In his final address to the nation, 34th president Dwight D. Eisenhower left Americans with a warning: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unnsought, by the military-industrial complex.…the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
The United States government would not end up taking Eisenhower’s advice. Our military spending is currently higher than at any point during the Cold War. Regardless of the ideological makeup of Congress or the presidency, there has been on consistent agreement on increasing defense funds America’s involvement in armed global affairs.
The United States spends more on defense than the next ten highest-spending countries combined. Since the beginning of the 21st century, each president has engaged in excessive military operations around the world. Given this, it is worth asking where this money has been spent and what the impact of it has been.
Let’s begin with the George W. Bush administration, which introduced massive increases to overall defense spending. From the very beginning of his time in office all the way to his final budget proposal, Bush consistently increased the funding of the military, which had disastrous consequences both domestically and abroad. Bush’s spending and continued support of the invasion of Iraq was devastating to the region. The invasion led to 4.5 million Iraqis being displaced, widowed as many as two million people, orphaned five million children and left one million dead.
The war in Afghanistan preceding it spanned over 20 years and four different administrations, enabled by Bush’s authorization of the initial use of force in the region. When all was said and done, the United States ended up spending $2.3 trillion on the war. In addition, the Bush administration’s support for the Patriot Act fostered an increase in domestic government surveillance. This led to unprecedented levels of surveillance on phone calls text messages and countless other modes of communication. This fundamental breach of privacy was a direct result of the Patriot Act.
While giving the defense budget these massive increases, Bush also cut taxes for the wealthy, decreasing revenue streams for the government. These policies laid the groundwork for the recession the United States would enter towards the end of the Bush administration.
President Barack Obama made good on his promise to withdraw from Iraq, and while it’s true his defense spending was less than Bush’s, it’d be laughable to say that Obama slashed the military budget by any means. Despite the overall size of the military being smaller post-Bush, Obama’s overall spending was still substantially greater than the military budget before the 9/11 attacks.
Obama’s spending was largely intended to modernize our military. Nowhere is this more apparent than his use of armed drones to carry out attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The final numbers of this program are staggering — the 542 strikes he ordered over the course of his administration killed over 3,700 people, 324 of those being civilians.
In the first two years of his administration, President Donald Trump introduced massive increases to the defense budget. This increase led to greater strikes and raids conducted in Yemen compared to President Obama. Despite campaigning to end forever wars at the end of his administration, he left behind a military that was still fighting in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Similar to Bush, Trump introduced massive increases in defense spending while also cutting taxes for the wealthy. The reinforcement of Reagan and Bush era austerity policies was disastrous for the middle class.
President Joe Biden did eventually withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan; however, the overall pattern of defense spending increases has persisted. Biden’s next fiscal budget has a defense budget of $886 billion.
While Biden has given Ukraine $4 billion in humanitarian aid since Russia invaded the country in 2022, the majority of U.S. aid has been for defense and arms, with over $46 billion in total spending dedicated towards supplying their military.
So what was our final return on investment for all of this spending? In our defense spending spree after 9/11, war analysts attribute over 432,093 civilians to have died violent deaths as a direct result of the wars waged.
Additionally, the bipartisan commitment to keeping our defense budget this high — as well as caving to the pressure of so-called “deficit hawks” seeking to balance federal spending and revenue — forces the government to cut key social services to be able to maintain the immovable, massive budget. The ripple effects of these reductions directly impact services where federal money could be put straight into the economy. Food stamps and health care services are a prime example of this; without that spending, local businesses and other beneficiaries of government services could suffer.
This type of spending is unsustainable. As faith in our government has reached an all time low, it should be time we ask our government why their favorite investment, above all else, is war.