August 3, 2010

We Can’t Afford an Empire

It seems that everyone these days agrees that we need to cut defense spending. Even Robert Gates—you know, the secretary of defense—thinks so. Given “America’s difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition,” Gates has ordered the Defense Department to cut its budget by 2 to 3 percent. The defense budget, he notes, has become unnecessarily bloated:

For example, should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters relative to the number of carrier wings, when America’s military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds? Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners? Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?

So, as I was saying, everyone these days, even the secretary of defense, agrees that we need to cut defense spending. Well, almost everyone agrees. After all, we can’t forget about Max Boot. Writing in the Washington Post, Boot claims that cutting defense spending—“letting our guard down”—could have horrible—no, devastating—no, horribly devastating—unspeakably, unimaginably horribly devastating—consequences.

As proof, he gives us a history lesson:

After World War I, our armed forces shrank from 2.9 million men in 1918 to 250,000 in 1928. The result? World War II became more likely and its early battles more costly. Imagine how Hitler might have acted in 1939 had several hundred thousand American troops been stationed in France and Poland. Under such circumstances, it is doubtful he would ever have launched his blitzkrieg. Likewise, Japanese leaders might have thought twice about attacking Pearl Harbor if their homeland had been in imminent danger of being pulverized by thousands of American bombers and their fleet sunk by dozens of American aircraft carriers.

After World War II, our armed forces shrank from 12 million men in 1945 to 1.4 million in 1950. (The Army went from 8.3 million soldiers to 593,000.) The result was that ill-trained, ill-armed draftees were almost pushed off the Korean Peninsula by the North Korean invasion. Kim Il Sung was probably emboldened to aggression in the first place by the rapid dissolution of America's wartime strength and indications from parsimonious policymakers that South Korea was outside our “defense perimeter.”

Boot continues in this manner, telling us how our poor performance in Vietnam could have been averted had we maintained our troop levels after Korea, how the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan could have been averted had we maintained our troop levels after Vietnam, and so on.

Needless to say, his rendering of history is, well, incomplete. It’s not as though maintaining high troop levels would have been the only way to avoid the above conflicts. For instance, had the Allies not so severely humiliated and punished Germany after World War I, Hitler probably wouldn’t have ever come to power in the first place, and had FDR not imposed such harsh, deliberately provocative, economic sanctions on Japan, it’s doubtful that it would have attacked Pearl Harbor.

But Boot has never been interested in finding non-imperial ways to solve our problems. Right after 9/11, he advocated that we do some nation-building, not just in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq, which he suggested could be accomplished with barely a hiccup. After all, we would probably “have plenty of help from Iraqis.” After deposing Saddam, we would “impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad,” which would soon restore our credibility and earn us “fruitful cooperation from the region’s many opportunists, who [would] show a newfound eagerness to be helpful in our larger task of rolling up the international terror network that threatens us.”

Boot freely admitted that he wanted the US to invade “many of the same lands where generations of British colonial soldiers went on campaigns.” “Afghanistan and other troubled lands,” he wrote, “today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” Never mind what happened to those self-confident Englishmen. Never mind that such imperial overstretch ultimately destroyed the British Empire. America, Boot suggested, is somehow different than the empires that went before it, somehow immune to the plights that befell them.

And to this date, he remains as optimistic—read: as arrogant—as ever, arguing, for example, that we need to bulk up our navy so it’s better able to “fight Somali pirates, police the Persian Gulf and deter Chinese expansionism in the Western Pacific.” Of course, our most recent imperial projects aren’t exactly going so well. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re not going to win the war in Afghanistan, as the people there continue turning against both us and the corrupt, illegitimate government we’ve installed. And we’re no more loved by Iraqis, whose government, for the first time in several decades, has allied itself with Iran. And yet Boot has his sights on Somali pirates and the Chinese.

It’s because of such thinking that America has gone broke. Last time I checked, we were something like $13 trillion in debt. Which, of course, means that the future isn’t looking so bright. To avoid the complete collapse of our currency, we’re going to have to cut spending. And with millions of Americans still suffering, still losing their homes, still unable to find work, I kind of think we should start with our truly gargantuan defense budget. Boot, of course, sees things differently, claiming that it’s not the defense budget that’s bankrupting us:

Defense spending is less than 4 percent of gross domestic product and less than 20 percent of the federal budget. That means our armed forces are much less costly in relative terms than they were throughout much of the 20th century. Even at roughly $549 billion, our core defense budget is eminently affordable. It is, in fact, a bargain considering the historic consequences of letting our guard down.

Not surprisingly, his numbers here are entirely misleading. First, while the Department of Defense’s “base budget” is $549 billion, when you add other expenses, such as the $254 billion it spends on “overseas contingency operations,” the actual Defense budget swells to $719 billion.

Second, as economist Robert Higgs points out, the government hides much of its defense-related spending in other departments. So, for example, our nuclear weapons program is funded by the Department of Energy, veterans' benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Military Retirement Fund by the Department of Treasury. When you add all this together, it turns out that we’re spending over $1 trillion a year on national defense.

Let me repeat that. We’re spending over $1 trillion—$1,000,000,000,000—per year on defense. Which means that we’re spending nearly as much on defense as the entire rest of the world combined. This might not be enough to maintain an empire, but if the point of the military is to defend American borders and protect American citizens, then we could certainly get by on a lot less.


Roger Young said...

How do you expect our brave soldier boys to defeat 100 Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan without 3200 combat aircraft??

I think you’re being unreasonable here.

(tee, hee)

Don Emmerich said...

Right -- and you forgot to mention that we ONLY have 1,000 soldiers in Afghanistan for every al-Qaeda operative. Only 1,000 to 1. How on earth can we be expected to defeat under these circumstances? :-)

Laird Minor said...

The problem isn't so much the American "empire" as our lack of will to do it right. What other empire in history failed to exact tribute from its conquered territories? As things stand now we're (over)-taxing the American people for the "privilege" of saving the rest of the world from Somali pirates, nation-building in Iraq, protecting the Japanese from China, etc. Come on, guys: at least let's cover our costs here. We already have the troops on the ground; let's start collecting some protection money for our trouble!

Or, if we don't have the courage to run an honest empire, how about just coming home?