If America were only fighting a Thirty Years War we’d be past the halfway point. But markers of time, like measures of progress, are only an illusion in wars without end; as useless to the people fighting them as the F-35 has been. Still, it’s worth checking in occasionally to see what fresh hell there is. Reports came this week from Afghanistan where the key city of Ghazni, on the capital, Kabul’s, southern doorstep, was recaptured by Taliban fighters who had been making incremental gains in the city for months. This, only weeks after a flurry of recent reports suggested a breakthrough in peace talks with Taliban might be imminent.
But put all that aside because when it came time this week for the president to sign a new National Defense Authorization Act, the news from Afghanistan seemed to be, at most, a marginally related sideshow.
Two aspects of the newly authorized Pentagon budget attracted the most attention. The first occurred earlier this week when the president failed to acknowledge John McCain during a signing ceremony for the new $716 billion Defense bill named for the Senator. And, secondly, Trump’s insinuation that he could circumvent restrictions written into the bill that limit U.S. relations with Russia. These matters are distractions not worth spending another minute on until the national press and public officials have exhausted themselves demanding answers to more fundamental questions: What national security objectives are being served by the hundreds of billion dollars allocated in the bill; are they worth it; and how will that money, accounting for every last dollar of it, actually accomplish those ends?
ISIS appears to be resurgent in Iraq; after 17 years of war the Taliban is recapturing key territory in Afghanistan, the Saudi led and U.S. abetted war in Yemen has produced mass starvation and humanitarian disaster without any evident strategic benefit to America. Yet, the new budget represents an $82 billion dollar increase over last year’s. As Reason magazine points out, just that marginal yearly increase, a fraction of the total dollar value of the NDAA, is $20 billion more than Russia’s entire defense budget for last year. Will the additional tens of billions cure the failures produced by the hundreds that came before them or are they a perverse reward; an anti-performance bonus?
Not all of those billions will go to waste, of course. Some of it will fund essential defense initiatives, the beans and bullets of national security; increases in troop pay, overdue equipment upgrades, and a necessary reform of the military’s outdated personnel system. But about half will go to private contractors where, “much of it is then wasted on useless overhead, fat executive salaries, and startling (yet commonplace) cost overruns on weapons systems and other military hardware that, in the end, won’t even perform as promised,” as William Hartung wrote last year.
I’m not suggesting we gut the Pentagon’s budget. Hardly. I support the troops—do you? But everyone who is paying attention and has a pulse, and I mean everyone, knows that the American Defense establishment is deeply dysfunctional. While the military is trapped in doomed wars of dubious strategic value, the Pentagon leadership has failed repeatedly to adequately enunciate a national security policy, which it will oblige itself to follow let alone accomplish.
Retired generals write books about why America keeps losing its wars; serving generals request bigger budgets.
And that is to say nothing of the insane levels of fraud, waste, and abuse that everyone in the Defense community knows is rampant. I mean everyone from the newest boot private to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They all know it’s happening because it’s not about lurid corruption operating in the shadows. It’s right there on the surface, baked into business as usual. Look no further than the $5 billion spent on the 5 different uniforms the Army has gone through in the last 20 years; the trillion dollar F-35 project, a malfunction-ridden boondoggle too big to kill. Look at the U.S. counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan where despite the almost $9 billion spent since 2002, opium production, a key source of Taliban revenue, hit a record high in 2017, up 70% over the previous year. Or just look at Afghanistan itself where the war has been going on long for so long that it has entered a hellish version of reruns, cycling through the same sequence of Taliban resurgence and renewed American effort, with diminishing returns and dwindling attention.
The massive new budget, a behemoth bigger than the last behemoth, hasn’t prompted any fundamental rethinking of defense policy. Instead, there is hollow moral pageantry over the cretinous Trump failing to doff his hat to the honorable John McCain, whose budget the president is signing with all its extra billions.
McCain served honorably in Vietnam and survived heroically as a prisoner of war. He has more than earned his military honors. But do the people who feel that Trump’s failure to honor the Senator was an affront worth dwelling on actually believe that Trump has the character or moral authority to bestow that honor? Do they think that McCain would really be so eager for a president he clearly loathes to offer him phony praise?
Do they honestly think that any of this matters in the least?