Commentary

Exploiting the War on Terrorism to Cash in at Taxpayers’ Expense

By Ivan Eland
May 6, 2002

In the nation’s capital, there is nothing like a crisis to send the “special interest” wolves hunting for the red meat of federal largesse. The beasts have even taken advantage of the Sept. 11 terrorism and the ongoing war. And the politicians appease them. A particularly egregious example arose when President Bush declared that crop and cattle production was a “national security issue.” Given that multi-billion-dollar handout to farmers and agri-businesses, why should we believe Bush when he tells us that we need to add another $48 billion to an already bloated defense budget to fight terrorists? Is it needed or is it more red meat for the special interests?

A close look at the fattening defense budget reveals some bones being tossed to the vested interests in the name of the patriotic fight against the forces of evil. In fact, only $19 billion of the $48 billion hike in the 2003 defense budget will be spent on the war. The rest of the increase will allow the Pentagon to founder on the status quo at a time when the changing threat requires that the military be transformed.

The dash to increase funding will bring the already excessive annual budget for national defense to nearly $400 billion, or $1,400 per citizen per year. With the increases, the U.S. military will spend more than the combined defense budgets of the next 25 highest spending nations and more than 30 times the defense expenditures of the countries in the “axis of evil” (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea), according to the Center for Defense Information. But America is already more dominant militarily relative to the rest of the world than the Roman and British empires at their height. So fighting the small conflicts (e.g., Afghanistan) or medium-sized wars (if the president makes the unwise move to eliminate one or more “axis of evil” regimes) to conduct the battle against terrorism is well within the existing $350 billion budget. In fact, during the last decade, the militaries of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea declined.

Rather than a hefty funding increase, the expenses for the war on terrorism could be covered by savings elsewhere in the budget. Cutting unneeded military bases or anachronistic armaments designed for the Cold War would save billions. For example, after the fall of the Soviet air forces, no new large-scale threat exists to American dominance of the skies to justify the exorbitantly priced F-22 fighter.

Many weapons that the defense industry churns out are technologically dated, years behind schedule, and vastly exceed cost targets. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has compared the way the Department of Defense does business to the practices of Soviet central planning. Giving an inefficient defense bureaucracy wads of cash is rewarding failure and therefore begging for more of the same. In that environment, few incentives exist for the needed transformation of American defenses in the wake of Sept. 11. Bush pledged in his campaign to “skip a generation” of weapons technology and concentrate on developing futuristic armaments. Yet the 2003 defense budget effectively eliminates no major existing weapons programs.

Thus, throwing more money at the Pentagon can actually reduce U.S. security rather than enhance it. The defense bureaucracy and vested interests seeking to exploit the war on terrorism to fill their own pockets at the taxpayers’ expense must be defeated.

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies for the Cato Institute.