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Let’s start with this: according to the Pentagon, the production and acquisition costs of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet, the military’s most expensive weapons program, have risen yet again, this time by 4.3% since 2010 to $395.6 billion. If you’re talking about the total cost of the system, including maintenance and support for the nearly 2,500 planes that will some (endlessly delayed) day be produced for the military, that has now reached an estimated $1.51 trillion, a 9% rise since 2010. All this for a plane that some experts doubt has any particular purpose in the future U.S. arsenal.
At last, however, the House of Representatives seems to have had enough of wasteful spending programs. Perhaps its members also read therecent poll that shows Americans generally support more funds for the Defense Department -- until, that is, they are told just how much is spent on defense compared to other budget items. Then, 75% of them (67% of Republicans) back significant cuts, an average of 18%, in that budget to reduce the federal deficit.
Whatever the explanation, last week the Republican-dominated House finally took out the pruning shears and acted with remarkable decisiveness. They sent a bill to the Senate cutting $310 billion from the deficit over the next decade. The F-35 program went down in flames.
Oh wait, that’s my mistake. Actually, they slashed food stamps, children’s health care, funds to hospitals that serve the poor, and Medicaid -- all in order to shield the Pentagon from future cuts. In fact, the House bill actually adds more than $8 billion to the Pentagon budget. As the New York Times reports, if the House bill were to become law, “the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that more than 20 million children would face reduced food and nutrition support, almost 300,000 would be knocked off the federal school lunch program, and at least 300,000 would lose access to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.”
Admittedly, at the moment, the House bill won’t make it through the Senate. But consider it a test-run for at least one possible future. A recent estimate of what Mitt Romney’s campaign-trail plans for Pentagon spending might mean suggests that, were he elected, defense spending would increase by more than $2 trillion over the next decade. Imagine what that would do to the poor. As TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore suggests, by the time election 2012 is over, the Pentagon budget is likely to be locked and loaded for years to come. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Astore discusses how the two presidential candidates are sure to out-militarize each other in the coming campaign, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom
Similarly, to have a realistic chance of defeating him -- so goes American political thinking -- candidate Romney must be seen as even stronger and more uncompromising, a hawk among hawks. Whatever military spending Obama calls for, however much he caters to neo-conservative agendas, however often he confesses his undying love for and extols the virtues of our troops, Romney will surpass him with promises of even more military spending, an even more muscular and interventionist foreign policy, and an even deeper love of our troops.
Indeed, with respect to the national security complex, candidate Romney already comes across like Edward G. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco in the classic film Key Largo: he knows he wants one thing, and that thing is more. More ships for the Navy. More planes for the Air Force. More troops in general -- perhaps 100,000 more. And much more spending on national defense.
Clearly, come November, whoever wins or loses, the national security state will be the true victor in the presidential sweepstakes.
Of course, the election cycle alone is hardly responsible for our national love of weaponry and war. Even in today’s straitened fiscal climate, with all the talk of government austerity, Congress feels obliged to trump an already generous president by adding yet more money for military appropriations. Ever since the attacks of 9/11, surging defense budgets, forever war, and fear-mongering have become omnipresent features of our national landscape, together with pro-military celebrations that elevate our warriors and warfighters to hero status. In fact, the uneasier Americans grow when it comes to the economy and signs of national decline, the more breathlessly we praise our military and its image of overwhelming power. Neither Obama nor Romney show any sign of challenging this celebratory global “lock and load” mentality.
To explain why, one must consider not only the pro-military positions of each candidate, but their vulnerabilities -- real or perceived -- on military issues. Mitt Romney is the easier to handicap. As a Mormon missionary in France and later as the beneficiary of a high draft lottery number, Romney avoided military service during the Vietnam War. Perhaps because he lacks military experience, he has already gone on record (during the Republican presidential debates) as deferring to military commanders on decisions such as whether we should bomb Iran. A President Romney, it seems, would be more implementer-in-chief than civilian commander-in-chief.
Romney’s métier at Bain Capital was competence in the limited sense of buying low and selling high, along with a certain calculated ruthlessness in dividing companies and discarding people to manufacture profit. These skills, such as they are, earn him little respect in military circles. Compare him to Harry Truman or Teddy Roosevelt, both take-charge leaders with solid military credentials. Rather than a Trumanesque “the buck stops here,” Romney is more about “make a buck here.” Rather than Teddy Roosevelt’s bloodied but unbowed “man in the arena,” Romney is more bloodless equity capitalist circling high above the fray in a fancy suit.
Consider as well Romney’s five telegenic sons. It’s hard to square Mitt’s professions of love for our military with his sons’ lack of interest in military service. Indeed, when asked about their lack of enthusiasm for joining the armed forces during the surge in Iraq in 2007, Mitt off-handedly replied that his sons were already performing aninvaluable national service by helping him get elected.
An old American upper class sense of noblesse oblige, of sons of privilege like George H.W. Bush or John F. Kennedy volunteering for national service in wartime, has been dead for decades in our otherwise military-happy country. When it comes to sending American sons (and increasingly daughters) into harm’s way, for President Romney it’ll be another case of chickenhawk guts and working-class blood.
For election 2012, however, the main point is that the Romney family’s collective lack of service makes him vulnerable on national defense, a weakness that has already led Mitt and his campaign to overcompensate with ever more pro-military policy pronouncements supplemented with the usual bellicose rhetoric of all Republicans (Ron Paul excepted). As a result, President-elect Romney will ultimately find himself confined, cowed, and controlled by the national security complex -- and he’ll have only himself (and Barack Obama) to blame.
Obama, by way of contrast, has already shown a passion for military force that in saner times would make him invulnerable to charges of being “weak” on defense. Fond of dressing up in military flight jackets and praising the troops to the rafters, Obama has substance to go with his style. He’s made some tough calls like sending SEAL Team 6 into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden; using NATO airpower to take down Qaddafi in Libya;expanding special ops and drone warfare in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, including the assassination of U.S. citizens without judicial process. America’s Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2009 has become a devotee of special forces, kill teams, and high-tech drones that challenge the very reality of national sovereignty. Surely such a man can’t be accused of being weak on defense.
The political reality, of course, is different. Despite his record, the Republican Party is forever at pains to portray Obama as suspect (that middle name Hussein!), divided in his loyalties (that Kenyan connection!), and not slavish enough in his devotion to “underdog” Israel. (Could he be a crypto-Muslim?)
The president and his campaign staff are no fools. Since any sign of “weakness” vis-à-vis Iran and similar enemies du jour or any expression of less than boundless admiration for our military will be exploited ruthlessly by Romney et al., Obama will continue to tack rightwards on military issues and national defense. As a result, once elected he, too, will be a prisoner of the Complex. In this process, the only surefire winner and all-time champ: once again, the national security state.
So what can we expect on the campaign trail this summer and fall? Certainly not prospective civilian commanders-in-chief confident in the vitally important role of restraining or even reversing the worst excesses of an imperial state. Rather, we’ll witness two men vying to be cheerleader-in-chief for continued U.S. imperial dominance achieved at nearly any price.
Election 2012 will be all about preserving the imperial status quo, only more so. Come January 2013, regardless of which man takes the oath of office, we’ll remain a country with a manic enthusiasm for the military. Rather than a president who urges us to abhor endless war, we’ll be led by a man intent on keeping us oblivious to the way we’re squandering our nation’s future in fruitless conflicts that ultimately compromise our core constitutional principles.
For all the suspense the media will gin up in the coming months, the ballots are already in and the real winner of election 2012 will be the national security state. Unless you’re a denizen of that special interest state, we know the loser, too. It’s you.
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Copyright 2012 William J. Astore