New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once referred to candidate Donald Trump as “Donald The Dove” for his stated antipathy to America’s pointless endless wars. With Trump planning on drawing down in Syria and seeking a negotiated end to the Afghanistan war, it’s a narrative with some durability.
Inconveniently, Trump has thus far intensified drone strikes beyond even Barack Obama levels, particularly in Somalia. His approach to the Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria wars has been to dramatically escalate airstrikes. Following criticism from Lindsey Graham, he decided to keep a residual U.S. force in Syria. And now, he’s growing the Pentagon’s war budget to an unprecedented degree.
The Pentagon budget, formally released Tuesday, will request a 139 percent increase to what’s called the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account – that is, the Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria wars. OCO is the vestige of a post-9/11 accounting scheme to separate war funding from funding for the broader Pentagon budget, in the interest of reducing sticker shock for defense spending, that has proven as indefinite as the wars themselves.
Last year’s OCO request was $69 billion. This year’s, CNN reported, will be a stunning $165 billion – at a time when the troop presence in Syria is slated to go down to 10 percent of its current level. By contrast, the administration overall budget proposes a $1 trillion combined cut to Medicare and Medicaid; a $1 billion cut to a fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria; and a 23 percent cut to the State Department budget. Over ten years, the administration seeks to cut food stamps and other nutritional-assistance by $220 billion.
“The president’s inappropriate and deceptive use of OCO is nothing but a budget gimmick that undermines the integrity of the budget process, and demonstrates his unwillingness to negotiate with a Democratic House on a broader spending deal,” Rep. Anthony Brown, a Maryland Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee and an Iraq war veteran, told The Daily Beast.
But the war-funding increase is hardly just an increase in war funding. It’s an explicit attempt to load even more money into the Pentagon’s non-war accounts in defiance of budget restrictions first set by the Obama administration and the GOP-held Congress in 2011 and repeatedly revised since. The acting director of the Office of Management and Budget made that plain in an op-ed last month, stating: “Additional needed defense resources will be designated as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds, which are not subject to the spending caps.”
Afterward, two of Brown’s House Democratic colleagues, Armed Services chairman Adam Smith of California and Budget chairman John Yarmuth of Kentucky, called the OCO maneuver “a blatant attempt to make a mockery of the federal budget process, obscure the true cost of military operations, and severely shortchange other investments vital to our national and economic security.” Brown added to the The Daily Beast: “If the spending is not actually war-related, it should not be funded by OCO. If the budget caps are too low to address the country’s priorities, Congress and the president should raise the caps.”
The senior Republican on the Armed Services committee, Mac Thornberry of Texas, whistled past the OCO scheme in a Monday statement: “We also cannot allow ourselves to become distracted by the construction of the budget request.” Thornberry called Trump’s $718 billion Pentagon budget request, part of a $750 billion push for defense in the fiscal 2020 budget, “the minimum we need to provide if we are to fulfill our responsibilities.”
As Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman recently noted, current White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney used to call OCO – accurately – a “slush fund.” Now the administration Mulvaney serves will pile on the slush. A budget line that’s supposed to just be about providing “emergency” financing for the wars will feature, per a footnote highlighted by defense budget analyst Todd Harrison, upwards of $9 billion for “border security and hurricane recovery.”
It’s the latest development in a war-accounting shell game that’s almost old enough to graduate high school. According to the Congressional Research Service, 17 years of defense budgets show Congress directing $1.8 trillion for the wars, of which 12 percent, or $219 billion, were categorized by the Pentagon as something “other than ‘war funds.’” Previous years’ OCO budgets have included funding for the F-35, a cross-service family of fighter planes irrelevant to the wars. Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, alluded in 2017 to the “blatant misuse of this account.”
Yet this year’s continuation of the trend nevertheless marks a milestone. The Congressional Research Service’s figures mark only a two years when the OCO budget request exceeded Trump’s: $172.1 billion in fiscal year 2007 and $194.6 billion in fiscal year 2008, both times when the U.S. had over 100,000 more troops deployed to the war zones than it does today. (Fiscal year 2008, which corresponds to the Iraq surge, might be the only year to surpass Trump’s OCO request, as it’s not yet clear if the $165 billion request is the total OCO or just the Defense Department’s contribution.) The same figures show that never has an OCO request increased from the previous year as much as this one’s.
“There’s definitely something incongruous” between the misimpression of Trump as a dove and and the explosion in the alleged war spending increase, said Dan Grazier, a defense analyst at the Project on Government Oversight.
“It rather gives away the ghost on this one to show that OCO really is the slush fund all of us has been saying it is all these years,” Grazier said. “It’s proof that our political representatives are throwing more money at the Pentagon while trying to give the impression that they’re not actually raising the Pentagon’s budget dramatically.”