America at War

What to Watch for in 2010


| Web Exclusive, January 2010


This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

According to the Chinese calendar, 2010 is the Year of the Tiger.  We don’t name our years, but if we did, this one might prospectively be called the Year of the Assassin.

We, of course, think of ourselves as something like the peaceable kingdom.  After all, the shock of September 11, 2001 was that “war” came to “the homeland,” a mighty blow delivered against the very symbols of our economic, military, and—had Flight 93 not gone down in a field in Pennsylvania—political power.   

Since that day, however, war has been a stranger in our land.  With the rarest of exceptions, like Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan’s massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, this country has remained a world without war or any kind of mobilization for war.  No other major terrorist attacks, not even victory gardens, scrap-metal collecting, or rationing.  And certainly no war tax to pay for our post-9/11 trillion-dollar “expeditionary forces” sent into battle abroad.  Had we the foresight to name them, the last few years domestically might have reflected a different kind of carnage—2006, the Year of the Subprime Mortgage; 2007, the Year of the Bonus; 2008, the Year of the Meltdown; 2009, the Year of the Bailout.  And perhaps some would want to label 2010, prematurely or not, the Year of Recovery. 

Although our country delivers war regularly to distant lands in the name of our “safety,” we don’t really consider ourselves at war (despite the endless talk of “supporting our troops”), and the money that has simply poured into Pentagon coffers, and then into weaponry and conflicts is, with rare exceptions, never linked to economic distress in this country.  And yet, if we are no nation of warriors, from the point of view of the rest of the world we are certainly the planet’s foremost war-makers.  If money talks, then war may be what we care most about as a society and fund above all else, with the least possible discussion or debate. 

In fact,  according to  military expert William Hartung, the Pentagon budget has risen in every year of the new century, an unprecedented run in our history.  We  dominate  the global arms trade, monopolizing  almost 70%  of the arms business in 2008, with Italy coming in a vanishingly distant second.  We put more money into the funding of war, our armed forces, and the weaponry of war  than the next 25 countries combined  (and that’s without even including Iraq and Afghan war costs).  We  garrison  the planet in a way no empire or nation in history has ever done.  And we plan for the future, for “the next war”—on the ground, on the seas, and in space—in a way that is surely unique.  If our two major wars of the twenty-first century in Iraq and Afghanistan are any measure, we also get less bang for our buck than any nation in recent history. 

So, let’s pause a moment as the New Year begins and take stock of ourselves as what we truly are:  the preeminent war-making machine on planet Earth.  Let’s peer into the future, and consider just what the American way of war might have in store for us in 2010.  Here are 10 questions, the answers to which might offer reasonable hints as to just how much U.S. war efforts are likely to intensify in the Greater Middle East, as well as Central and South Asia, in the year to come.

1. How busted will the largest defense budget in history be in 2010? 

Strange, isn’t it, that the debate about hundreds of billions of dollars in health-care costs in Congress can last almost a year, filled with turmoil and daily headlines, while a $636 billion defense budget can pass in a few days, as it did in late December, essentially without discussion and with nary a headline in sight?  And in case you think that $636 billion is an honest figure, think again—and not just because funding for the U.S. nuclear arsenal and actual “homeland defense,” among other things most countries would chalk up as military costs, wasn’t included. 

If you want to put a finger to the winds of war in 2010, keep your eye on something else not included in that budget: the Obama administration’s upcoming supplemental funding request for the Afghan surge.  In his West Point speech announcing his surge decision, the president spoke of sending 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan in 2010 at a cost of $30 billion.  In news reports, that figure quickly morphed into “$30-$40 billion,” none of it in the just-passed Pentagon budget.  To fund his widening war, sometime in the first months of the New Year, the president will have to submit a supplemental budget to Congress—something the Bush administration did repeatedly to pay for George W.’s wars, and something this president, while still a candidate, swore he wouldn’t do.  Nonetheless, it will happen.  So keep your eye on that $30 billion figure .  Even that distinctly low-ball number is going to cause discomfort and opposition in the president’s party—and yet there’s no way it will fully fund this year’s striking escalation of the war.  The question is:  How high will it go or, if the president doesn’t dare ask this Congress for more all at once, how will the extra funds be found?  Keep your eye out, then, for hints of future supplemental budgets, because fighting the Afghan War (forget Iraq) over the next decade could prove a near trillion-dollar prospect. 

Neither battles won nor al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders killed will be the true measure of victory or defeat in the Afghan War.  For Americans at home, even victory as modestly defined by this administration—blunting the Taliban’s version of a surge—could prove disastrous in terms of our financial capabilities.  Guns and butter?  That’s going to be a surefire no-go.  So keep watching and asking:  How busted could the U.S. be by 2011?