Letter from the US: Higher military spending signals more war

US warships.

With overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, the new 2019 budget for the military is 13% larger than in 2017. It is even bigger than what Donald Trump had proposed, writes Barry Sheppard.

The US spends more on its armed forces than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Britain, France and Japan combined, according to the United Nations. About 17% of the nation’s entire US$4 trillion budget goes to the military.

The official figure for next year is $716 billion. There are extra funds for the military hidden in spending by other federal departments, including the CIA. The real figure inches toward $1 trillion, according to the Washington Post.

Nuclear weapons

A dangerous aspect is that there will be billions in new investments in nuclear weapons research and new nuclear warheads. These include so-called “tactical” smaller bombs designed for the battlefield, not cities, making them more likely to be used. Any such use could easily get out of hand and spiral into a full-blown nuclear war.

This program, euphemistically labelled “modernisation” of the nuclear arsenal, was started by the Barack Obama administration, and was to cost $1 trillion over 10 years. The new military budget continues and expands the program.

We should remember that it was the US that first developed the atom bomb. It was the first to use it twice in 1945 against cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands immediately and many more from radiation-induced cancers in the years since.

The use of these weapons, many military experts have said, was not needed to end the US-Japan inter-imperialist war. Japan was already defeated.

Rather, what Washington wanted was to demonstrate its willingness to use such weapons against civilians if it saw fit — a monstrous threat against the other nations.

Its immediate purpose was to threaten the USSR, as Washington prepared to turn away from its wartime alliance with the Soviet Union to active hostility.

The US, with diplomatic help from Britain, completed this turn by 1947, and set the Soviet Union in its sights. The development of the bomb by the Soviet Union blocked any dreams by the US of a quick atomic attack, and set in motion the nuclear arms race. The madness of “Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)” became the norm throughout the Cold War.

The US contemplated using the bomb in the 1950-53 Korean War, and directly threatened to do so in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the 1973 Israeli-Arab war. Fortunately, there were cooler heads in Washington during the Korean War, and in the Kremlin in 1962 and 1973, that defused these threats.

After World War II, Congress ceded its Constitutional obligation to decide whether to go to war to the executive branch. The last time Congress declared war was in 1941. One aspect of this was ceding to one person, the president, the sole authority to launch atomic war.

Today this is Trump, who once mused that if the US has nuclear weapons, why not use them?

Wherever the president goes, he is accompanied by an aide who carries the “football” — a briefcase with the codes to unleash such a horrific eventuality. This danger has been brought closer by the decision to build the “tactical” nuclear weapons, which will relaunch the nuclear arms race as other nations try to keep up.

Doomsday Clock

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which since the age of the bomb began, has printed on its cover a “doomsday clock” with a hand pointing how close we are to midnight. In the light of this recent development, first set in motion by Obama, it has moved that hand closer to 12.

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a general relaxation of the fear of atomic war. That sentiment is now finished, if it was ever justified.

Another aspect of ceding war-making powers to the executive has been the many wars, some hot and some covert, the US has been waging since 1945. These include the seemingly endless wars in the Middle East we are living through.

Another aspect of the new military budget is additional “emergency” funding tagged for “overseas contingency operations”, meaning just such wars. The budget sets asides funds for new ones down the line.

The “Defense” Department was more accurately named the Department of War until the end of World War II. The US has not waged a defensive war since the war of 1812 against the British. The War Department is much more accurate.

The increase in military spending in the new budget has been advocated by the War Department in recent years. “Our regional competitors in the Pacific and Europe have been studying our strengths and our vulnerabilities for more than a decade,” Major General Paul A Chamberlain said in February.

“Their modernisation efforts are slowly eroding our competitive advantage, and this budget request addresses that, by providing the necessary resources to ensure the Army’s superiority.”

Outlining a new national war strategy in July, War Secretary Jim Mattis said: “It is incumbent upon us to field more lethal forces if our nation is to retain the ability to defend ourselves and what we stand for.”

‘Inter-state strategic competition’

That new strategy states that “inter-state strategic competition” — especially with China and Russia — “not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.”

This new strategy is rooted in the recognition that the old “world order” that ensured US domination has eroded, and US imperialism faces new challenges in a changing world.

Obama tried to get out of the Middle East region with his “pivot to Asia” — meaning China — but couldn’t do both. Mattis now supports a larger military footprint in Afghanistan, while simultaneously preparing for conflict with China and Russia.

This has repercussions with both parts of Korea. Military analysts argue that the US must keep its troops and bases in South Korea as part of its aggressive stance toward China.

The bipartisan support for the military spending in the new bill is indicated by two quotes.

“The Budget Agreement,” Trump tweeted, “gives Secretary Mattis what he needs to keep America Great.”

Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, meanwhile, called the new budget a “win for the American people”.

However, Trump objected to non-spending aspects of the new law. When signing the bill, Trump decreed that 50 provisions unconstitutionally encroached on his prerogatives as “Commander in Chief and as the sole representative of the Nation in foreign affairs”.

In recent decades, starting with then-president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, such “signing statements” have been used by presidents to circumvent Congress. It amounts to declarations that the provisions they object to will not be enforced. This is part of the ceding of power to the executive.

Apparently, Congress inserted provisions in the budget law to assert some authority over the president in conducting foreign policy, which Trump has in effect nullified.

Such signing statements are not new, but Trump’s use of them in this instance is part of his drive to establish an authoritarian regime of the type we see in Hungary and Poland. This is new.

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