If you listen only to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, you could be forgiven for thinking that the United States is not simply in need of strong interventionist leadership abroad. It is also short of military hardware and troops.
A Romney Administration, the Governor told the Virginia Military Institute on October 8, would "make the critical defense investments that we need to remain secure." That would include restoring "our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions by building 15 ships per year, including three submarines" plus effective missile defenses against threats. And on this, Romney said, "there will be no flexibility with Vladimir Putin." Instead, a "call to our NATO allies to keep the greatest military alliance in history strong by honoring their commitment to each devote 2 per cent of their GDP to security spending."
A Romney Administration, we were told, will make the 21st century an American century in ways that an Obama Administration has so far failed to do. How? By, among other things, exercising more American leadership on the global stage, increasing military spending, tightening sanctions on Iran, standing lock-step with Israel, and letting our foes know that, if they attack us, we will hunt them down. "America must have confidence in our cause," the Governor said, "clarity in our purpose and resolve in our might." The implication was obvious - that under Barack Obama, American foreign policy has had none of those things.
We face the prospect after November, that is, of a Romney-initiated arms race, one entirely driven by a Republican misreading of the state of our contemporary military condition and our foreign policy stance. Republicans see "a failed national security strategy" under Obama: one that must be replaced, if America is to be safe again, by bolder American leadership abroad and more military spending at home. That reading of our needs could not be more mistaken: for at least the following reasons.
Our military expenditure is already globally excessive
The Romney call to increase military spending is clearly meant to have us believe that the United States has been less safe under the Obama Administration because of some failure to adequately fund the military. But nothing could be further from the truth. We already spend massive amounts on the military. With just 5% of the world's population and a quarter of total global output, the United States is currently responsible for over 40% of total global military spending. As a nation, our military budget exceeds that of the next 14 big spenders combined, many of them allies; and is double that of the military spending of China, the UK, France, Russia and Germany taken together. In 2010 the Pentagon absorbed 4.8% of US GDP. The equivalent Russian figure was 3.1%. For the UK, it was 2.7%, for France 2.1%, for China 1.5% and for Germany 1.4%. Whatever else the Obama Administration may or may not have failed to do, properly funding the Pentagon is clearly not one of those failures.
Our global footprint is already too large
In the manner of a true empire, the U.S. military currently have command structures that encompass both the entire globe and the atmosphere around it: six global commands, plus STRATCOM (for the atmosphere and cyber-space) and SOCOM (the special operations command overseeing covert operations). Under those commands, the United States currently maintains nearly 1000 bases overseas. No other country does that. At the peak of the Iraq War, there were over 500 U.S. bases in Iraq alone. These bases differ in size, but the largest of them are effectively small American towns (the largest in Iraq reportedly had a 27 mile perimeter and housed 60,000 people). And from those bases, U.S. military personnel are currently active in a string of countries from Guatemala to the Philippines and Somalia to Northern Mali, waging overt or covert war. Black-op operations are currently underway in at least 75 countries, and possibly in as many as 120. Add to that "the U.S. navy, with its 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carrier task forces... dominant on the global waves in ways that only the British navy might once have been;" plus the C.I.A., quietly waging its own war through drone strikes of dubious legality in countries as disparate as Pakistan and Yemen. Only empires the size of nineteenth century Britain or second century Rome match ours for global reach, and we all know what eventually happened to Britain and to Rome.
Our military budget is far larger than we normally admit
Pentagon spending is not the only element in the overall military budget of the contemporary United States. If you add in the military expenditures of other federal departments - homeland security, 16 intelligence agencies, the nuclear program, veteran support and interest paid on war debts - it is likely that total current spending for the U.S. military effort is nearly twice the official figure. In 2011, calculating this way, the total becomes $1,398 billion as against the official Pentagon allocation of $708 billion. It is also likely that the full cost of fighting the "wars on terror" since 2001 is upwards of $8 trillion. The costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone had reached $1.26 trillion by 2011. So taken all together, it is likely that military spending currently absorbs almost half of all federal expenditure and nearly 10 percent of US GDP. And of one thing we can therefore be certain: military spending on this scale "will not go down as long as the U.S. is building up a massive force in the Persian Gulf, sending marines to Darwin, Australia, and special ops units to Africa and the Middle East....if the U.S. global mission doesn't downsize, neither will the Pentagon budget."
The opportunity costs of that expenditure are economically and socially damaging
Opportunity costs are always hard to measure with precision; but they can be illustrated, and the illustrations invariably suggest that the opportunity costs associated with excessive military spending are/can be substantial. According to the National Priorities Project, for example, "what we've spent on the Afghanistan war so far could fund Head Start for all eligible children for 15.6 years." The cost of maintaining a single soldier in Afghanistan for a year has been reported as currently equivalent to the cost of providing free health care for 588 children. The money earmarked for ballistic defense in 2011 could, if earmarked for other things, hire as many as 190,000 extra police officers. And most striking of all, the Pollin/Garrett-Peltier calculations on the job-creating potential of military and civilian spending, suggesting that a billion dollars spent on the military generates just 11,200 new jobs. Spend that same money on clean energy and you get 16,800 jobs; on healthcare, 17,200; on education, 26,700 - or just give it to households to spend - 15,100 jobs. Military-Keynesianism simply can't match civilian-Keynesianism as a policy vehicle for job-creation, no matter how often defenders of an inflated Pentagon budget argue otherwise. The opportunity costs of all this military spreading are therefore truly enormous.
The human costs of our existing military programs are staggering
Then there is the human cost - so much bigger still. The American military lost 4,487 dead and 32,226 wounded in action during its stay in Iraq. The American part of the NATO forces in Afghanistan has suffered 2000 fatalities to date, with other NATO forces losing just over a thousand: and these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. The number of U.S. veterans of those two wars now suffering longer-term physical and mental problems probably approaches 500,000. In other words, one in five Americans deployed in those two wars is now more than likely to be suffering "from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or traumatic brain injury;" and that number holds true even before we start adding in the scale of post-deployment domestic violence, separation and divorce triggered by the traumas of war. Plus tragically, suicides: "this year, 2012, there have been more military suicides than combat deaths." Half-a-million people suffering the long-term effects of trauma: and that is just the soldiers in those two theaters of war. The burden on the civilians in each was likely heavier still, though less carefully calculated. The number of Iraqi civilian deaths during the American occupation totaled anywhere between 110,000 and 1.2 million, depending on the source used. The number of Afghan civilian deaths is not even known.
The question of blowback
Since 9/11 the foreign policy debate here has been framed in a particular way: namely that American troops are deployed abroad, rearranging other people's political institutions and futures, only in response to an unprompted attack by fanatically-inspired terrorists. They attacked us, so we went after them. But no one in high public office seems willing to talk seriously about the extent to which we were attacked precisely we were already active abroad, rearranging other people's political institutions and futures. Since 1945 - indeed long before 1945 in Latin America - the United States has regularly been prepared to intervene directly/indirectly, overtly/covertly in the sovereign affairs of other states. Even before the "war on terror" was launched in 2001, the U.S. had already "employed its military in other countries over seventy times since 1945, not counting innumerable instances of counterinsurgency operations by the C.I.A." So whether we like it or not, there is a dimension of blowback to all of this, such that if we genuinely want to secure our global position and reduce the number of threats to American diplomats and civilians alike, we need to significantly lower our presence inside other countries' sovereign territory. If we want to be safe, that is, we need to be less imperial.
All this military spending just makes matters worse
Finally, consider the imbalance between resources expended and results obtained. Keeping America safe is not a project that is easy to evaluate. There is no simple way of showing that, had military expenditure and military focus been set in some other fashion, our national security would have been enhanced or depleted. What can be documented, however, is the lack of final success on the ground in each theatre of war dominated by U.S. troops since 1945. The 1945 victory that launched "the American century" was in that sense the exception. The Korea War ended in stale-mate. The Vietnam War ended in humiliating retreat. The invasion of Iraq proved a quagmire from which U.S. troops could only slowly be extracted; and the war in Afghanistan is now America's longest, with U.S. success in establishing total ground control in that difficult country currently being no greater than that achieved by previous invaders: in the nineteenth century the British and in the twentieth the Soviets. So here is the paradox: "everywhere the U.S. military still reigns supreme by any measure you might care to apply; and yet...nowhere can it achieve its goals, however modest."
If the findings of the survey recently released by the Wilson Center for International Scholars hold true: the American public, disillusioned by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is "becoming increasingly comfortable with a more modest and less militarized global role for the nation." Which is why the Vice President showed electoral as well as political wisdom when he chose last week to emphatically rebut Paul Ryan's only conditional commitment to a 2014 withdrawal of US ground troops from Afghanistan. "We don't want to lose the gains we've gotten," Ryan said in the Vice-Presidential debate last Thursday. "We want to make sure that the Taliban doesn't come back in." Set that against the Biden assertion: "we are leaving Afghanistan in 2014, period. There are no ifs and no buts." And there should be no ifs and no buts. It is genuinely "time to pack up," as the New York Times editorial put it this Sunday, time to press the Obama Administration to reduce our post-2014 presence in Afghanistan, and in the Middle East more generally. Bringing ground troops home is only the start of it. Bringing home special forces, CIA drones and private contractors has to be next.
Romney and Ryan's foreign policy and military stance is taking us in entirely the wrong direction. We need saving from a Romney-led repeat of George W. Bush's disastrous military forays into a Middle East that will no longer bend, and should no longer bend, to the dictates of Washington. Let us hope, after November 6, that we have been so saved.
First posted with full academic citations at www.davidcoates.net