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There has been much speculation as to the new president’s orientation toward the US military budget, which has been estimated at a total cost of one trillion dollars per year. As government spending takes center stage in Washington, President Obama is being called on by some to cut the military budget, an idea that has been largely absent from US politics for many years. Nancy Youssef explains how this is affecting the mood inside the Pentagon, while Miriam Pemberton debunks the supposed defense spending ‘cut’ that has been seen in various media reports of late.

Story Transcript

JESSE FREESTON, TRNN: In Washington, debate over the economic stimulus package has put government spending center stage, and the budget item that dare not speak its name has surfaced as part of the discussion. Democratic Congressman Barnie Frank put the question of military spending on the radar on George Stephanopoulos’s show last week.


SEN. JIM DEMINT (R-SC): But this is the largest spending bill in history, and we’re trying to call it a stimulus when it’s just doing the things that you wanted to do anyway.

REP. BARNEY FRANK, (D-MA): Well, let me tell you what I think is the largest. The largest spending bill in history is going to turn out to be the war in Iraq. And one of the things, if we’re going to talk about spending, I don’t—I have a problem when we leave out that extraordinarily expensive, damaging war in Iraq, which has caused much more harm than good, in my judgment. And I don’t understand why, from some of my conservative friends, building a road, building a school, helping somebody get health care, that’s wasteful spending, but that war in Iraq, which is going to cost us over $1 trillion before we’re through—. Yeah, I wish we hadn’t have done that. We’d have been in a lot better shape fiscally.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST, “THIS WEEK”: That is a whole ‘nother show, so I’m going to—.

FRANK: That’s the problem. The problem is that we look at spending and say, “Oh, don’t spend on highways. Don’t spend on health care. But let’s build Cold War weapons to defeat the Soviet Union when we don’t need them. Let’s have hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars going to the military without a check.” Unless everything’s on the table, then you’re going to have a disproportionate hit in some places.


FREESTON: Stephanopoulos steered the conversation in another direction.


STEPHANOPOULOS: There is also about $1 trillion to be spent on the banks, maybe even more, coming up in the next several weeks. And one of the hot-button issues there—and you talk about this populist anger—.


FREESTON: The Real News spoke to Miriam Pemberton, military policy expert at the Institute for Policy Studies. Miriam, how big is the US military budget?

MIRIAM PEMBERTON, MILITARY ANALYST, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Well, we spend nearly as much as the rest of the world put together. So there’s our military budget, and then there’s everybody else, and they’re petty much equivalent. The US spends nine times as much on its military forces and that way of engaging the world as it does on its homeland defenses and every other way of engaging the world through non-military means—diplomacy, you know, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, peacekeeping forces, non-military international assistance. You put all of that together, and we spend one dollar on that for every nine dollars we spend on the military.

FREESTON: According to calculations done by Robert Higgs of the Independent Institute, the total amount the US government spent on the military in 2007 was $935 billion. Higgs told The Real News that that number has likely topped $1 trillion this year. We spoke to Nancy Youssef, McClatchy Pentagon correspondent, to find out if the military leadership feels their budget is under threat.

NANCY YOUSSEF, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS: Absolutely. You know, not only—there is the base budget, and throughout the Bush administration there were supplemental budgets that were used to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so you have things that are put under GWOT funding (global war on terror) that are immediately in danger, because they’re not under sort of the security of the base budget. So those were in trouble. And, as you mentioned, the budget itself is quite large. There’s talk all over the Pentagon right now about acquisitions and what should be kept and what should be cut. I think there’s a clear understanding that this sort of unlimited—by some people’s standards—unlimited defense spending, those days are over. And it’s only reinforced as United States talks about withdrawing or drawing down troops from Iraq. Even if they move those troops to Afghanistan, the numbers now are 30,000 compared to 140,000 troops in Iraq. So I think everybody at the Pentagon recognizes that the budget as it is is unsustainable. [inaudible] feel, especially those who are under GWOT or supplemental funding budgets, sort of worried, because it’s not as secure where that money will come from. So definitely the new talk at the building right now is budgets and what stays and what goes.

FREESTON: In January, the commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, proposed that all Marines be moved from Iraq to Afghanistan by the end of 2009.

YOUSSEF: Some would argue, for example, the Marine push to go from Iraq to Afghanistan is partly financial, in that it guarantees that money will continue for the Marines. I mean, one could argue that that’s one reason for it.

PEMBERTON: Inter-service rivalry is alive and well. The Army and the Marines are looking to increase troop strength. The Air Force is much more interested in these high-tech planes. The Navy wants to keep its DDG-1000 destroyer. They all have competing interests, and I’m quite sure that they are being felt rather intensely over there in the building.

FREESTON: Obama in recent weeks has been criticized by some and lauded by others for seeking to cut the military budget. A recent Washington Post op-ed from Robert Kagan entitled “No Time to Cut Defense” says: “Pentagon officials have leaked word that the Office of Management and Budget has ordered a 10 percent cut in defense spending for the coming fiscal year.” (February 3, 2009) According to Miriam Pemberton, this information is very misleading.

PEMBERTON: This is basically the same game that the Pentagon has played for years, which is they put out an insanely inflated number, and that number is $590 billion just for the regular defense budget, not including what they spend in the Department of Energy on nuclear weapons, not including all these so-called emergency supplementals to fund the wars that we’re actually fighting, but just the base budget. So they put this number out, which was a 13 percent increase over what the budget was last year. And they do this every year. So they put out a big number, and that raises the alarms among the defense contractors, and they begin doing what we’ve seen them doing, which is mobilizing to talk about how many jobs are created from military spending. And then, when the budget actually comes out, they’ve shaved a little from that number, and that is called a cut. And, in fact, the numbers that I’m seeing as likely, it’s—you know, they’re ballpark, we won’t know for a couple of weeks what the real top-line numbers are, but it’s looking like they’re going to actually increase the budget by about 3 percent and call that a cut.

FREESTON: Whatever happens to the defense budget, how that budget will be spent will be determined in large part by Obama’s newly confirmed deputy secretary of defense, William Lynn. Lynn’s confirmation required a special waiver from the White House in order to get around Obama’s new ethics rules, since Lynn currently serves as the senior vice president of government operations and top lobbyist for the world’s largest missile manufacturer, Raytheon. He will take over as number two at the Pentagon, a position whose central task is the setting of defense-spending priorities. Meanwhile, Raytheon has hundreds of potential contracts awaiting approval in 2009, after receiving $10 billion in government funds over 2008. The White House told The Boston Globe that the special waiver was based on “exigent circumstances relating to national security.”


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Nancy Youssef is McClatchy Newspapers' chief Pentagon correspondent. She spent the past four years covering the Iraq war, most recently as Baghdad bureau chief. Her pieces focused on the everyday Iraqi experience, civilian causalities and how the US' military strategy was reshaping Iraq's social and political dynamics.

Miriam Pemberton is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She heads a group that produces the annual "Unified Security Budget for the United States" and she is a former Director of the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament. She is co-editor, with William Hartung, of "Lessons from Iraq: Avoiding the Next War".

Nancy Youssef is McClatchy Newspapers' chief Pentagon correspondent. She spent the past four years covering the Iraq war, most recently as Baghdad bureau chief. Her pieces focused on the everyday Iraqi experience, civilian causalities and how the US' military strategy was reshaping Iraq's social and political dynamics. While at the Free Press, she traveled throughout Jordan and Iraq for Knight Ridder, covering the Iraq war from the time leading up to it through the post-war period.