Trying to justify a major funding increase for the Pentagon, President Trump has taken to calling the U.S. military “depleted.”
Yet in 2015, the most recent year for which we have full, comparative data, the United States spent $596 billion on its military. That’s more than the next seven countries combined. Trump now calls for increasing that amount by $54 billion for the 2018 fiscal year, while also increasing current-year, 2017 defense spending by $30 billion.
Just to put that into context: That proposed $84 billion increase in military spending — just the increase — is significantly greater than Russia’s entire annual military budget of $66 billion.
In addition, eight of the 10 biggest spending nations, and 15 of the top 20, are close U.S. military allies such as Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, France, Germany, South Korea and Japan. The combined annual military spending of the United States and those allies is $1.1 trillion, far outstripping any plausible combination against us.
China has no such allies.
Russia has no such allies.
It’s also important to note that Trump has proposed adding tens of thousands of active-duty military personnel, dozens of new ships and significant upgrades of the Air Force strategic bomber fleet. However, none of those efforts would be funded by this proposed increase, meaning that it’s merely a down payment for much bigger spending increases to come.
That reflects one of Washington’s most ironclad ironies: Those people who are most likely to launch into a lecture that you can’t solve a problem by throwing more money at it are always the same people demanding that we do exactly that when the debate turns to defense.
While proposing what he calls “historic” increases in defense spending, Trump is also proposing drastic cuts to foreign aid and a 37 percent cut for the State Department and related programs. Within a day of that news leaking, more than 120 retired three- and four-star generals signed a letter of protest to Congress, warning that such programs “are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”
That letter - signed by Gen. David Petraeus and Admiral James Stavridis, among others — also quotes Trump’s secretary of defense, Gen. James Mattis, when he served in 2013 as head of U.S. Central Command. “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition,” Mattis said at the time.
In short, this is not a carefully thought-out strategy from the Trump administration, based on consultation with the experts and our allies. Instead, the man who took five draft deferments to avoid fighting in Vietnam, the man who says that he knows better than the generals how to defeat ISIS and who claims he understands the military because he attended a military-themed boarding school, is offering a military strategy that is fueled largely by his own deep personal insecurities.
And here’s my biggest worry. In the weeks and months to come, Trump is likely to grow more and more frustrated by his inability to bend Congress to his will, by continued criticism from the media and perhaps by falling poll numbers. Looking for an outlet that will satisfy his grandiose dreams for himself and rally the country behind him, he is likely to follow the pattern of too many populist leaders and turn to foreign policy, where a president has few effective constraints on his ambitions.
In a world already teetering close to the edge, that’s trouble.