The Real Reason for Vast US Defence Bill
By Gwynne Dyer
-- -- Last week the Pentagon asked Congress for the biggest
defence budget since World War II. It asked for US$515 billion,
plus an extra US$70 billion to cover the costs of the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq for part of the coming year.
The United States proposes to spend more on the armed forces,
quite apart from the running costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, than
it did at the height of the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
And yet almost all the commentary and analysis in the US media
has focused on the spending on the two wars.
Even that is a lot of money. The US Congress has already
approved US$691 billion in spending on Iraq and Afghanistan
since 2001, and the total estimate for this year alone is US$190
billion. Not only that, but some of the money in the regular
defence budget can also be indirectly attributed to America's
wars in the Muslim world, like the expenditure on new equipment
to replace the weapons that have been destroyed or worn out in
But there is a great deal more money in the present US defence
budget - probably three times as much - that has nothing to do
with the "war on terror".
Even if you accept the deeply suspect proposition that invading
foreign countries is a useful way to fight terrorism, invading
the target countries (which generally do not inhabit the higher
reaches of the technological pecking order) does not require
eleven aircraft carriers and fleets of stealth bombers.
So what is all the rest of the money for? According to Michael
Klare, defence correspondent for The Nation, the answer is
obvious. "The US military posits its future on the China threat.
That is the ultimate justification for a defence budget of
US$500 billion a year. There is no other plausible threat.
"If you look at the new budget which came out just this week, it
calls for vast spending on new weapons systems that can only
reasonably be justified by what they call a 'peer competitor', a
future superpower that could threaten the United States. Only
China conceivably can fill that bill. Not Iran, not Iraq, or
some [other] rogue state. Only China fits that bill."
It is obvious, when you think about it. If the United States had
no present or prospective "peer competitor", how could the
Pentagon justify spending huge amounts of money on
For beating up on "rogue states", last-generation-but-one
weapons are more than adequate. So there has to be a peer
competitor, whether it understands its role in the scheme of
things or not. And only China can fill that role.
So what is the alleged competition about? Energy, of course, and
mostly oil. Michael Klare again: "The Pentagon and US
strategists talk openly about US-China competition for energy in
Africa, in the Caspian Sea basin, and in the Persian Gulf, and
they talk about the danger of a China-Russia strategic alliance
that the US has to be able to counter.
"This is very much part of US concerns. They talk about the
Shanghai Co-operation Organisation as a proto-military alliance
that threatens America's vital interests.
"Terrorist assaults and skirmishes with Iran or some other rogue
state are more likely on the curve of probability, and the
military is geared to fight these kind of regional skirmishes
... But when they talk about the greatest threats that they
might have to face, for which they have to allocate their
largest sums and acquire their most potent weapons, it's the
China-Russia alliance that they're preparing for and asking
Congress to allocate the largest sums of money for."
What the US military are not doing, for the moment, is telling
the American public that China is why they want all that money.
The amorphous, infinitely expandable "war on terror" can be used
to cover all sorts of other expenditures as well. Nobody is
required to prove that China really does pose a strategic threat
to America's oil supplies, or to demonstrate that a
Chinese-Russian alliance is a serious political possibility.
But that happy time is probably coming to an end. As the
"terrorist threat" gradually shrinks down towards its true,
rather modest dimensions in the minds of American voters and
even American politicians, the wisdom of spending so much money
on a strategic confrontation with China that does not yet exist
- and may never actually come to pass - is bound to come under
As for an enduring Chinese-Russian alliance, the notion is about
as credible this time round as it was back in the early days of
the Cold War. Since China is the country that poses the greatest
potential threat to Russia, it can be a good short-term strategy
for Moscow to hug China close.
But the alliance lasted only 13 years last time and would
probably not survive even that long on a second occasion.
This year's US defence budget will probably go through more or
less uncut, because few members of Congress who face re-election
in November will want to leave themselves open to accusations of
being "soft on terror". But next year will be a different story.
For the Pentagon, the good old days are coming to an end.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are
published in 45 countries.
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