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Trump and the Six-Trillion-Dollar Question

In President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress earlier this week, White House speechwriters inserted more than a few startling numbers: 4,000 Chicagoans shot in a single year; 60,000 American factories shuttered since 2001; 43 million Americans living in poverty, with an equal number receiving food stamps; 94 million workers having simply given up looking for work; an annual trade deficit just shy of $800 billion.

Yet the biggest number of all is the one all but guaranteed to attract the least attention in policymaking circles. It’s the number that few in Washington want to talk about or even acknowledge: $6,000,000,000,000

“America has spent approximately six trillion dollars in the Middle East,” Trump observed. As media personalities like to say, that’s trillion with a T. The sums expended pursuant to U.S. military misadventures in that part of the world are so gargantuan, Trump continued, that “we could have rebuilt our country—twice. And maybe even three times….”

A tad hyperbolic? Perhaps, but given that the words were spoken in a building that rings with mind-boggling hyperbole on a daily basis, the judgment comes close enough to the facts to pass muster as essentially accurate. At the very least, it contains a fair amount of what Stephen Colbert terms truthiness.

Yet as a description of how those vanished trillions disappeared, “spent” seems somehow inadequate. That term does not do justice to the epic folly of the authorities, civilian and military alike, who presided over this vast expenditure of treasure.

The concept of “spending” suggests an exchange, something of value offered in return for acquiring an item of like value. The nation—citizens, the body politic—did not “spend” six trillion dollars on misbegotten Middle East wars. A couple dozen officials within the executive branch made the requisite decisions, those decisions ratified by compliant members of Congress.

Nor did those decisions yield the promised return, variously defined as victory, peace, democracy, human rights, or the rule of law. The money wasn’t “spent.” It was squandered, wasted, poured down a rat-hole. And those who participated in the fleecing have now moved on, consciences clear as they unabashedly advise on the necessary next steps.

Where precisely did all that money go? Republicans and Democrats alike profess to find the question without interest or merit.

Most of the trillions have long since sunk into the arid wastes of Iraq and Afghanistan. Remarkably, neither of these two places even qualified for mention in Trump’s hour-long oration.  

Instead, the president used the occasion to urge Congress to give the Pentagon more money still—lots more. Trump is calling for “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history,” as if attributing the disappointing results of our recent wars to fiscal niggardliness.  

For U.S. military leaders, for the national security apparatus as a whole, for defense contractors, and for the Congress itself, Trump was the bearer of good news. As commander-in-chief, he will observe the agreement forged by his immediate predecessors: When it comes to war and basic U.S. national security policy, there will be no accountability and no awkward questions.

There will be no inquiry into the misjudgments and failures that have saddled future generations with a six-trillion-dollar bill. There will be no postmortem. Except at the most trivial level, there will be no learning. There will, however, be more war.

I found myself squirming at the way that Trump and members of Congress collaborated in exploiting the memory of a recently deceased U.S. service member. They used a grieving widow for their own purposes.

Yet the moment captured something essential about where we find ourselves today—political leaders who make a show of respecting those who fight on our behalf while neglecting their own most fundamental responsibilities. I don’t know whether to attribute that neglect to cynicism, corruption, moral cowardice, or simply an absence of imagination. But I do know that it’s contemptible.

Andrew Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large.

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "Trump and the Six-Trillion-Dollar Question"

#1 Comment By Wilfred On March 2, 2017 @ 1:39 pm

Typo alert:
In second paragraph “$6,000,000,000” is six billion.
Need to add three zeros to get six trillion.

#2 Comment By Nom On March 2, 2017 @ 1:40 pm

Trillion has 12 zeros …so it’s $6,000,000,000,000

#3 Comment By Argon On March 2, 2017 @ 2:27 pm

For some perspective of the amounts involved, $6 trillion could pay for:

All the costs of healthcare for everyone in the US for two years.
Or, almost 10 years of funding for Medicare (as it stands now, before the GOP attempts to underfund program).
Or, fund our outstanding infrastructure needs 2-3 times over.

But things that go ‘boom’ always get priority, regardless of the likelihood of a return on investment.

#4 Comment By DJ On March 2, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

Of course they’ll never look into it. Conservatives who question anything the military does get called liberals who hate america. Liberals who investigate the military are called evil and wish the death of american soldiers and the end of America. You can’t investigate the pentagon if you’re always getting elected.

#5 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On March 2, 2017 @ 2:56 pm

Hate mix metaphors here, but a good place to start would be to ‘regulate’ the current ‘voucher’ program that is PMCs (private military contractors). It would appear the current Secretary of Education is taking a cue from her brother. Why pay a “public” servant (enlisted soldier, sailor, marine or airman) $25,000 or $35,000/year, when you can just get a ‘voucher’ and choose a school… I mean, PMC who costs $150,000 or $200,000 to do the same job? And here’s the problem kids. The 45th POTUS is a ‘real estate tycoon’. Real estate is a shell game, and it is usually funded with other people’s money. You hope to buy/build, hype up, and sell (at a profit) before the note comes due. Then it is the next guy’s problem. With 4 or 6 bankruptcies on his ‘credit report’, well, I digress. We’re not seeing the Commander-in-Chief. We’re seeing a “con man-in-chief”. I suppose “the generals” will allow him to question their competence, as long as the checks keep coming. What’s the expression? Total disaster! Very sad!

#6 Comment By No to neos On March 2, 2017 @ 4:38 pm

Amen, amen, amen.

Just last night I was saying to my wife that Trump is whatever people want him to be because he says and does totally contradictory things.

He bemoans trillions of dollars wasted in Middle East wars that have made things worse, and then he sends the US military to directly attack Yemen — a country that has not attacked the US or threatened to attack but which is being annihilated by our Saudi “allies” using US military equipment and advice.

He bemoans wasteful government spending and then announces he wants a huge increase in the military budget, just weeks after a Pentagon-commissioned report concluded the Pentagon wastes $125 billion a year.

He declares his intention to boost US exports and then declares his intention to penalize imports, as though the rest of the world would buy from us without us buying from them, and even though his wife is a European import. Personally, I’d like to see a lot more imports like the lovely Melania.

More seriously, I think the reason no one in power in Washington wants to delve into those wasted trillions is because they are all complicit in it in some way (malfeasance, nonfeasance, misfeasance, neglect, stupidity, recklessness, arrogance, cronyism, etc.).

#7 Comment By ScottA On March 2, 2017 @ 9:47 pm

Well said. During the scene with the grieving widow I couldn’t help but think what a waste. His sacrifice and bravery is was commendable, but it would much better for so many of those who have lost their lives in our endless and unnecessary wars to be with their families and making other contributions to our society other than fighting in our unnecessarily large military.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 3, 2017 @ 9:28 am

Here’s where I can applaud other nations. They have routinely had internal and public investigations for government failure. Even if heads a few that roll are few, they at least endeavor to do some self examination about what occurred, why and how i went wrong , whose responsible and how it should be avoided. I guess it is the consequence of age.

We didn’t do it after the McCArthy hearings. we didn’t do it after Vietnam (an adventure in which so many have literally distorted the narrative and events – we just rolled on pretending the loudest most obnoxious voices held the truth). Watergate as it turns held no real big secrets if consequence; the presidents audio tape their conversations. And talk rather candidly about issues, intones and language we’d rather not know. No big secrets no big conspiracies. But was useful political weaponry. I guess that best sums up are lesson. and firing a prosecutor to investigate a matter you charged him to investigate is worthy of possible impeachment, but in the end a political gaming for political purpose. The Republic was never at threat or much abused. Those responsible for campaign needless and illegal campaign tactics went to jail. But the country did no soul searching and if history is any reflection, neither did the politicians.

The CIA took the place of the military as the Church Commission rake the organizations over the coals, but even that was more a political reckoning by angry liberals out for revenge. That table has turned as those angry liberals seemed to have turned the CIA into a veritable fortress, of near government unto itself. Iran Contra etc. At least during those investigations people lost their heads, or chastised in some way. The military certainly took some hits.

And while it was an investigation, in which there were many casualties, not the intended target. The entire matter was initiated by private conduct, which the public made clear was a bridge too far and undermined the potentially more substantive issues (if there were any) and the intended target remains a highly regarded, if tarnished, former Pres.

But there ave bee no investigations into actions that have crippled the country. e last several financial fall outs, torture, and our ongoing military adventures, none a success in the middle east. It’s a reflection of the Vietnam hippe/yippe/counter culture generation, by all means avoid accountability and if possible blame anyone, else and move on.

After the fiasco of the 1973 APA Convention, an organization that helped set the premium on socio-logical and psychological research. There was no investigation either.

Several observations about today verses then.

— The country was bonded by its reliance for national news by national papers and three networks.

— in the past accountability seems to av been on going. The investigations lest reflective in purpose. And those targets were narrow, even if politically motivated.

— the vast complicity in the events demanding scrutiny would be an unprecedented national accounting. That is how the manager of of the mistakes at Benghazi is nominated for the Presidency. There were so many complicit in the events that led us there actually placed Sec Clinton in the driver’s seat, with a dagger over a lot of heads. She dodged a bullet as did they.

Because there has been so much support, even if tacitly, for the mess in the ME, congress, the WH, the judicial systems, which has complicit in supporting, murder, torture, etc and the public are all trying to dodge a bullet. And those of stunned by the very silence to the devastation, just need to grow-up about injustice, and unfairness. I agree here the magnitude of silence resulting from that wasted money is mid crushingly deafening.

I have no intention of growing up anytime soon.

I am not sure there has been a national reckoning from the judge of judges. It’s hard to believe . . . he intends to go unpunished that scale of human damage so uselessly engaged.

Growing up is going to be very painful, rue the say.

#9 Comment By REEFSHARK On March 3, 2017 @ 9:53 am

That is a mind boggling amount. The real cost of anything is the alternatives forgone. How many cancer cures? Bridges? Dams (Oroville)? feeding of hungry citizens? Roads? Staggering to even contemplate what we have given up. Why? Who drove us to this bankrupt policy and why? Who are these warmongers and why do they have such a hold on our country?

#10 Comment By Billy Bob On March 3, 2017 @ 10:12 am

Agreed, this administration, which rushed a raid for its own purposes, resulted in the dead of a commando, whose wife was rushed into the audience for the administration’s own purposes. Contemptible.

There will be a reckoning, and it won’t be pretty.

#11 Comment By Lolipop Jones On March 3, 2017 @ 10:29 am

Nobody much cares how much we wasted in World War Two (and in real dollar terms, it was a whole lot) because at the end,

the bad guys knew they were beat,

they signed formal documents of surrender,

many of them were tried and hung or jailed,

and (most of) our troops got to come home.

#12 Comment By bacon On March 3, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

Dr. Bacevich, as a historian, what do you think about the idea that we may be seeing the natural evolution of an empire?

#13 Comment By Jon On March 3, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

“Most of the trillions have long since sunk into the arid wastes of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

I take offense at this statement. The money went into the pockets of American defense contractors and their owners. The only thing “sunk into the arid wastes of Iraq and Afghanistan” is the blood of Iraqi and Afghani civilians.

Until we are ready to face the truth of where the money is going, and how some of that money goes into electing representatives we likely voted for, we, conservatives, are at fault.

And, until we can admit that the soldier who died in Yemen was no hero fighting for America, but a simple, well-trained murderer, we will never have a moral basis holding anyone accountable.

#14 Comment By DanJ On March 3, 2017 @ 1:24 pm

If you really want to crush militant Islamism forever there is a cheaper way:

1) Order one hundred million solar-powered television sets with a satellite dish. From China to get it cheap. At $100 a piece that makes ten billion dollars.

2) Drop by airplane all over the Middle East. Cost for airlift five billion dollars.

3) Send via satellite 24/7 an endless loop of “Friends”, “The Bold And The Beautiful” and “Sex In The City”. Transmission and royalty cost one billion dollars.

4) Watch as the Middle East turns from global hotspot into a sunny region of whiny yet docile consumers.

Total cost 16 billion dollars. And nobody has to die!

#15 Comment By P. L. Kirst On March 3, 2017 @ 1:32 pm

Let’s not also forget 4,400 dead American service people, and 32,000 wounded (Iraq alone).

To Billy Bob, I support your sentiment totally. But based on the outcomes of Iraq and Afghanistan I highly doubt there will be an reckoning for the dead commando.

#16 Comment By Jak On March 3, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

Andrew,

great piece on foreign policy, because that’s where it starts.

When will America understand that interference with external politics will finally bankrupt the nation state, at the expense of corporate lobbying (and the military complex) against the wishes of American voters.

This is not policy, this is the effect of corporate groups that would not survive without a focus of their weapons systems for profit.

No war…no profit

The F35 project alone could feed/educate/save much of the world, yet…the corporate, and I must say, the shareholders of these companies, should be held in contempt for their stance.

#17 Comment By Daniel S. Duvall On March 4, 2017 @ 1:35 am

My hypothesis: the $6 trillion went toward creating 1,000,000 Six-Million-Dollar Men.

#18 Comment By ME Lemming On March 4, 2017 @ 2:40 am

“Trillion has 12 zeros …so it’s $6,000,000,000,000”

I liked America better when it didn’t know how many zeros were in a trillion.

When it comes to wars for foreign interests (or doing things like giving Israel hundreds of billions of our tax dollars straight out) Congress is Generosity incarnate, and damn the miserly xenophobic souls who question their largesse.

Congress only seems concerned about costs or balanced budgets when it comes to something that benefits the kind of Americans who voted for Trump – and who will vote against him if he keeps up this kind of s***, perpetuating the Bush/Obama wars and giving money and weapons to foreigners instead of spending it on America.

#19 Comment By REEFSHARK On March 4, 2017 @ 7:23 am

WW2 Big differences Japan attacked us. Germany declared war on the U.S. Congress formally declared war. And citizens overwhelmingly supported the war. Plus they bought Victory bonds to finance. How is this not a paradigm different from the neocon inspired wars in the middle east? Why are we there?

#20 Comment By Michael N. Moore On March 4, 2017 @ 10:06 am

As University of Washington professor Rebecca U. Thorpe points out in “The American Warfare State”, her definitive study of the political economy of military spending, Congress will never stop any president from going to war because a significant majority of House Members represent districts that are economically dependent on military spending.

The arms industry cherry picks or creates sub-contractors in ex-urban and rural areas where they become the monopoly employer. This particularly impacts Republicans. There is effectively no longer any check on Presidential war powers and the politics of constant war follow.

#21 Comment By Fredovich On March 4, 2017 @ 2:48 pm

Some of that $6 trillion may well be found on Trump’s tax returns.

#22 Comment By Julia XA On March 4, 2017 @ 3:13 pm

The vast MIC got something of value … they got the big bucks. And in a way I guess the country got JOBS! ™ via the MIC and its trickle down aspects.

Other than that, no we did not get anything of value.

#23 Comment By DES On March 5, 2017 @ 3:45 pm

When we already spend about 10 times as much as Russia and 6-8 times the rest of the world combined on defense, why do we need to INCREASE our defense expenditures?
And what objective are we realistically hoping to achieve in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Syria?
Why does no one ask those questions?

#24 Comment By Quentin On March 7, 2017 @ 1:37 am

If finally lost, where did all those 6 trillion dollars come from in the first place? They can only be in the national debt or, better yet, in an unaudited account. Smoke and mirrors all around.

#25 Comment By Michael Kenny On March 7, 2017 @ 1:02 pm

Since the money in question was spent essentially in the defence of Israel and, no doubt, doesn’t include direct US aid to that country, it is a bit hypocritical of Trump, probably the most pro-Israel president in US history, to find fault with it. And does anybody seriously believe that Trump is about to abandon Israel?

#26 Comment By Nick Baam On March 7, 2017 @ 2:52 pm

The more essential something is to something else, the more it is ignored by the American media. And I am never not dumbstruck every time I look at a globe: the geographic position of the United States. World’s largest ocean on one side, second-largest on the other, Canada — really cold, really big — up top. THEN think of all the money we waste, the military bases, overseas.