The Pentagon is planning to pull billions of dollars from a slush fund earmarked for the war on terror to finance a major mobilization of tanks, troops and arms near the Russian border, as part of NATO’s largest military buildup in eastern Europe since the Cold War.
The plan underscores the role the war on terror plays in setting up a funding infrastructure that allows the Pentagon to sidestep budget caps and political debate to pursue military campaigns across the globe.
“We are contributing a persistent rotational armored brigade combat team,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters in Brussels last week. This mobilization includes “an armored brigade combat team's worth of equipment in Europe in addition to two brigades already in Europe,” the Department of Defense clarified in a press statement, noting that the developments are part of the “European Reassurance Initiative” (ERI).
The U.S. is not acting alone. Britain also announced that it plans to mobilize fighter planes to Romania, with Germany, Canada and other countries that are members of NATO also promising forces. “From early 2017, NATO will have four multinational battalions in the eastern part of the Alliance,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week. “This is credible deterrence. Not to provoke a conflict, but to prevent conflict. Concrete proof that NATO can and will deploy thousands of forces to support our Allies.”
Carter indicated that the U.S. mobilizations will be financed by “the $3.4 billion of funds in this fiscal year,” noting that the sum is four times the amount allocated last year for ERI.
What Carter did not mention is that these funds will likely be taken from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, a fund that allows the Pentagon to sidestep budget cuts and was initially created to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon’s Slush Fund
The OCO fund constitutes a separate pool of money for the Pentagon that is not subject to budget caps. This is one mechanism that allows the military to sidestep “procedural limits on discretionary spending in congressional budget resolutions or to the statutory discretionary spending limits established by the Budget Control Act of 2011,” as summarized by the Congressional Research Service.
“The OCO started as an emergency fund for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars,” Lindsay Koshgarian, research director for the National Priorities Project, told AlterNet. “But many years ago, it morphed into a slush fund—a piggy bank the Pentagon can use for essentially whatever it wants with no accountability and no one to tell them they shouldn’t be doing this.”
This is no small piggy bank. For the fiscal year 2015, the OCO was financed at $64 billion, and in 2016 that number dropped slightly to $59 billion. The White House is requesting roughly $59 billion for 2017.
The OCO funds comprise a significant fraction of overall military spending. According to a new report from Brown University’s Watson Institute, since Sept. 11, 2001, the wars have cost nearly $5 trillion to U.S. taxpayers. That report states that between 2001 and 2016, OCO has cost roughly $1.7 trillion.
William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, told AlterNet that “they are using the OCO as a slush fund to finance things that have nothing to do with the war on terror. The OCO is a safety valve, they are just throwing things in there.”
“There is no actual debate on how we engage in conflict as a country; it’s all happening through budgeting,” said Koshgarian. Meanwhile, she added, “there is no domestic equivalent to slush fund. There is no slush fund for nutrition programs and health care. There’s only a Pentagon slush fund."
Military Buildup near Russian Border
According to the Obama administration, ERI was established in 2014 to “reassure allies of our solemn commitment to their security and territorial integrity as members of the NATO Alliance.”
In February of this year, the White House requested $3.4 billion in funding for ERI to “enable a quicker and more robust response in support of NATO’s common defense.” According to the Obama administration, the mobilization is aimed at establishing an increased U.S. presence in Eastern Europe and providing “additional combat vehicles and supplies are intended to reduce force deployment times and enable a rapid response to potential contingencies.”
According to Hartung, the U.S. mobilization in Eastern Europe “primarily has to do with the Russian intervention in Ukraine.”
Whatever the motive, some argue that such maneuvering only heightens the danger of military escalation.
Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, told AlterNet, “I think that moving U.S. forces eastward and moving NATO eastward plays into the hands of the ultra-nationalism of President Vladimir Putin, that has led him to do some of the bad things he’s done in Ukraine and Syria.”
Bassam Haddad, the director of the Middle East Studies program at George Mason University and co-founder of the online journal Jadaliyya, told AlterNet he agrees. "The perception of external threat bolsters hyper-nationalism," he said. "It's also what we see here in the United States."
Mounting Tensions Over Syria
The latest U.S. mobilization to eastern Europe comes amid mounting tensions with Russia over Syria, with some members of the Washington foreign policy elite calling for a no-fly zone. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has emerged as a strong proponent of the measure, presenting it as a humanitarian policy throughout her campaign after acknowledging in 2013, “you’re going to kill a lot of Syrians.” Her position contrasts with current and former top military brass, some of whom hold that a no-fly zone carries a considerable risk of confrontation with Russia.
Notably, the U.S. militarization near the Russian border is not matched by a mobilization for a no-fly zone in Syria. Ahead of the U.S.-backed intervention in Libya, the American military deployed naval and air force vessels around the country, a development that was covered by numerous press outlets. And in 2013, when the Obama administration threatened to take military action against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the U.S. mobilized war ships in the Mediterranean Sea. But as Hartung acknowledged, “I don’t see a major military mobilization to Syria happening right now.”
Yet, the U.S. has been intervening in Syria for more than two years, waging air strikes allegedly targeting ISIS, although little is being revealed to the public about who exactly is being killed. In October alone, U.S. Central Command released 25 press releases announcing air strikes in Syria, with most hitting the northern and eastern parts of the country. A recent analysis by Amnesty International shows that the coalition, of which the U.S. is conducting a majority of the bombings, is vastly under-counting civilian killings. “Eleven Coalition attacks examined by the organization appear to have killed some 300 civilians during two years of strikes targeting the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS),” Amnesty reports. Meanwhile, the independent monitoring organization Air Wars determines that over the past year, Russian aircraft have killed far more civilians in Syria than the U.S. coalition.
The OCO funds and ERI initiative predate the latest spike in U.S. tensions with Russia in Eastern Europe and Syria. However, top military brass have made it clear that the Pentagon will rely on this slush fund for its efforts to bulk up militarization near the Russian border moving forward. The next president will inherit this “war on terror” funding infrastructure, which will allow her or him to dodge budget caps and political debate in pursuit of military action. And the next president will do so with even more U.S. troops, tanks and military equipment at Russia’s doorstep.