The tiny but well-placed – and very well-financed – political sect known as the neoconservatives is in panic mode. Discredited by the disastrous war in Iraq, and implicated in the trail of lies that led us into that quagmire, the neocons are deathly afraid that the jig is up: that their agenda of perpetual war and extravagant “defense” spending is coming up against the limits both of the US Treasury, and the willingness of the American people to finance it.
They’re living in fear of the so-called tea party, the spontaneous grassroots rebellion against runaway federal spending that has successfully challenged the GOP establishment and wants to cut big government down to size – with a meat axe. Not that the tea partiers have even brought up the idea that military spending ought to be treated like all government spending and summarily subjected to the chopping block, but, hey, the whole idea of preemption as a strategic principle originated in the neocon brain. We’ve had a veritable fusillade of op eds, first from Danielle Pletka and Thomas Donnelly in the Washington Post the other day, and today it’s the War Street Journal‘s turn to go to the barricades for the Old Cause.
Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, Ed Feulner, longtime chief honcho at the Heritage Foundation, and Heritage policy wonk Arthur Brooks, onetime “compassionate conservative,” make the case for cutting little old ladies off of social security while letting the big defense contractors off the hook. The party line is trotted out in partisan terms: citing President Obama’s Aug. 31 speech announcing the supposed “end” of “combat operations” in Iraq, in which he pointed to the costs of the Iraq occupation as one reason to draw our mission to a close, they snicker:
“It is encouraging to see Mr. Obama concerned about deficits and debt. But his concern with the military is largely misplaced. It is neither the true source of our fiscal woes, nor an appropriate target for indiscriminate budget-slashing in a still-dangerous world.”
Well, then, why argue about the “true source” of our looming bankruptcy if cutting the military is off the table from the start? I guess they want to cover all their bases, which shows how nervous they must be – as they ought to be. Because while neither Obama nor the tea party is making any overt moves in the direction of the War Party’s toy chest, the neocons are truly worried about the latter: the fact that Ron Paul is one of the Tea Party’s heroes is enough to cause them acute discomfort. Nor is Paul the only one in those circles calling for a reevaluation of our foreign policy and gargantuan “defense” expenditures.
So the neocons have to clothe their argument for more spending in “fiscal conservative” drag. Thus they are mad as hell about “the president’s proposed budget for 2011” which “will add $10 trillion in debt over the next decade.” No mention is made, however, of the trillions in debt accrued by the Bush administration, where their comrades-in-arms held sway for eight years. “By 2020,” they wail, “the federal government will owe $20 trillion, or $170,000 per American household. That’s a beast that must be stopped”: but the tea partiers know it’s a beast with two heads – and they’re one of them.
Oh, but this is “a beast that has not principally been fattened on a diet of Pentagon spending,” they aver. “Even with the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, this year the Department of Defense will spend some $720 billion—about 4.9% of our gross domestic product, significantly below the average of 6.5% since World War II.”
The old GDP trick is tired, and unlikely to work on readers of the Wall Street Journal, many of whom may be more aware than the Average Joe that GDP, or gross domestic product, includes all domestic spending and acquisitions, including government spending: every time Ben Bernanke and his friends speed up the printing presses, it’s all counted as part of “GDP.” That’s why this metric generates complete baloney: a more useful one would measure the private sector GDP, i.e. the real source of actual wealth and productivity in the US economy. In real terms, the percentage of national wealth consumed by military spending is much higher.
Go here and look at the “receipt” you would get if the feds thought enough of you to give you one, in return for your taxes. The military is divided up into several different items, but add them all together and it looks like the Warfare State rivals the Welfare State in terms of sheer extravagance. It’s worth noting that the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are right up there all by themselves at number five, just below the big entitlement programs and the interest on the national debt. And those are just the military expenditures they tell us about: if we add the “classified” “off-budget” items handed out to the CIA and other clandestine agencies and “special projects,” plus the opportunity costs of allocating this huge sum to the military sector, the real price tag is much higher.
In the face of the overwhelming reality of skyrocketing military costs, the neocon triumvirate simply makes up their own numbers:
“Defense spending has increased at a much lower rate than domestic spending in recent years and is not the cause of soaring deficits. Even as the United States has fought two wars, the core defense budget has increased by approximately $220 billion since 2001.”
Perhaps they simply define the “core defense budget” as DoD expenditures alone – or else the neocons have invented their own branch of mathematics – but the fiscal reality is this: since 2001, money for the military has nearly doubled. According to Laicie Olson of the Center for Arms Control, military spending totaled $437 billion in 2001, and by 2011 had climbed to $720 billion.
“We should be vigilant against waste in every corner of the budget,” the triumvirs aver, “but anyone seeking to restore our fiscal health should look at entitlements first, not across-the-board cuts aimed at our men and women in uniform.”
They always hide behind this trope: it’s for the troops in the field. Except it isn’t. Those soldiers who have been severely wounded or otherwise traumatized in the neocons’ wars come home to an economy that has no jobs for them, and a healthcare system that treats them like sh*t. Remember how soldiers’ families had to send them body armor, fer chrissake, because the military wasn’t providing it? It isn’t about “our men and women in uniform,” it’s about the hugely expensive weapons systems that were designed to face off against the Soviet Union – an enemy that no longer exists. And speaking of enemies that no longer exist: how much money are we spending maintaining a string of military bases all across Europe? They’ve been there since the end of World War II! While the neocons are always screeching about how this or that tinpot dictator is the equivalent of Hitler, there seems little likelihood the real thing is making a comeback in Germany. Ditto Korea, which has tens of thousands of US troops stationed in harm’s way, just waiting for the nutty North Koreans to blast them with a couple of nukes.
Why are they there – and at what cost?
After this fusillade of phony numbers, the triumvirs wheel out the big guns:
“Furthermore, military spending is not a net drain on our economy. It is unrealistic to imagine a return to long-term prosperity if we face instability around the globe because of a hollowed-out U.S. military lacking the size and strength to defend American interests around the world.
“Global prosperity requires commerce and trade, and this requires peace. But the peace does not keep itself. The Global Trends 2025 report, which reflects the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community, anticipates the rise of new powers—some hostile—and projects a demand for continued American military power. Meanwhile we face many nonstate threats such as terrorism, and piracy in sea lanes around the world. Strength, not weakness, brings the true peace dividend in a global economy.”
If commerce and trade are dependent on the US military policing the world, then it’s a zero sum game, because there is no bigger drain on our economy than our grossly extravagant military budget. It is a fiscal cancer eating away at our vitals, as any honest set of budget numbers will show. And why can’t our trading partners take up some of the responsibilities of policing the sea lanes and other trade routes: isn’t trade a two-way street?
Yes, no doubt the “intelligence community” wants more money, as does the military establishment and every other self-interested bureaucracy operating out of Washington: it’s the natural inclination of every government agency and program to expand, and to justify its own existence in terms of a looming “crisis.” Yet the US doesn’t face a major adversary, or, at least, an adversary of a conventional type: can we really compare the threat of pirates to that posed by Soviet nukes aimed at our cities during the cold war era? Let’s get real.
Our extravagance is itself the biggest threat to our national security – not China, but our debt to China. Kristol & Co. are worried about the Chinese People’s Liberation Army denying us access to the Asian-Pacific region, but the real danger is their denying us access to their capital, which buys up US debt and keeps the US government afloat. They own us. Isn’t that the real threat to our national security, and not some imagined military assault? There’s no reason to attack us militarily if they can accomplish the same goal without firing a shot.
As was widely reported, the former director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, testified before Congress that our looming economic crisis is the number one threat facing us at the moment:
“The nation’s new intelligence chief warned Thursday that the global economic crisis is the most serious security peril facing the United States, threatening to topple governments, trigger waves of refugees and undermine the ability of America’s allies to help in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
“The economic collapse ‘already looms as the most serious one in decades, if not in centuries,’ said Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence, in his first appearance before Congress as the top intelligence official in the Obama administration.”
In his testimony, Blair made a quite plausible case that economic instability across the globe will lead inevitably to political turmoil, which will in turn adversely impact American interests in a major way. The nature of the crisis is multiplied many times by the global character of the economic implosion: in the past, regions experiencing economic woes were able to export their way out of it. These days, however, there is no one to export to: everyone is going broke.
Oh, but surely the armchair generals over at Heritage and the Weekly Standard know more about it than the Director of National Intelligence – right?
The neocons’ trump card, aside from pure partisanship, is their own self-portrayal as Reaganite “optimists,” a meme that seems oddly inappropriate at a time when millions of Americans are facing foreclosure, bankruptcy, and a diet of cat food in their old age:
“There are some who think the era of U.S. global leadership is over, and that decline is what the future inevitably holds for us. Some even believe that decline offers us a better future, in the model of our relatively pacifist social-democratic allies. But this is an error. A weaker, cheaper military will not solve our financial woes. It will, however, make the world a more dangerous place, and it will impoverish our future.”
If we don’t take radical steps to reduce government spending – including military spending, arguably the biggest single item in the budget – our pretensions to “global leadership” will surely evaporate as quickly as did those trillions of dollars during the crash of ’08. What is this “global leadership,” anyway? It has always been our position of economic preeminence, the foundations of our military strength, that has ensured our leadership. Yet that preeminence is being hollowed out by the spendthrift addictions of both the right and the left, who exempt their own favorite government programs from honest scrutiny.
A cheaper military is not necessarily a weaker military: indeed, a leaner fighting force, one geared to the realistic objectives of the post-cold war era, is in all ways a stronger, more capable, more useful military configuration. This is what a real “defense” budget would entail: but the neocons aren’t interested in defense: they want to play offense. It was, after all, Kristol’s little subsidized magazine that plumbed for war with Iraq, and is now agitating tirelessly for war with Iran. Beyond that, it was the Standard that published Max Boot’s infamous article, “The Case for American Empire,” which called for establishing US colonies around the world.
What we have is a bankrupt empire – and that’s the sort of empire that inevitably goes into decline. If we follow the advice of Kristol and his buddies, we’ll be in receivership in no time.
It’s great to see the neocons so worried: anything that makes them nervous is a good thing. Now, come on, you tea partiers, let’s give them something to worry about!
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
My schedule for the autumn Antiwar.com speaking tour is shaping up, and it looks like it will have a West Coast component early on, to be followed by a string of appearances in the New England area (as well as a few points in between). We’re still working on it, so there’s time to organize an event on your campus or in conjunction with your local organization. Topic: How we can organize a left-right alliance against Obama’s wars, and why we must. If you would like me to speak before your group, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our staff: write email@example.com, or call the Antiwar.com office, at: 510-217-8665.