The Debt Ceiling and the Warfare State

The “ticking time bomb” gambit is a sure way to establish when someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. You’ll recall this was how the advocates of torture argued: what if the terrorists had a nuclear device designed to go off in the heart of, say, New York City’s Times Square, and only torture could pry its location out of a captured detainee? Surely then we’d ditch our squeamishness about methods employed by the Gestapo and the KGB. American exceptionalism has its limits, after all.

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice took this tack in the debate over Iraq’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction.” “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” Condi infamously intoned. The same argument is being used today to justify a “preemptive” attack on Iran, which is supposedly building nuclear weapons at breakneck speed – a story we’ve been hearing for the past few decades or so….

Although the ticking time bomb scenario is most conducive to the realm of foreign affairs – where bombs, and other ticking devices, are largely to be found, along with a host of enemies ready to set them off – we hear variations of it on the home front as well. The current debate over the debt ceiling is a perfect example, with the Obama administration and its media shills claiming that if Congress doesn’t raise it, an economic apocalypse is imminent. This is a very clever way of shifting blame for the ongoing financial crisis, one which may very well come to a head as Congress votes. Never mind that the more immediate cause of another lurch into the vale of depression is likely to be economic chaos imported from the Eurozone – American narcissism, a national malady, deludes us into thinking it’s all about us. The fate of the world must always rest on our shoulders.

In any event, on the debt limit issue, the stance of those who want a more peaceful, less interventionist foreign policy is – or ought to be – clear. If we raise the debt ceiling, we are, in effect, giving the War Party a blank check. The pressure to cut military spending will end, and the spigot will be turned back on. Calls to cut back on military operations overseas – coming, these days, from fiscal conservatives as well as the usual liberal-left suspects – will have much less resonance in Washington.

There is another point, however, that needs making: the debt ceiling, aside from its legislative impact, is a powerful symbolic construct. It puts a ceiling on the ambitions of our officials, and, while not precisely teaching them humility, tethers them to reality. It is the American government saying: There are limits to our hubris.

The official US military budget – some $650 billion – is just what we know about: how many multi-billions are hidden in the CIA’s “black budget” is anyone’s guess. Suffice to say, however, that most of this is spent maintaining our overseas empire, including some 1,000-plus bases – and it is not counting the trillion or so we’ve already spent and will spend in Iraq and Afghanistan. Estimates for the Iraq war alone total as much as $3 trillion.

The total outlays are considerably increased when we consider opportunity costs: that is, the costs of diverting resources that might have been used elsewhere more productively. Imagine if we’d taken that trillion bucks that went to sate the neoconsblood-lust by, say, investing it in new energy sources, or the latest advances in medicine or computer science. In this sense, the cost of maintaining our overseas empire is incalculably high.

It’s true that cutting the military alone isn’t going to bring the federal budget into balance: but many of the so-called “social” programs defended by the liberal-left are ways of keeping the population pacified, in much the same way US “aid” bribes foreign peoples into submission. The theory is that the commoners will keep quiet as long as they’re getting a free lunch. However, what happens when the tab arrives and no one can pay it? That’s the moment we are fast approaching. Increasing the debt ceiling will, at best, only delay the day of reckoning: at worst, it will provoke it.

The US spends more on “defense” than all other countries on earth combined, and yet Congress recently voted to increase that sum – proof, as if any were needed, that all the rhetoric over the debt, the debt ceiling, and the fiscal crisis we face is just a lot of wind. If our politicians were serious about cutting spending, we would get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, dismantle our European and Pacific bases, cut the military budget by half – and still retain our military edge by a comfortable margin.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. As a forgotten prophet, the conservative writer Garet Garrett, once wryly observed: the American empire is an empire of a new type, one in which nothing comes in and everything goes out. Whether this is a policy of altruism, or megalomania, I’ll leave for future historians decide – as they troll among the ruins.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].