On September 29, Congress revolted against the $700 billion price tag of the proposed bailout of Wall Street. The day before, that same Congress passed without murmur—unanimously in the Senate—a $700 billion budget for the Pentagon in 2009. The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression has shattered the conservative illusions about deregulation and market fundamentalism. But the equally costly illusions about America’s role as an “indispensable nation” policing the globe go without challenge. We remain prisoners of war.
Most Americans have no sense of the cost and scope of America’s role as globocop. We sustain what Chalmers Johnson calls an “empire of bases” across the globe – over 700 active bases in more than 30 countries. Our navy polices the world’s oceans. We task our military to maintain “dominance” not only in our own hemisphere, but in Europe, the Persian Gulf and Asia. Our intelligence “plumbing in place” engages in covert activities throughout the globe. We are the only nation with the capacity to airlift expeditionary forces rapidly and in large numbers across the globe. We are now devoting some $12 billion a month to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Bush has declared a “Global War on Terror,” a so-called “long war,” without limits or exits. Our Defense Secretary complains that the military is displacing the desiccated State Department as America’s representatives across the world.
The cost of sustaining this commitment is staggering. The Pentagon’s budget itself represents more than half of all discretionary spending—everything the government does, outside of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and interest on the national debt. At $700 billion, it is about equal to that spent by the rest of the world combined on the military. But the actual cost of our military is strewn throughout the budget. Add in the cost of our veterans, the arms aid in the State Department budget, Homeland Security, and more—and actual spending climbs over $1 trillion a year.
Our military has no rival, but we grow ever less secure. There are three fundamental reasons for this.
As carpenters know, if you only carry a hammer, lots of things start looking like a nail. Maintain a global military constantly engaged across the world, and it will find things to do. As one conservative Southern Senator once said, “the greater ability we have to go places and do things, the more likely we are to go there and do them.” Neo-conservatives dream of the military remaking the Middle East. Humanitarians demand that it act to stop genocide or atrocities from Rwanda to Darfur. Global corporations insist that it challenge pirates and rogue states that are posing an increasing nuisance to shipping.
Thus, the fanatics that launched the airplanes against the World Trade Towers are turned into warriors; the very real threat they pose transformed into a Global War on Terror. This not only helps justify the “war of choice” against Iraq, surely the most costly national security debacle since Vietnam. It also distracts us from a sensible strategy against al Qaeda and its allies. As the Pentagon’s own think tank, the Rand Corporation concluded in a recent study, the very concept of a “war on terror” isn’t only a distraction; it is detraction from a sensible strategy. By elevating al Qaeda into global warriors, it inflates their importance, and aids their ability to recruit. At the same time, it scorns the real measures needed to counter al Qaeda—intelligence cooperation, financial constraints, and alert and aggressive policing. Worse, it undermines the broad challenge that must be made to engage Islam, to rally the forces of moderation, and to isolate the extremists.
The second problem is the obverse: things that don’t look like nails get ignored. America’s priorities are badly distorted. Abroad, as Defense Secretary Gates acknowledged, generals and admirals displace our diplomats. Arms sales dominate our foreign assistance programs. At home, our country is literally falling apart from lack of investment in a modern, energy efficient infrastructure. We spend tens of billions each year to project our military power into the Persian Gulf, but fail to invest in the renewable energy and conservation at home that could reduce our dependence on foreign oil, generate jobs here in the U.S., and help capture the green markets that will be the growth markets of the future. We are a wealthy country, so in fact, we probably could afford to sustain military spending at current levels. But we can’t do so, and slash taxes on the wealthy and the corporations, without starving basic investments here at home, even as we rack up record deficits.
Worse, the military has no answer to the major threats to our security: a growing global indebtedness that can’t be sustained, the rise of India and China as economic powerhouses, catastrophic climate change and the growing resource struggles that will be far more destabilizing than Islamic terrorists, an integrated global economy of ever greater instability. Worse, the attention devoted to military misadventures like Iraq gets in the way of addressing these looming threats.
The third problem is the contrast between the Republic we are trying to secure and the national security state that has been built to police the globe. War augments the power of the executive. War and military threat justify secrecy, covert operations, disdain for constitutional limits and checks and balances. President Bush claims the right to launch preventive war on any nation in the world, to wiretap Americans without warrant, to designate them an enemy combatant and arrest them without reasonable cause, to hold them without review. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, rendition and torture have shamed America during the Bush years. But the lawlessness of the national security state – and the trampling of our own liberties in the name of security – did not begin in 2000. Bush has merely taken to the extreme prerogatives claimed by presidents over the last decades.
But the myths that sustain our military—and the lobbies that promote military spending—are politically unassailable. Both major party presidential candidates pledge to increase the size of the military and project higher military spending in the future. Both support an increased military occupation in Afghanistan, ignoring the history of fierce Afghani resistance to foreign occupation that confounded Britain at the height of its empire, and the Soviet Union right off its borders. The financial crisis and coming recession is forcing a great reckoning in America. But to date, there is no serious challenge to our priorities, or to America’s commitment to policing the globe. The presidential debate on foreign policy featured disputes about Iraq, about Georgia, about Afghanistan, about the economic crisis. But our basic global strategy, our spending priorities went without question or comment.
Economic crisis, like hanging, has a way of concentrating the mind. The financial crisis and the harsh recession likely to follow will spark a fundamental debate about America’s economy. But the debacle in Iraq has not had the same effect on the foreign policy debate. A challenge to America’s global strategy will not come from Washington. It won’t come from the national security managers of either party. It can only come if citizens build a democratic movement willing and able to demand the debate that we need.