Pentagon Derangement Syndrome: ‘Progressives’ Freaking Out Over Biden’s Defense Budget Are Missing the Forest for The Trees

As soon as it was released that President Biden will be seeking a total of $715 billion in Pentagon funding for Fiscal Year 2022 for a total of $753 billion in security spending, ‘progressives’ began to freak out.

In a Twitter thread getting an inordinate amount of play from much of the left, Public Citizen, a leftist group, calls the President’s request ‘reckless.’ Ro Khanna, who at times appears to like nothing more than the unilateral disarmament of the United States, quickly released a statement expressing his disappointment at the fact that the President’s budget is a nominal increase of 1.6% from Donald Trump’s final request of $704 billion.

But the reactionary focus on the topline number has, as usual, caused these ‘progressives’ to miss almost the entire boat on the president’s request, both defense and nondefense.

First, in reality, Biden’s budget represents an almost 10% reduction in actual military spending from last year, something progressives have been telling anyone who’ll listen they desperately want. While it’s true that the President’s request represents a nominal increase of about 1% from last year’s Pentagon budget request after adjusting from inflation, Biden’s request also eliminates the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which has been used as an off-budget source of Pentagon spending. Spending into this account is approved on an emergency basis, and thus exempt from most budget rules.

Over the past 20 years since 9/11, OCO has been used to approve and spend over $2 trillion. Last year alone, OCO spending stood at $71 billion, just about 10% of total defense spending. That’s gone now, meaning Joe Biden has just cut 10% from defense spending.

Second, the President’s plan makes smart new investments in broad agenda priority items progressives should celebrate: pay increases for soldiers, fighting climate change, and preparation for future healthcare emergency response, such as responding to disease and pandemic.

Another item of note in the President’s request - both in defense and nondefense budgets - is a renewed focus on research and development. Though defense R&D is not always seen as a pacifist priority, it has often resulted in major civil society advancements. The most prominent of those is a modern tool known as the Internet.

As arithmetic would have it, if more than the amount of the nominal budget-line increase is dedicated to priorities like climate change, R&D, pandemic prevention and preparedness, and pay increases for soldiers and civilian personnel, then something has to be cut to make the numbers work out. And some things are. As Defense News reported,
Cuts are coming. Paying for R&D and new capabilities requires cuts elsewhere, something previewed in the Biden administration’s early strategic guidance. The budget request supports the “DOD’s plan to divest legacy systems and programs to redirect resources from low- to high-priority programs, platforms, and systems. Some legacy force structure is too costly to maintain and operate, and no longer provides the capabilities needed to address national security challenges. The discretionary request enables DOD to reinvest savings associated with divestitures and other efficiencies to higher priority investments.
Despite some quoting loaded surveys that will take a lifetime to explain, large topline cuts in defense spending are not popular. Attempts to make large cuts in defense spending would also be soundly rejected by Congress and cost both the president and his party major political capital without actually accomplishing any policy goals. Let us remind ourselves that Congress gave the Pentagon’s main budget (even without the OCO account) more money than it asked for last year and enacted it over a presidential veto.

But one benefit of the Defense budget being so large is that a lot of things can be reasonably couched under defense spending is that it can be used to fund important priorities without giving the impression that the work of maintaining America’s superiority on land, air, and sea is being undermined. The Pentagon first declared climate change to be a major national security threat under the Obama administration, and the Biden administration is taking that threat seriously againHospital ships run by the Navy took up positions to treat civilians during the COVID-19 pandemic in case they were needed to handle overflow from civilian hospitals, and President Biden has mobilized the National Guard to help administer vaccines. Now more than ever, pandemic prevention and tracking and pre-empting the spread of disease globally is a defense issue.

So while topline cuts to military spending remain broadly unpopular, defense spending can instead be leveraged to invest in priorities from climate change to health care, domestically and globally. That’s where the smart money is.

Which brings us to the last point: the thing that is getting lost in the bickering over the topline defense numbers is that President Biden has requested a large increase in domestic discretionary spending - 16% - which, if approved by Congress, would bring non-defense domestic spending to the highest level it has ever been. It would also mean domestic discretionary spending would outstrip total defense spending (including OCO) for the first time ever since 9/11.

Keep in mind that this is spending in addition to what Congress has already committed to spending on domestic priorities through the coronavirus relief package - $1.9 trillion over 2 years - as well as what the president is proposing spending on infrastructure, economic revival, and safety net programs - $4 trillion over 8 years. Accounting for those, defense spending would be at a serious disadvantage against domestic spending under Biden’s leadership. Under Biden, the spending calculus will be reversed: domestic spending will have a ton of off-budget opportunities in addition to a double-digit increase, but defense spending will not.

This is what ‘progressives’ keep saying they want: less funding for overseas wars, investments in climate change and health care, and boosting domestic spending. But when they are handed that exact thing on a silver platter, all they do is run around like it’s some kind of betrayal.

This is Pentagon derangement syndrome, plain and simple.

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