Trump Inaccurately Claims ‘Firsts’ in Defense Speech
Posted December 18, 2017 9:13 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — In a speech outlining his first national security strategy, President Donald Trump sought to distinguish himself as a commander in chief who is breaking records and setting precedents.
Trump spoke of historic military spending, a never-before-seen emphasis on border security at home and allies finally sharing the United States’ defense burdens abroad — all claims that require some explanation. Here’s an assessment.
He falsely called the $700 billion defense policy bill for 2018 “a record.”
“We are once again investing in our defense — almost $700 billion — a record this coming year,” Trump said.
He was referring to the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill that authorizes funding for the Pentagon, nuclear weapons programs at the Energy Department and military elements of the intelligence community. That is different from an appropriations bill, which actually provides the funding.
The defense authorization that Trump signed into law last week included a base defense budget of $626 billion for the 2018 fiscal year. It also authorized about $66 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, a spending account that is used to fund wars.
One does not need to look far for authorization bills that have been larger. President Barack Obama signed a defense authorization bill of $725 billion for the 2011 fiscal year, more than $150 billion of which funded continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Adjusted for inflation, the gap between the 2011 bill and the 2018 bill would be greater still.
He misleadingly suggested that NATO members are increasing defense contributions at his urging.
Trump claimed “tens of billions of dollars more pouring in because I would not allow member states to be delinquent.”
Under NATO guidelines, member states agree to commit a minimum 2 percent of gross domestic product to the organization’s defense efforts, but few nations actually do so.
Members that were not meeting that bar of 2 percent pledged in September 2014 — nine months before Trump announced his candidacy — to do so over the next decade.
The secretary-general of the military alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, said in July that five countries contributed at least 2 percent of their GDP in 2016. He said he expected Romania to reach the benchmark this year, and Latvia and Lithuania to do so next year.
It is conceivable that Trump ushered along the process, but efforts to address the disparity predated his complaints.
He exaggerated when he said foreign countries were not sharing the “cost of defending them.”
“We have made clear that countries that are immensely wealthy should reimburse the United States for the cost of defending them,” Trump said. “This is a major departure from the past, but a fair and necessary one.”
The notion that allies do not share the costs of hosting U.S. troops abroad is inaccurate. His emphasis on a dollar-for-dollar “reimbursement” also mischaracterizes the relationship between the United States and its allies.
“That would be mercenary,” said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They pay for a lot of the cost supporting our troops in their country.”
A 2004 report from the Pentagon detailed the contributions that allies make toward hosting U.S. troops. Japan, for example, provided more than $4.4 billion in direct and indirect support, equal to about 75 percent of costs to the United States.
The government of South Korea said in 2014 that it would pay $866 million, equal to about 40 percent of the total, for American troops there.
The United States also benefits from these relationships in the form of a larger global footprint, counterterrorism intelligence sharing and trade advantages.
He exaggerated his national strategy’s emphasis on border security as “the first time ever.”
While Trump’s strategy may be the first to call for the construction of a border wall, it is not the first to pay tribute to the importance of border security.
Obama’s 2010 strategy spoke of efforts to “maintain effective control of our physical borders” and “safeguard lawful trade and travel into and out of the United States.”
It also included a goal of pursuing comprehensive immigration overhaul that “effectively secures our borders” and deters unlawful entry.
President George W. Bush’s 2006 strategy declared a goal of working with the United States’ nearest neighbors to reduce illegal immigration.
And in his 1998 strategy, President Bill Clinton vowed to “cooperate with other states to curb illegal immigration into this country” and listed border protection as one of his major goals and initiatives.