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Reagan Redux at the Pentagon

WASHINGTON—Many of President Donald Trump’s personal touchstones harken back to the 1980s, when he found his financial fortune and mojo as an American celebrity. So perhaps it’s no surprise that his style and flash—including his friends and his homes—reflect the glitz and hubris of the era often named after Trump’s self-proclaimed political hero and lodestar, Ronald Reagan.

This fealty to a certain image of Reagan is evident in Trump’s recent declarations about the military budget. Last week the president announced he would ask Congress for an “historic” $54 billion increase in defense spending over 2017 levels, “to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America,” sending a message of “American strength, security and resolve” to the rest of the world.

The White House says [1] [2] the $54 billion would be a 10 percent hike over the spending caps put into place by Congress in 2011. But much of this rhetoric may be misleading. As White House budget director Mick Mulvaney later pointed out, Trump’s numbers would raise the defense budget to $603 billion, just 3 percent higher than the $584 billion spent by the end of fiscal year 2017 in September, and representing an increase of just slightly more than the current 2.5 percent rate of inflation.

That’s just one of a number of baseline assumptions, says Gordon Adams [3], a defense budget expert and former Office of Management and Budget official in the Clinton administration. To be sure, it’s complicated. For example, the caps imposed by the Budget Control Act in 2011 (which are supposed to trigger the infamous “sequestration” cuts) have been raised for three years to accommodate past congressional spending desires, and the Overseas Contingency Operations budget has raised spending well over the caps, too. [4]That shifts the baseline around a bit.


“The amount of increase is in the eye of the beholder,” Gordon tells TAC. No kidding: the New York Times released a “fact check” and a chart [5], based on numbers from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, showing that in Reagan’s first year in office (1981), he increased the budget a whopping 25 percent, far above Trump’s “historic” hike.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, dismissed Trump’s plans as insufficient. McCain’s own budget plan [6] calls for $640 billion in base defense spending in FY 2018, growing to over $740 billion in FY 2022.

“It did surprise me that he didn’t want more,” noted Dan Grazier, military budget analyst for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which advocates for reforming the Pentagon’s annual feeding frenzy [7]. “When people on the Armed Services Committee are complaining that it isn’t enough, that’s a hopeful sign.”

Unlike Reagan, however, Trump is disinclined to raise the national debt in order to increase defense spending. And unlike the Obama era, Trump appears prepared to eschew previous deals with Democrats in order to raise the caps and send more dollars to the Pentagon. In years past, Democrats made agreements with Republicans to increase as much of the budget on the non-discretionary domestic side as they did on the military side, said Adams.

“The dollar-for-dollar adjustment was a function of the political balance,” he pointed out. “We don’t have that political balance anymore.”

Officials with knowledge of the president’s plan said [1] that in order to pay for this “massive buildup,” there would be severe cuts—as much as 30 percent to the State Department’s foreign aid and diplomacy budgets, including major restructuring and even elimination of programs. The Environmental Protection Agency, a big target of Trump to begin with, would also take a 24 percent cut in its $8.1 billion budget, say sources.

The United States currently spends about $50 billion annually on the State Department and foreign assistance, a shadow of what the Pentagon spends each year.

“He ran on a platform of increasing the size, but not the cost of the military,” points out Ben Friedman, defense and homeland security fellow at the Cato Institute. “He’s fulfilling his campaign promises and he’s a Republican and this is a standard Republican position, not to raise deficit spending.”

But many suggest that this scenario, in which diplomacy and foreign assistance would have to be the sacrificial lamb, almost guarantees that Trump’s budget plan will get push back from Democrats—and even a few Republicans. Some have already called it dead on arrival. But with enough Republicans in the House and Senate willing to cut other areas of the budget to increase military outlays while staying under previous caps, State Department programs may be the first to take a hit. “They don’t have lobbyists hanging around on Capitol Hill to save those bucks,” said Adams. “That’s been true for decades.”

So far the details of how Trump plans to engage in this “rebuilding” of the military are thin. The Associated Press said the boost would go to big displays of power: new ships, aircraft, and fighters. During the campaign Trump borrowed heavily from Heritage Foundation white papers (not unlike Reagan once did) and has talked about increasing the size of the Navy from 274 to 350 ships, adding 60,000 soldiers to the Army, and  allowing the Marines to expand to a wartime footing of 36 battalions. During a speech last week, he vowed to increase the current fleet of 10 aircraft carriers to a dozen.

Sources with knowledge of how these budgets work say it’s not how much is spent that matters—but how it’s spent. After all these showy, big-ticket items are paid for there will be very little money left in the president’s proposal for more immediate needs, like basic maintenance for existing ships, aircraft, and vehicles. Up to half of the current fleet of F-18 fighter planes have been grounded due to maintenance problems, for example. This might be fine if the F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft were off the ground [8], but with the replacement plane delayed, there are gaps in training and readiness, particularly for pilots.

Temptations of Power

Trump’s recent spending announcements, coupled with the general themes he’s hewed to during the campaign, appear to be part of an opening salvo in the coming budget fights with Congress. But there’s more to it. Trump seems to think Reagan’s own approach to facing down the Soviets and winning the Cold War—pouring money into the military industrial complex and turning around the nation’s patriotic malaise with soaring, muscular rhetoric—will work in 2017. If such a program can generate jobs and pump life into the economy, even better.

“Ronald Reagan made the argument that the only way to win the Cold War was peace through strength,” noted Gordon Adams. The phrase became a mainstay of GOP platforms with Reagan further explaining in 1983 that “to be prepared for war…is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” Of course the now shopworn maxim has limits: as Andrew Bacevich has noted [9], it easily becomes “peace through war” because such a formidable posture “breeds the temptation to put that power to work.”

But Trump isn’t likely to be thinking in those terms. He is instead recalling Reagan psyching out the Russians and forcing the Soviet Union into a free fall that ended in its collapse a few years after the Gipper left office. Trump may similarly want to confront adversaries such as ISIS, Iran, North Korea, and China—and despite theories to the contrary, maybe even Putin’s Russia, too.

“Shades of Ronald Reagan—that is what I thought [when I heard his speech],” said Adams. “Because in a way this is a Reagan redux. Here we go again, as Reagan said himself, in the truest sense.”

But when Reagan came into office, the military really was in a bad state and had been—readiness and capability-wise, but especially culturally—since the end of the Vietnam War. There was a lot to do to bring it back to its proverbial glory. And unlike Trump’s vision, Reagan went into deficit spending to pay for it.

It’s “a funny irony,” says Adams. “We’re said to have ‘dismantled’ the military but it’s simply not true. The United States today has the biggest, baddest, most ready military in the world.” The military may be tired from repeated deployments and in need of the aforementioned maintenance and upgrades, but it isn’t “beleaguered,” critics of a new buildup say.

“I think he has a worldview that is not truly coherent; I guess people call it ‘Jacksonian,’” Cato’s Friedman suggested to TAC, noting that Trump’s foreign-policy positions seem to recall the seventh U.S. president, a man well prepared to defend the nation, but not interested in taking up messianic foreign adventures to spread American liberalism or seek global hegemony. “But it is militaristic. [Trump] has bragged about being militaristic. Speak loudly, carry a big stick.”

“I also think he has more of a worshipful attitude toward the military than most—until of course, [the military] conflicts with his own ego,” says Friedman.

Draining the Swamp?

Advocates of foreign-policy restraint can be pleased that Trump so far seems averse to starting wars and nation building. Yet for the military-industrial complex, staying home can also be very good news. Building up for war is just as good for business as fighting one, maybe even better.

“The whole system wants to get as much money as humanly possible,” said Grazier, who after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan retired from the Marine Corps as a captain, joined POGO in 2015. “There is a big, concerted effort not only to keep things as they are but to get more.”

That effort includes millions of dollars of political contributions and lobbying resources that big civilian contractors—including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon—hope will start returning on investment as these budget battles begin. According to the Center for Responsible Politics [10], since 2009 these heavy hitters have contributed $42 million to political candidates, most of them perched on Congressional armed services and appropriations committees.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, for example, received $393,850 from defense interests in the 2016 election cycle, almost seven times as much as the country’s median household income. Sen. McCain, who has scoffed that Trump’s ideal military budget is too small, took $312,365 from defense interests in the last cycle.

These contributions to some of the most visible legislators represent just a small fraction of all the money flowing from defense interests—nearly $127 million in the last year alone, including 748 lobbyists representing 218 clients on Capitol Hill. It’s a swamp Trump seems unlikely to succeed in draining.

Few in Washington, besides POGO and their allies, are publicly making the case that overheated rhetoric will continue to drive irresponsible military spending. Still the president seems confident using 1980’s retro themes of bigger, bolder, and stronger, whether the spending is destined for Main Street USA or much farther away. He’ll deal with the costs—and the messy details—later.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Reagan Redux at the Pentagon"

#1 Comment By ScottA On March 7, 2017 @ 10:42 pm

We should instead be reducing how much we spend on the military and use the money saved to pay off the $1 trillion we owe China, then the $1 trillion we owe Japan, etc.

Eventually the military budget will have to be reduced when the public has to choose between the government financing Medicare and Social Security or our bloating, obscenely large military budget.

But politicians get a lot money from defense contractors, so as a nation we will just continue on our current fiscally unsustainable trajectory like lemmings heading over a cliff.

We’re like the guy with $10 million in debt who lives in a big mansion on the top of the hill and thinks he rich and number one. As the saying goes “Pride goes before a fall”.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 8, 2017 @ 7:59 am

Whether the Chinese or the Russians take note of the increases as tacit indicators that the US has no intention of retracting is something worth discussing.

What is absolutely true is that the forces and players on everyone’s lips, have rarely been intimidated by the power of the US. Where issues of national identity are involved the Taliban and others make for a useful example.

A billion dollar aircraft expending millions of dollars munitions to subdue and or kill fighters armed with an AK-47s, some stinger missiles in ford pick-up trucks hardly sounds cost effective, even if it were necessary. Sixteen years of fire power demonstrations hasn’t been the fire power demonstration doesn’t determine the players on the field thus far.

Nor has it deterred the arms dealers that supply them.

#3 Comment By Slugger On March 8, 2017 @ 10:42 am

The deficits that Reagan ran did come back and affected the economy later. Bush’s attempts to deal with this led to him being a one termer. I don’t understand why conservative economists don’t point this out as illustrative of the harms of deficits.
In Mr. Reagan’s defense, the US was confronting the USSR at the time, and it can be argued that the harms to the economy were offset by the benefits of pushing down the enemy. At this time such a strategy does not make sense.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 8, 2017 @ 10:51 am

Correction: Sixteen years of fire power demonstrations hasn’t been the deterrent it was intended to be for those fighters nor the arms dealers who supply them.


just a small add on, the idea of using any government spending to boost the economy should be sending alarm bells to anyone who sincerely supports capitalist markets.

It’s the reverse of a healthy vibrant economy. We should be spending based on economic growth, instead we are recycling tax dollars to prop up that is not supportable on its own.

Keynesian policies only work for systems with surpluses. They can never be understood as signs of economic health regardless of what happens with stock prices. Interesting to note that the stock market is now a 320 billion dollar drain on the economy, according to Forbes, of last year.

The type of spending is “central planning” economics.

#5 Comment By JCFT4 On March 8, 2017 @ 11:00 am

Diversion of $ from the non-defense part of the govt to defense is part of Bannon’s strategy to destroy the administrative state.

#6 Comment By ML On March 8, 2017 @ 11:35 am

My guess is that the budget is less well thought out than this article suggests. I suspect someone in the White House called up Mulvaney and said “Hey, draft a budget will ya? Do something for defense, don’t cut Social Security and Medicare, but cut an unpopular program here and there to look like a real Republican!” Mulvaney being a Tea Party True Believer, he used this as an opportunity to wage jihad against the rest of government.

#7 Comment By Chris Chuba On March 8, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

As the saying goes, Generals always plan to fight the last war, so perhaps our military budget is being misused. Maybe we have a cadre of big spenders who are not budgeting it for Defense but think they can bankrupt Russia and China.

Here is an article on national interest from an author who believes that China is going to collapse.

Global hegemony is not free, it costs you everything including your soul.

#8 Comment By Eric V Hutchins On March 8, 2017 @ 7:02 pm

EliteCommInc. writes “the idea of using any government spending to boost the economy should be sending alarm bells to anyone who sincerely supports capitalist markets.” Paul Krugman calls conservatives and Republicans who are hostile to government expenditure for economic stabilization in general, but favor defense expenditures for the preservation of jobs in defense industries (frequently located or employing residents in their districts)which result, as “weaponized Keynesians.” The name is derisively intended to point out hypocrisy. I was living in California when President Reagan started spending like a drunken sailor on defense expansion, a lot of which was spent here. Even the liberals of Hollywood were abashedly grateful for all that money. I personally do not know how to respond to the President’s largesse. My father is buried in Arlington. I understand that the U.S. currently enjoys planetary air superiority, but that’s not enough. More carrier groups with the new CVX class flat tops? To offset Russia’s one, and China’s newly purchased, refurbished French carrier? American national security demands no less. We can take out the towel heads using RPG launchers on Toyota trucks with satellite mounted directed energy weaponry. Or spend the money on DARPA research funded battle robots to take the offensive to the insidious foe holed up in caves, somewhere. If you budget it, DoD can spend it. Trust me. Don’t even think about spending this money on domestic infrastructure repair and improvement. Mars Mission, anyone?

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 8, 2017 @ 7:38 pm


I think a better indicator here are the export numbers. Based on the above article, China has only posted a negative trade balance once, last year.

And despite that they remain ahead of the US in exports. In my mind that is key to the economic health of any state. The US has a negative trade balance and has for more than sixteen years.

The article suggests that the China doesn’t have economic staying power. I won’t argue the issues of central planning – it’s dead end street. However, I am doubtful if China is going to return to that as central to economic planning. And the nature of their high context culture creates some issues for dealing with matters directly.

However, China is history suggests she has no intention of burning out anytime soon. I agree that we have an almost insane level of firepower. Good grief in comparison no state comes close. But none of that has been enough prevent actors from taking us on. And they don’t have to be powerhouses to do it.

We ran roughshod over Iraq – yet we lost, while in country.

We smooshed the Taliban but apparently are losing the long game war.

Both China and Russia have survived devastating wars on the lands. And yet they have remained global players. It’s pretty thin fair to suggest an economic downturn – even a collapse is going to send Chin into hiding.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 9, 2017 @ 2:29 pm

” Paul Krugman calls conservatives and Republicans who are hostile to government expenditure for economic stabilization in general, but favor defense expenditures for the preservation of jobs in defense industries (frequently located or employing residents in their districts)which result . . .”

Excuse my delay here. I missed the direct reference to me. I think my view of defense spending is clear. And at the moment, that moment spanning several years. I am not sure we need an increase in defense spending.

My position on government spending is not carved to shield the military, especially on weapons systems. Ta dollars is not a healthy contributor to the economy unless it yields positive return and that is true of all such spending.

Whether a positive return is derived on issues such as defense may be hard to calculate, for lack assessment and the nature of determining what safety itself costs. But make no mistake, I am aware that we are wasting a lot of money by building systems with massive over runs and never sell at the price of production.

I further contend that our spending on invasions also has yet to yield any positive financial returns. And the last sixteen years have only compounded the expense and lack of return.

As to Dr, Krugman, I stand where I came in, government spending has virtually no success long term unless said expense is drawn from a government surplus military or otherwise.

In short, I think we are in agreement. And I love Hollywood, if I chagrin most of their politics. I have no idea why they get a penny, save for minor service contracts, and even then.

#11 Comment By Hexexis On March 9, 2017 @ 10:05 pm

I don’t believe that Pres. Trump’s political hero is Ronald Reagan nor that he wants to refashion Cold War-era def. spending. What the Pres.’s enamored w/ are the standard stereotypes of Reagan & def. spending: a romantic-idealist notions that he conflates w/ his early biz successes.

Moreover, Mr. Trump has also called for nuke weps. increases; which traditionally contravene genuine increased def. spending. Something that people like LtGen. James Gavin were bemoaning 60 yr ago.

#12 Comment By Winston On March 10, 2017 @ 11:57 pm

Reagan also intervened. Would not advise following what he or his successors did as America is now on cusp of becoming the first poor rich country-with majority of poor kids in school. Only priority right now is focusing on those kids! Or whole spending edifice will crumble sooner than later!

So far Trump Admin is focusing on things that won’t matter, if this catastrophe is not prevented in this administration-and vouchers won’t work as need capability to do well in better school (which a student does not get at failing schools).

The failure to invest in education, particularly at the primary and secondary levels, and to offer equal access to education, threatens the long-term competitiveness of the American economy. With the outsourcing of manufacturing and tech jobs to India and China, the developed countries face a challenge in staying economically competitive. Although America’s world class universities and elite private high schools ensure that the wealthiest children receive outstanding educations, far too many working and middle class children are not getting the educations they need and deserve. By not making it to college, these kids who should become primary-care doctors, nurses, and teachers, all professions which are sorely hurting for workers, will end up in jail, fighting America’s wars, and working endlessly in low-paying jobs with no hope of ever becoming middle class. This state of affairs is bad for the individual, the community, the state, the economy, and society at large. The kinds of jobs that will buttress the American economy are those which depend on a highly educated workforce across all lines of race, class, and gender. Sadly, this is something that America is failing to accomplish to provide.

The Other Economic Crisis: The Failure of Education and Its Consequences
By Michael Albada, published March, 2010

And about interventions:

I Was Part of the Iraq War Surge. It Was a Disaster.
The 2007 surge strategy wasn’t a success—and it’s not a template to follow.
By Danny Sjursen