The Great Defense Budget Black Hole

The Iraq war continues to consume lives, both American and Iraqi. The conflict also is burning mountains of cash. No wonder U.S. military outlays are spiraling out of control.

Earlier this month, the Bush administration proposed a complex $715 billion defense spending package. There is $481 billion for standard Pentagon operations in 2008. There is $142 billion for the war next year. There is an extra $93 billion for the war this year – on top of the $70 billion already approved.

Even these figures are almost certainly too low. The Pentagon’s budget director, Tina Jonas, explained that next year’s war estimates treat the ongoing escalation as “a near-term initiative.” Thus, “I think we know that it will be wrong.” As a result, “things will change and we’ll have to adjust at that point.” Outside analysts expect the planned combat escalation to hike equipment repair bills beyond current budget estimates. Which means yet another supplemental, probably next year.

Iraq’s most obvious impact on the budget is for more ammunition, equipment, buildings, and health care, as well as day-to-day logistical support. The FY2008 budget even includes $318 million for base construction, as if the Iraqis will allow the U.S. a permanent military presence.

Moreover, by so straining the Army, in particular, the Iraq war has caused the administration to seek an additional 92,000 soldiers and Marines. This expansion will run $5.3 billion in 2007, $18.6 billion next year, and some $117.6 billion through 2013.

So far, Iraq and Afghanistan have cost an estimated $661 billion. By the time U.S. forces finally go home, Americans will be out $1 trillion or more as a result of George Bush’s foreign joyride.

The Iraq war. So costly yet so unnecessary. The conflict that keeps on giving.

But Iraq is only part of a larger problem. The U.S. spends so much on the military because of Washington’s policy of promiscuous foreign intervention. The attempt to micromanage world affairs and engage in social engineering across nations, cultures, traditions, and religions is inevitably expensive.

Indeed, America’s military budget must be seen as the price of America’s foreign policy. The more Washington policymakers desire to do around the globe, the more American taxpayers will have to pay.

Those who push for ever more military outlays argue that the U.S. devotes “only” 4.3 percent of GDP to the military, compared to 6.2 percent during the Reagan military buildup and more during the early Cold War. Robert Caldwell of the San Diego Union-Tribune opines: “the right question is not whether the defense budget is too big but whether it’s big enough.”

However, these numbers are highly deceptive. The economy is much larger today, so even a smaller percent of the GDP yields vastly higher military outlays. We are engaged in Cold War spending without a Cold War.

The high price that the U.S. pays for its determination that no event will occur worldwide without Washington’s concurrence is most obvious when comparing American expenditures to those of other states. The International Institute for Strategic Studies figures world military outlays at $1.2 trillion in 2005. The U.S. accounted for $495.3 billion, or 41 percent.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that America’s dominance is even more lopsided, coming in at 48 percent. According to SIPRI’s numbers, 80 percent of the world’s increase in military outlays from 2004 to 2005 was spent by the U.S.

American expenditures are roughly twice those of the rest of NATO, 4.5 times those of China, and 8.5 times those of Russia. Washington spends as much as the next 20 countries combined, most of which are allies and friends. Indeed, the U.S. devotes almost three times as much to the military as do all of its potential adversaries combined: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Burma, Venezuela, and a handful of others.

America is not alone, however. Toss in NATO, non-NATO but friendly European countries, America’s Asian allies, and Israel, and the “free world coalition” comes in at $873.8 billion, or 72 percent of global spending. Most of the rest aren’t hostile of course, simply not fully allied. War with Russia remains a paranoid fantasy, Ukraine is balanced between the West and Russia, India is friendly but independent, most African states are essentially irrelevant, and even China is a long way from being an enemy.

Unfortunately, the Defense Department numbers don’t count the indirect costs of today’s wars. Linda Bilmes of the John F. Kennedy School of Government figures taxpayers may be on the hook for as much as a half trillion dollars in veterans’ health care bills and another $127 billion in veterans’ disability payments for Afghanistan and Iraq. The total price for those conflicts could run $1.4 trillion.

In short, U.S. military expenditures are vastly disproportionate. America has global interests, but so do other industrialized states. America faces threats, but none so great as suggested by Washington’s current defense outlays.

The Iraq conflict has put extraordinary pressure on the military, but it is only one of many significant, and unnecessary, military commitments that now occupy a force of 1.5 million active and one million reserve personnel. The U.S. continues to deploy hundreds of thousands of troops to Europe, which faces no military threats; Japan, which could defend its own interests from threats which remain mostly potential; and South Korea, which vastly outranges its northern antagonist.

There’s no need for America to deploy forces in any of these countries or regions. Without an overarching global threat, the security of America’s allies is no longer vital to the security of America. The future of South Korea should be up to South Korea.

Moreover, these populous and prosperous nations face mostly negligible threats and are well able to defend themselves. The time when Washington believed it necessary to subsidize allied militaries so as to foster allied economies is long over. The U.S. would be more secure dropping the vestiges of its Cold War containment alliance structure.

The U.S. could spend far less while remaining the most powerful single nation, able to play the role of an “off-shore balancer” dedicated to ensuring that no hegemonic power dominates Eurasia. No such power currently exists and only China looks like a possible contender in the near-to-mid-future. Nevertheless, it is a possibility against which America should guard.

The U.S. faces few other dangers. Despite the often frenetic concern expressed in Washington about overseas events, most are simply irrelevant to American security. Real threats to the U.S. primarily involve terrorism and nuclear proliferation. However, these dangers are not easily met with carrier groups, armored divisions, and vast military expenditures; to the contrary, promiscuous intervention generates the very hostility towards America which leads to terrorism. Dealing with both phenomena instead requires sophisticated diplomacy, accurate intelligence, and international cooperation. Military force still matters, of course, but the U.S. would better emphasize special forces and force transformation, while spending far less overall.

Despite significant divisions between many Democrats and Republicans over the Iraq war, there is little difference between the two parties in their views on the overall direction of U.S. foreign policy. The American political establishment is united in believing that the U.S. should run, or at least attempt to run, the world. And so long as that is the basis of American foreign policy, Americans will have to spend ever more on the military, almost as much as the rest of the world combined.

It’s time for a bipartisan, or transpartisan, alliance to transform U.S. foreign policy. On the left, George McGovern once called on America to come home. On the right, Patrick Buchanan has urged America to choose republic over empire.

Most pressing is the task of getting out of Iraq, sooner rather than later. But it also is time to withdraw America’s outdated garrisons strung across the globe. The U.S. should focus on protecting its homeland, not a gaggle of overseas dependencies and protectorates. Indeed, America will be far more secure if it returns to a more traditional foreign policy, treating most international events with benign detachment. Then America’s defense budget will be genuinely devoted to America’s defense. And will cost Americans far less.

Read more by Doug Bandow