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Can US afford global military commitment?

Oct 28 , 2014

The Cold War ended but there followed the interventions in Southeast Europe, continuing wars in Iraq, campaigns in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, interventions in Africa south of the Sahara. The "pivot" to Asia entailed the dispatch of new forces to the region. US presence in the Philippines continued and new ties to a former adversary, Vietnam, developed.

US military expenditure cannot easily be reduced. The development of new weapons systems extends over years, even decades. Medical costs and pension payments for retired members of the armed forces increase with time. Procurement programs engender their own political lobbies which prevent Congress from reducing them.

Military expenditure is now over half a trillion dollars a year. These very approximate figures exclude funding for domestic security and only partially reflect the costs of ongoing military operations.

The Department of Defense itself is unsure that its own budgetary figures are exact. Additional spending for electronic surveillance, drones and satellites like the budget for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is not made public. Indeed, it is uncertain that Congress is fully informed.

The total arms and national security budget may be much larger than the announced figures.

The US is not threatened by invasion from Canada, its coastlines are secure, and at the Mexican border the problem consists of impoverished immigrants. Technological advances are rapidly reducing US dependence upon foreign sources of energy.

"Terror" is not a massive military threat and cannot be fought with conventional military means. When entire areas such as Afghanistan, Yemen, parts of Pakistan and now the IS-controlled regions of Iraq and Syria are controlled by "terrorists," military responses ensure the continuation of "terror."

Moreover, the allies of the US are as wealthy, if not wealthier than the US, and perfectly capable of defending themselves.

The US suffers from unmet needs. With deindustrialization, entire segments of US population lack adequate housing, education, and healthcare. Their income is in decline. Roads and sewage systems in the cities need renewal. Transport in and between cities needs modernization. Adequate investment in material and social infrastructure is conspicuous only by its absence. There is no broad national plan to move into high production technologies with a re-educated labor force. Instead local school authorities have to fight off, if they can, the proponents of Biblical literalism.

Since a large part of the electorate is dubious about increasing governmental expenditure, it would be rational to curtail US military spending and use the money and resources to reequip the US economy. But the most cursory of surveys of current political discussion shows that to be very unlikely.

Those arguing for it are not likely to be called into the service of the next president, and whatever happens in the 2014 Congressional elections, a significant change will not be on the agenda.

Why? The causes lie deeply buried in a complex constituted in part by ideology and in part by interest – compounded by the blockage of the US political system.

With varying amounts of intellectual clarity, the US public and elites share the notion of American "exceptionalism." The doctrine is not primarily at all about the uniqueness of our history as a recent nation founded by immigrants. It argues that the US has a direct line to God, that it was founded to serve his purposes, and that it bears a special responsibility to correct the profane errors and illusions of other, unfortunately, lesser nations.

Secular Americans do not refer to God but to our historical responsibilities. The result is the same.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov advised the US some weeks ago to disembarrass itself of this supremely arrogant conviction, but he will be listened to as little as the self-critical Americans who have been saying the same thing for a long time.

What makes the American belief in our moral superiority so dangerous is, in fact, a paradox. Americans think themselves exceedingly vulnerable, surrounded by enemies intent on undermining US power. The absurd notion that the enemies of the US are morally disturbed by our goodness is an inevitable consequence of the idea of "exceptionalism." It turns all, or nearly all, conflicts into religious wars, making compromise or even strategic retreat on US part an instance not of rationality but of sinfulness.

The dominant and pervasive national ideology is of course constantly manipulated by those who profit from its application. Academics, journalists, officials, all sorts of professionals involved in foreign policy, persons who profit from the huge and ever expanding public and private apparatus which has been involved in US presence abroad, have no interest in curtailing its incessant growth. Why should they voluntarily risk unemployment, or diminished status?

Only a handful of critical thinkers point out that these short-term benefits are outweighed by the long-term costs to US inner and outer security. Change may eventually come, but when and after what disasters, no one can say.

Norman Birnbaum​ is professor emeritus of Georgetown University Law Center.

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