Trump's $54 Billion Rounding Error

Does His Planned Military Spending Boost Add Up?

A U.S. soldier shields himself from the rotor wash of a Blackhawk helicopter after being dropped off for a mission with the Afghan police, Afghanistan, December 20, 2014. Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Despite the initial hoopla, President Donald Trump’s proposed defense buildup isn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Of course, I exaggerate in the title. Adding billions to the Department of Defense budget, each and every year going forward, is significant. And certainly, taking that same amount out of domestic accounts plus diplomacy and foreign aid budgets constitutes a severe retrenchment. To take one example of the kind of pain that could result: With American military support, Iraqi forces will likely soon liberate the northern city of Mosul from ISIS, but that expected tactical military victory may prove no more durable than the results of the surge from 2007-2009 or so, unless a firmer political foundation is placed beneath it. After the surge, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki so misgoverned the country and so mistreated Sunnis that the backdrop was established for the arrival of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Sunni populations were so angry with how they were treated that they decided to tolerate a reincarnation of sorts of the dreaded al Qaeda rather than succumb to Shia domination. The moral of the story is clear: Iraq will need to rebuild, govern, and police Mosul as well as other areas where ISIS was in command in a way that satisfies all major sectarian groups, lest it, again, fall back into civil warfare. The United States can help ensure the necessary consensus with a conditions-based offer of foreign assistance that the revenue-starved Iraqi petro-state desperately needs in these times of low oil prices. That foreign aid gets us leverage and influence, and improves the odds of making current hard-earned military gains durable. But it will be far harder to provide if deep cuts are made to aid budgets. 

Back to the Pentagon. That $54 billion in higher annual spending actually amounts to a far smaller actual increase. As most have heard by now, the $54 billion is measured relative to the sequestration-level caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act—the

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