President Joe Biden withdrew from Afghanistan in fiery pandemonium this summer and has continued his predecessor’s scaling down of the US presence in Iraq. Yet Congress last week approved what is by some measures the biggest defense spending bill in history, to the tune of $768 billion. It’s bigger than those passed during the Vietnam and Korean War years, and bigger than Ronald Reagan’s military buildup. The only time this bill has been larger, adjusted for inflation, was in 2011, at a moment when the US had a peak in troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

How could it be that even with those wars ending, Congress has authorized about $30 billion more than President Donald Trump’s last budget?

When the Cold War with Russia ended in the 1990s, military leaders acknowledged that spending could be halved while still maintaining security. President George H.W. Bush successfully slashed defense funding by 9 percent and then President Bill Clinton initially trimmed about 8 percent (or more, depending on the calculation). They sought to reinvest that money back home, in what was called the peace dividend. But Republican lawmakers also pushed back, and Clinton failed to really transform the military budget. Defense spending began climbing in the late ’90s, and then to much higher levels during the post-9/11 years.

In 2021, despite the US mostly leaving Iraq (2,500 troops remain) and Afghanistan, not even a slight peace dividend has materialized. “As we drew down from Afghanistan, we should have been having a real debate about whether there were opportunities to shift funding and make cuts,” said Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight.

It’s a debate that Biden could have sparked. The idea of “building back better” appears about a dozen times

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