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The consequences of Trump’s broken pledge to rebuild the military

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It was always a question of why then presidential candidate Trump wanted to “greatly” rebuild and expand the US military when at the same time he was campaigning on a foreign policy platform that saw American global leadership as costly and counterproductive. If you’re not going to be “the world’s policeman,” if you think alliances are entangling and potentially dangerous, and that forward-leaning deterrence is unnecessary, why add dozens of new warships, thousands of new recruits to the Army and the Marine Corps, hundreds of new fighters, and modernize the strategic arsenal with new missiles, bombs, and air and subsurface platforms?

US President Donald Trump observes a demonstration with US Army 10th Mountain Division troops, an attack helicopter and artillery as he visits Fort Drum, New York, US, August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

So, one was never quite sure about how serious Donald Trump was about his pledge to rebuild the military. And now we have an answer — not very. On Monday, Trump tweeted that current defense spending was “crazy” and that it was driven by a “major and uncontrollable Arms Race.”

That Trump is not serious about rebuilding the military should not come as a surprise to anyone paying attention to these matters. In his first budget — crafted largely by OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, who as a member of Congress regularly voted to cut defense spending — Trump only gave the Pentagon a 3 percent increase over what the Obama White House had put forward in its final budget submission. It was a figure well below what the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Service Committees had asked for, and well below what was required to begin addressing the shortfall in military readiness that was plaguing the services and causing deadly accidents in the air and at sea.

To be sure, the Trump administration did, with the bipartisan aid of Congress, pump up defense spending for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 to the tune of $80 billion. But a closer look at its budget plans in the out years indicated the administration was “flat-lining” defense spending; there would be some immediate help to address readiness issues but nowhere near the monies needed to modernize and expand the military as had been pledged. And since then, the Trump White House has ordered a cut of over $30 billion to their own plans for next year. Indeed, as I wrote here just two months ago, the cut leaves defense spending, in inflation-adjusted dollars, now below what it had been in 2011 — an Obama-era budget not known for its robustness when it came to spending on defense.

Trump is right of course in one respect: The need for more defense spending is driven in good measure by an arms race with China and Russia. However, it’s a race that, until recently, the US has not been participating in and, as a result, in both East Asia and Eastern Europe, requires quite a bit of catching up if the US is to get ahead and stay ahead.

It’s theoretically possible that Trump could reduce the need for more defense spending if, as he suggests, he could cut an arms control deal with Presidents Putin and Xi. But even if one were to take Trump’s idea of some super-duper arms agreement seriously, how probable is the improbable? Trump the dealmaker ought to know that, absent a strong hand, the likelihood of concluding any agreement that is not pointless or worse is impossible. Both Moscow and Beijing will see the planned cut to defense spending and Trump’s call to negotiate as a sign of American weakness and, in turn, an invitation to press forward with their ambitions to change the strategic global order.

Unlike his failed business deals, Trump won’t be able to declare bankruptcy when it comes to national security and not have the country pay for his failure to keep his pledge to rebuild the military.

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