How the Democrats enable war

George W. Bush could not have gone to war in Iraq if 29 of the 50 Democrats in the Senate had not voted for the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 and if the Democrats hadn’t approved the growing military budgets year after year. Under Obama, the US has expanded war to 7 different countries and carried out a dirty war of illegal assassinations. In the same way that the Democrats served as enablers of war under Bush, they may now being playing the role of enablers in a future war with Iran.

Although President Obama has reduced the number of boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has broadened the number of war zones. After 8 years under a Democratic administration, the US is now conducting war in 7 countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Libya). Currently, the US military has deployed 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, 3,550 in Iraq and 3,00 in Syria, but the whereabouts of 5,524 personnel are described as “unknown/classified”. The US press doesn’t call it “war,” so it is easy for the US public to ignore it. Under Obama, warfare has gone global, as Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield vividly documents.

Under Obama, the precedent was set that the US president has the right to assassinate US citizens, including minors, without indictment or trial. In his “Terror Tuesdays” meetings, Obama authorizes the illegal assassination of targets by drones. In 2011, these drone strikes killed 3 US citizens in Yemen and 1 in Pakistan. In 2010 while Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton advocated to her aides that Julian Assange of Wikileaks be illegally assassinated by drone and she attended the Terror Tuesday meetings where she likely broached the idea. The FBI reports that Clinton sent emails nominating individuals for assassination by drone.

Not only did the Obama Administration illegally assume the right to assassinate individuals without trial, it also codified in law the right of the executive to detain individuals without trial. In October 2009, Obama signed the Military Commissions Act of 2009, which allows the US president the designate “hostile non-protected enemies” who can be detained indefinitely without trial. They do not need to be combatants, but any “persons who are engaged in conflict against the USA”. The new definition also applies not only to people captured on or near a field of battle, but also to individuals who act or even express solidarity with those opposing the US armed forces or the policies of the US government. Likewise, Obama also signed the National Defense Authorization Act in December 2011, which authorizes the indefinite detention, without trial or indictment, of US citizens designated as enemies by the executive, thus abrogating the right of habeas corpus for Americans.

The Democrats have done little to constrain the US military machine. The US military has between 700 and 800 overseas bases in roughly 80 countries (it admits to 662 overseas bases in 38 countries). The number of countries where US special forces operate has grown from 60 under Bush to 133 countries today.

George W. Bush presided over a massive increase in military spending during his administration, growing total federal spending on the military, veterans and intelligence from an estimated $369.7 billion in 2001 to $806.2 billion in 2009. This spending caused huge budget deficits, which dramatically increased the national debt. This level of spending was totally unsustainable, yet the first Obama administration continued to expand the budget for the Department of Defense and the National Intelligence Program. In 2009-10, when the Democrats had majorities in both the House and the Senate, they approved increases in the military, atomic energy and intelligence budgets. Total spending on the military, veterans and intelligence peaked at $887.3 billion in 2011. Only in 2013 was there some cutting of the security state established by Bush, partly due to the sequester. The base budget of the Department of Defense was cut by $34.9 billion, atomic energy defense activities were cut by $1.6 billion and the National Intelligence Program was cut by 4.9 billion, yet almost all these cuts have been undone in recent years. The 2017 budget for the Department of Defense and the National intelligence Program is almost as large as in 2012, and it is even larger for atomic energy defense activities.


The only real success of the Obama administration has been in reducing the supplemental spending on what Bush bombastically dubbed the “global war on terror,” and Obama more soberly calls “overseas contingency operations.”  As Obama has drawn down the number of troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of Defense’s supplemental spending has been cut from $186.9 billion in 2008 to $58.8 billion in 2017. Nonetheless, these cuts were matched at the same time by the increasing costs of taking care of all the veterans who were injured by these wars. Between 2008 and 2017, spending on veterans benefits and services has increased from $84.7 to $180.8 billion. When comparing Obama’s last budget in 2017 to Bush’s last budget in 2009, Obama added $10.7 billion to the base budget of the Department of defense, $3.8 billion to atomic energy defense activities and $3.7 billion to the National Intelligence Program. These increases in the security state become small decreases when adjusting for inflation, but this level of military spending is totally irresponsible when examining how little the US federal government spends on infrastructure, inspection and regulation and education compared to other developed nations. US government expenditures on infrastructure represent 2.4% of the US GDP. In comparison, Europe invests 5% of its GDP in infrastructure and China invests 9%.

At the same time that the Obama administration has maintained the massive level of spending on military and intelligence established by Bush, it has cut funding on all other discretionary spending in the federal government. There was a large spike in discretionary spending in 2009 and 2010 to stimulate the economy during the global downturn, but after the federal government’s budget no longer included the economic stimulus funds, the Obama administration has consistently reduced funding for almost every part of the government except the security state. Between 2011 and 2017, discretionary funding for the parts of the federal government which do not include the military, veterans and the National Intelligence Program (NIP) have fallen from $333,4 to $298.2 billion. In 2001, the security state (military, veterans and NIP) represented an estimated 55.7% of total federal discretionary spending. This percentage grew to 72.7% in the 2011 budget and it will represent 74.1% of the 2017 budget.

No other nation comes close to the US in terms of of military spending. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the $596 billion which the US spent on its military in 2015 was more than its 11 closest competitors combined. With only 4% of the world’s population, the US spent 37% of the global military budget of $1,676 billion.  3.8% of the US GDP is dedicated to the military, which is a higher percentage than any other major military power except Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The Republicans have been forceful advocates for what can be termed as “military Keynesianism” in its best light or “crony Capitalism” in a more honest appraisal which takes into account how the military-industrial complex operates. The Democrats, however, have not served as effective counterbalances to the militarist Republicans, since they are almost as deep in the pockets of the military contractors as their opponents. During the 2016 election cycle, the nine largest US military contractors combined spent $138.5 million in lobbying the federal government and gave a total of $23.9 million in political campaign contributions to candidates for federal offices. The Democrats received 40.6% of these contributions, so they are fattening at the trough of the military-industrial complex almost as much as the Republicans. The Democrats make token efforts to control spending on the security state while increasing spending on social services, but the current system of legalized bribery serves as an inducement for them to meet the Republican halfway in approving bloated military and intelligence budgets. In Eisenhower’s first draft of his famous speech warning about the pernicious influence of the “military-industrial complex”, he originally termed it the “military-industrial-political complex.” Democrats like Obama, Reid and Polosi are embedded in the military-industrial complex, just as much as the Republicans with whom they supposedly fight at every round of budget negotiations.


The nine largest military contractors received a total of 162,804 contracts worth $96.9 billion from the US military in 2015, so they received an average $700 per dollar spent on lobbying and $4,054 per dollar spent on campaign contributions during the 2016 election cycle. There is no doubt that Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and the rest of the military contractors are receiving a good return on investment, but it comes at the expense of the US taxpayer who is paying for endless war and a bloated military-industrial complex.

The genius of Obama has been his ability to wage war without arousing opposition at home. In 2015, the Obama administration dropped 22,110 bombs in Iraq/Syria, 947 bombs in Afghanistan, 11 bombs in Pakistan, 58 bombs in Yemen, 18 bombs in Somalia (if we conservatively assume that only one bomb is dropped per drone strike). Nonetheless, there was hardly a protest against these bombings aside from a few determined peace groups like Code Pink, whereas 5% of Americans reported in a March 2003 poll by Gallup that they had protested or made a public opposition to the war in Iraq. Because Obama keeps promising to draw down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and close the illegal prison in Guantanamo Bay, he has gotten a convenient pass from progressives, who point to the Republican Party as the boogie which has prevented peace.

Obama has been a master of rhetorical good intentions which obscure the reality of his actions. A classic example of how Obama operates is his speech in Prague in April 2009 where he proclaimed,  “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” In March 2016, Obama repeated this bold intention in an op-ed in the Washington Post:

Of all the threats to global security and peace, the most dangerous is the proliferation and potential use of nuclear weapons. That’s why, seven years ago in Prague, I committed the United States to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and to seeking a world without them.

While Obama did negotiate a New START treaty with Russia in 2010 and a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, many of the claims he makes in the op-ed ring hollow when examining his actual record. According to Obama, “The United States and Russia remain on track to meet our New START Treaty obligations so that by 2018 the number of deployed American and Russian nuclear warheads will be at their lowest levels since the 1950s.” However, Obama has done little to reduce the US nuclear threat. In the five years after signing the New START treaty, the US has reduced its arsenal, from 4950 to 4700 nukes.  In comparison, George W. Bush’s administration halved the US arsenal from over 10,000 to just over 5,000 nukes.

Obama also claims to have strengthened the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but he negotiated a deal with the Republicans in 2010 to update the US nuclear arsenal and develop new types of nuclear weapons in return for supporting the New START treaty. Not only did this deal violate the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the development of smaller nukes such as bunker busting bombs makes their use more likely, not less likely, in future wars. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimates that it will cost between 836 and 963 billion dollars to modernize the US nuclear arsenal over the next 3 decades.

As always, the defense of the Democrats is that the Republicans forced Obama into this type of deal, but at that point the Democrats had majorities in both the House and Senate. George W. Bush and the last 6 Republican secretaries of state were publicly supporting the New START treaty. If the Republicans had filibustered the treaty, they would have faced a wave of public opprobrium, since polling at the time shows that anti-war sentiment was high. If Obama had given speeches denouncing the Republicans as war mongers holding up nuclear arms reductions with Russia, the Republicans probably would have caved and they certainly would have been leery of loosing public support right before the midterm elections that promised to gain them seats.

Obama’s greatest claim to reducing the threat of war was negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, but president-elect Trump repeatedly promised to undo that deal on the campaign trail. If Trump tries to renegotiate the deal, it is likely that it will strengthen the hand of the conservative factions in Iran and weaken the reformers, which will undermine the prospects for peace with Iran.

Even if the current nuclear deal isn’t scrapped by Trump, since none of the other 5 countries in the deal will go along with Trump, the Democrats just made it much easier for Trump to provoke a war with Iran. Every Democrat in the House and Senate, with exception of Bernie Sanders, just voted for the Iran Sanctions Extension Act (ISEA), which gives the US president the power to implement sanctions against Iran over the next 10 years. Although the US press presented this bill as a symbolic gesture to ensure Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, Trump is likely to use this power to arbitrarily implement sanctions against Iran over the smallest insult or slight.

In response to the US congress passing the ISEA, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called it a “violation” of the nuclear agreement and ordered the national nuclear agency to start developing nuclear propulsion capability for marine transportation. While technically not a violation of the nuclear agreement, just like the ISEA wasn’t technically a violation, but sides are escalating the conflict in order to placate their hardliners. Given the need of Iranian leaders to talk tough in the face of US imperialism, it is highly likely that Trump will find a pretext for reimplementing the sanctions, and Iranian hardliners will use that action as justification to restart weapons-grade nuclear enrichment. With an volatile personality like Trump and the tenuous position of the reformers in Iran, tit is likely to be met with tat on both sides and the US could end up in another war in the MiddleEast.

Obama has already promised to sign into law the ISEA, which will hand Trump the keys to provoke a conflict with Iran, without asking congress for a vote. If Democrats had any spine, they would have stood up and argued against the ISEA. They could have pointed out that Iran is currently complying with the treaty, and they can always vote to reimplement the sanctions in the future if it becomes necessary, but they did not have the political courage to be perceived as being soft on Iran. The Democrats have backed themselves into a corner, by publicly declaring that they don’t trust Iran and are ready to punish Iran with new sanctions at any moment, so they couldn’t refuse to give Trump the power to implement new sanctions. It is telling that only Bernie Sanders had the political courage to not vote for the reauthorization, and he abstained, rather than voting against it.  Even Sanders, the most principled advocate of peace in the Senate, was afraid to vote against the reauthorization, despite the fact that he has the safest seat in Congress with the highest approval rating in his state of any senator.

If Obama had rallied the Democrats against the reauthorization bill, he could have gotten enough Democratic votes to sustain a veto, but he made no such call. Getting at least a third of congress to vote against the reauthorization would have send a signal to Trump that escalating tensions with Iran is controversial and risky. Trump has nominated Islamophobic hardliners, like Micheal Flynn for National Security Advisor, James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as Secretary of Defense and John Bolton as Deputy Secretary of State, so there will be few voices in his cabinet to restrain him if he escalates tensions with Iran. However, a person with his flexible morals is more likely to hesitate even if he would have gotten the reauthorization bill passed upon taking office. Hopefully, tensions with Iran will not escalate, but it is just one more example of how the Democrats have been working to enable war, rather than taking a principled stand against it.

License: Creative Commons-Attribution 3.1 to Amos Batto.
Download the spreadsheet data used in this article.

1 thought on “How the Democrats enable war

  1. amosbatto Post author

    I updated my chart of US military spending since 2001 with estimates of the National Intelligence Program’s budget for 2001-2004.

    George W. Bush increased spending on the security state (military, veterans & intelligence) from 55.7% of federal discretionary funds in 2001 to 63.4% in 2008. If we ignore the years of the economic stimulus in 2009-10, Obama’s budgets spent an average of 72.1% of federal discretionary funds on the security state. In the 2017 budget, that percentage is 74.1%, meaning 3 out of every 4 federal discretionary dollars is now going toward feeding the military and surveillance machine of the government. At the same time that Obama continued to fund the national security state at the same level in constant dollars, he cut all other discretionary funding by 2.4% per year.

    For a man who received the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama appears to have caved to the demands of the military-industrial complex at every turn. We should not laud a president who spends 3 out of every 4 dollars in his discretionary budget to promote militarism and surveillance. Obama took over the military policy of the Bush Administration, which was bombing in 3 countries and running covert ops in 60 countries, and he expanded the bombing to 7 countries and the covert ops to 133 countries. We applaud Obama as a peacemaker compared to the Republicans, but that applause shows how skewed our moral compasses have become, when a president who makes war is lauded because he isn’t as bad as his opponents in the other party.



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