The Price of Promiscuous Intervention

The Republican Party once professed to promote fiscal responsibility. It sought to limit government growth, expected program benefits to exceed costs, and refused to give any agency a blank check. No longer.

If there is a Republican Party consensus – other than the ever courageous presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) – it is that the U.S. must spend more, much more, on defense. Military spending ran $305 billion in 2001. The Bush administration has proposed outlays of $607 billion next year, almost twice as much. And that number is just the starting point, since the administration has routinely resorted to supplemental appropriations to fund its war in Iraq.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney says “We need to increase our investment in national defense.” He promises to spend at least four percent of GDP on the military – a level actually achieved in 2004 – and favors “adding at least 100,000 troops and making a long-overdue investment in equipment, armament, weapons systems, and strategic defense.”

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani is even more adament about turning the keys to the Treasury over to the Secretary of Defense. During the 1990s, in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, U.S. military outlays dipped a bit in absolute terms as well as a share of GDP. Never mind that the Soviet Union collapsed, Warsaw Pact dissolved, and other communist states, such as China and Vietnam, moved towards the West. He opined: “The idea of a post-Cold War ‘peace dividend’ was a serious mistake – the product of wishful thinking and the opposite of true realism.”

This is demonstrable nonsense. Apparently Giuliani believes that the disappearance of the antagonistic hegemonic power, which imposed totalitarian communism on nations in Eastern Europe and backed similar systems throughout the Third World, did not improve American security. In his view, having let U.S. military outlays slip to a paltry $266 billion in 1996 the Clinton administration left America helpless in the face of global behemoths of Cuba, Iraq, and North Korea. So, contends Giuliani, “We must rebuild a military force that can deter aggression and meet the wide variety of present and future challenges.”

Much of the conservative punditocracy also has abandoned the traditional belief in a constrained foreign policy backed by a military configured to defend America rather than the rest of the world. The Heritage Foundation has published a new report entitled “Four Percent for Freedom: The Need to Invest More in Defense.” Editor Mackenzie M. Eaglen argues: “America’s economy is so powerful, however, after years of underfunding military procurement that the U.S. could recapitalize and sustain military strength by increasing and maintaining defense spending at 4 percent of GDP.”

The GDP fixation is particularly bizarre for analysts who emphasize cost-effectiveness when it comes to social programs. The Heritage Foundation contributors emphasize the importance of “reining in the crushing costs of entitlement programs.” One can imagine how they, and conservative Republican politicians, would react to a Democratic proposal that social welfare outlays be set at a minimum of, oh, 13 percent of GDP – about what federal “human resource” expenditures constitute today.

The share of GDP is essentially meaningless since GDP is constantly growing and bears no relation to the threats facing the nation. America’s GDP in 1944 was $209.2 billion, when Washington devoted $79.1 billion, or 37.8 percent of GDP, to defense. At that time the U.S. was engaged in deadly conflict with Germany and Japan.

That’s the equivalent of $2.367 trillion and $895.1 billion, respectively, this year. Today’s GDP is $13.761 trillion, with military outlays of $571.9 billion. America’s real GDP is almost six times as great as in 1944, but the threat facing America surely is not six times as great. The U.S. is spending less today, but military outlays still run about two-thirds of spending during the globe’s worst conflagration.

During the mid-to-late-1950s Washington devoted roughly ten percent of GDP to the military. In 1959 America’s GDP was $491 billion, or $3.377 trillion in 2007 dollars; military outlays were $49 billion, or the equivalent of $337 billion today. The fact that the nation’s GDP has increased four times since 1959 does not mean that the threats have increased fourfold. Inflation-adjusted military outlays will soon run twice the level of 1959. Can anyone seriously claim that the world today is twice as dangerous as at that point during the Cold War?

Obviously, there are significant limitations in making outlay comparisons across years. But that’s precisely why fixating on a percent of GDP for military spending makes no sense. If today is the equivalent of World War III or IV, as some neoconservative war enthusiasts claim, by their logic shouldn’t the U.S. be devoting four of every ten dollars to the military, as during World War II? If the threats today are as serious as during the Cold War, surely Washington should be spending at least ten percent of GDP on the military.

But despite the horror of 9/11, the dangers facing America today are nothing like those existing during World War II or the Cold War. Thankfully, the U.S. does not face an existential threat today. Another one might eventually arise – perhaps China, perhaps someone else. But today America stands astride the globe as a colossus.

First, the U.S. accounts for roughly half of the earth’s military outlays. Advocates of a big military budget respond that projecting force abroad is expensive. True, but the fact that so much of America’s “defense” spending is devoted to offense is precisely the problem.

There is no state, or coalition of states, that can threaten America’s territorial integrity, constitutional system, or economic prosperity. Russia, and to a lesser degree, China and India, could strike with nuclear weapons, but Washington possesses an overwhelming retaliatory capacity.

Beyond this threat there is no there there, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland. America’s vast military capabilities lack serious threats requiring a response. Military bases and detachments circle the globe. A dozen carrier groups wander the oceans. Troops sit in Germany, Great Britain, and the Balkans. Marines are on station in Okinawa. The Army guards South Korea. Proposals for new deployments abound.

Second, America is allied with virtually every other major industrialized state. Grant that the numbers are arbitrary, but they illustrate America’s dominance.

Global GDP was estimated to be $48 trillion last year. The U.S. accounted for $13.2 trillion. The EU, whose members are allied with Washington through NATO and linked to America through friendship, accounted for $14.5 trillion. Japan adds $4.3 trillion. Canada is $1.2 trillion. South Korea kicks in $888 billion. Australia adds $755 billion. Turkey comes in at $392 billion. Switzerland wraps up America’s close friends in the top 20 at $377 billion.

These nations alone account for $35.6 trillion in GDP, or three-quarters of the world’s economic strength. And most of the other nations are friendly, such as Brazil, India, and Mexico, which also sit in the world’s top 20. One has to strain to find adversaries: Cuba, Iran, Venezuela. Does North Korea count, now that Pyongyang is busy negotiating with U.S. officials (and the South Koreans no longer feel threatened)? Other states, like Burma, are nasty autocracies, but in no way threaten America.

Even if China’s and Russia’s international relationships eventually move from assertive to hostile to aggressive, their neighbors are well able to respond without American assistance. The EU has more than 14 times the economic strength of Russia. NATO without America could be – indeed, should be – a formidable military alliance. Even in Asia, there are plenty of countries, including Australia, India, Japan, and Russia, with an incentive to moderate China’s rise.

The U.S. is stretched militarily neither because it faces unusual and unusually dangerous threats nor because it possesses a minuscule military ill-prepared to defend the nation. Washington is running down its forces, most obviously Army and Marine Corps active and reserve troops, because the U.S. is trying to create political democracy and force social reconciliation through a military occupation. That’s not what America’s military forces are trained for. That’s not what America’s national interest requires.

Indeed, the concerted lobbying campaign for more military spending reflects a flawed underlying foreign policy. The defense budget is the price of a nation’s foreign policy – one must pay for the military assets used to achieve one’s policy ends. Rather than assuming America’s interventionist foreign policy to be set in stone, requiring the U.S. to spend whatever it takes to undertake promiscuous military meddling, policymakers should debate the appropriate foreign policy.

Today’s foreign policy was summed up by former Sen. James Talent (R-Mo.), who declared in the Heritage report that “America is the defender of freedom in the world and therefore always a prime target for those who hate freedom.” His comment sounds wonderful in theory, but is nonsense in practice; this belief actually is the fount of today’s foreign policy problems.

First, the U.S. is responsible for defending its own freedom, not that of the rest of the world. The lives of American service personnel should not be put at risk unless their own political community is in danger. Policy-makers might feel good at the thought of trying to save the rest of the world, but they do not pay the price of doing so. U.S. servicemen and women do so.

Moreover, foreign intervention usually is far more costly than advocates suggest. Wars rarely turn out to be cheap or easy. International social engineering is beyond America’s capabilities. Washington cannot create a liberal society irrespective of history, tradition, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. In the case of Iraq, American intervention has replaced a thuggish dictatorship with brutal sectarian strife – at the cost of hundreds of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi lives.

Second, terrorism is not a response to the U.S. defending freedom. Unfortunately, terrorists who kill Americans, and those who support and finance terrorists who kill Americans, don’t believe the U.S. is defending freedom. Sanctions against Iraq, which killed Muslim babies, support for the Saudi royals, who pillage their people to support their licentious lifestyles, and aid to Israel, which has denied the Palestinian people political rights for four decades, is not seen by all as “defending freedom.”

The point is not that American citizens deserve to be targeted, but that what some people see as “defending freedom” is seen as “attacking Muslims” by others. And the latter, not some abstract antagonism towards freedom, is what animated those who have killed Americans. For instance, in 1983 American Marines were aiding one Christian faction against several competing Christian and Muslim factions in a multi-sided civil war. This is why Shia forces bombed the embassy and Corps barracks.

The more intervention, the more conflict and terrorism that will result. Which means that Talent’s version of “defending freedom” abroad actually is likely to reduce freedom at home. And attempting “defending freedom” abroad will require vastly increased military spending, like that promoted by the president, as well as most of the GOP presidential candidates. Yet the principal responsibility of the U.S. government is to protect the American people, their society, and system of ordered liberty.

Rather than give the military a financial blank check, Republican officials should hold the Department of Defense to the same standards of fiscal responsibility they apply to every other government agency. The fact that social programs are wasteful is no reason to countenance wasteful military outlays.

Equally important, the GOP must stop taking an interventionist foreign policy as a given. Today’s policy of promiscuous military intervention is expensive and dangerous. America should abandon its foreign policy of empire and return to the foreign policy of a republic.

Read more by Doug Bandow