have boots on the ground in countries like Syria and Afghanistan. However, the Senate rejected the amendment by a vote of 61 to 36.
Instead, Congress shapes military policy through defense authorization and appropriations bills each year, which leaves lawmakers quibbling about the number of battleships and fighter jets to buy, and whether a new "space corps" should take over military operations in space. Lawmakers tend to fight for policies that benefit defense contractors in their home states, which spend millions of dollars every year on lobbying and campaign contributions.
The NDAA only authorizes military spending; it will take a budget bill to actually allocate money to the Pentagon. In order to do this, Congress must decide whether -- or by how much -- it wants to increase funding for the military, and come to a compromise on lifting self-imposed spending caps before the end of the year. This will give Democrats a chance to push for increases in spending on domestic programs. Few Democrats have come out against massive military spending, despite protests from the left.
AEI and Gouré -- and arguably the Trump administration as well -- see a disconnect between policymakers and the military. They say elected politicians expect the military to defend a broad range of US interests and security commitments across the globe, but fail to provide the armed forces with the resources needed to adequately address them all. Short of a "tectonic shift" in the way politicians define our national interests, Gouré writes, the only choices are either to sustain a military that can defend those values or "to prepare for a long twilight struggle."
Fearmongering by neocons about threats to the nation's future is nothing new, but what about a "tectonic shift" in how policymakers define US interests abroad? Such a change could de-escalate and eventually end years of unceasing and murderous warfare. Congress could embark on that shift tomorrow by refusing to pay the tab and redirecting those tax dollars back to its constituents.