One issue that will not be discussed in tonight’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is our nation’s burgeoning military budget. Earlier this month, the Bush administration announced a proposed military budget of $614 billion, not counting the full cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This represents the highest level of spending since World War II, even though our most dangerous adversary is a dispersed terrorist network measured in the tens of thousands, not a nuclear-armed Soviet Union whose armed forces were measured in the millions.

If Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen have their way, these massive levels of spending will continue even after the end of the war in Iraq, with a “floor” on military spending of 4% of our Gross Domestic Product.

Not only have the major presidential candidates been largely silent on these record expenditures, but they want to increase them. Barack Obama has said we will probably need to “bump up” the military budget in a new administration, and both he and Hillary Clinton have committed themselves to increasing the size of the armed forces by tens of thousands of troops. On the Republican side of the aisle, John McCain and Mike Huckabee are looking to spend even more than their Democratic counterparts.

We are long overdue for a national debate on how much we actually need to defend America in an era in which our greatest threat is the possibility that a terrorist group might get its hands on nuclear weapons. Even if Iraq had possessed nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, military force would not have been the most effective way to address the problem. The lesson of Iraq is that rigorous inspections are the best way to root out dangerous weapons programs.

More importantly, the most likely route for a terrorist group to get its hands on nuclear weapons is not by receiving them as a “gift” from an existing nuclear weapons state, but by stealing bombs or bomb-making materials from a nation like Russia where they are not adequately secured. Much progress has been made on this front through the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program, which invests in dismantling and protecting so-called loose nukes and bomb-making materials in Russia and other nations around the world. Despite these successes, there is much more to be done. Yet the Bush administration has actually proposed cutting Nunn-Lugar funding in this year’s budget, to $414 million dollars, or less than two days worth of spending on the war in Iraq.

As for conventional threats, the United States is already spending more for defense than all the other nations in the world combined. If all of these lavish expenditures were needed to protect the country that would be one thing. But tens of billions of dollars are being wasted on systems like the F-22 fighter plane, the V-22 Osprey (a helicopter that can be transformed into a conventional aircraft), the Virginia class submarine, and an unworkable and unnecessary missile defense system. All of these programs were initiated during the Cold War, and none of them is suited to current challenges. Likewise, proposals for troop increases presume that we might once again engage in a military occupation like the current conflict in Iraq – an unwise course which should be ruled out in any new defense strategy.

Furthermore, there are far more urgent uses for some of the funds now devoted to the military, from investments designed to reverse the current recession, to spending to curb the threat of climate change, to beefed up spending on diplomacy. A recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies has revealed that our government currently spends 88 times as much on the military as we do on addressing climate change. And even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called for an expansion of the U.S. diplomatic corps, which is currently smaller than the crews needed to run one aircraft carrier task force. To its credit, the Bush administration has requested funding for 1,000 new diplomats in this year’s budget, but this is just a small down payment on what is needed.

So, rather than artificially reserving a fixed share of our national income for military spending, we should adjust the budget based on a critical assessment of what is actually needed to protect the country. If this debate doesn’t begin during this year’s presidential and congressional elections, it will be that much harder for the next president to rein in our current practice of overspending on the Pentagon.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation and a member of the Advisory Board of Foreign Policy In Focus.

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