Friday, November 02, 2007


Imperialism denied

In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs Richard K. Betts tries to wrap his mind around the problem of bringing the military budget in line with reality. Betts is one of those exceedingly well-credentialed denizens of thinktanks, universities, the Pentagon and CIA who inevitably get invited to testify on Capitol Hill so long as they don't say anything too outrageous. Betts does not disappoint.

The article's summary begins,

The United States now spends almost as much on defense in real dollars as it ever has before -- even though it has no plausible rationale for using most of its impressive military forces. Why?

Why, indeed? Betts recounts the obvious truth that the military-industrial-congressional complex is in its ascendancy. There is no longer any sort of budget ceiling imposed upon the Pentagon, which has led to "interservice civility." The branches of the military no longer compete among themselves for the lucre—there's plenty of cash to go around.

Just how out of whack is military spending? Oh, well. If you ignore the trillion-or-two cost of the Iraq fiasco, we're still below the level of the Cold War, if you calculate it as a fraction of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But the rate of increase is staggering—

... the defense budget has risen in nine of the past ten years at an average annual rate of more than six percent -- a record unmatched in any other decade since World War II, even including during the wars in Korea and Vietnam. (In the 1960s, which included Kennedy's military buildup and the worst years of the Vietnam War, the average annual defense budget increase was 2.5 percent.)

And you don't need a degree to understand the reasons Betts gives—

Contractors who live off the defense budget have ... become more adept at engineering political support by spreading subcontracts around the maximum number of congressional districts. And the traditional constituencies1 for restrained spending in both major political parties have evaporated, leaving the field free for advocates of excess.

But the one reason that Betts avoids is that this level of spending is a byproduct of an imperial foreign policy. The caption for the link from the Home page says "The U.S. defense budget is too low for real imperialism but too high for anything else." Actually, what Betts argues is that such a policy would be foolish, so he dismisses the consideration—

An imperial role is ... both unaffordable and unwise. The fact that Washington does not presently have the capabilities to sustain it should not be considered a problem.

But I beg to differ. It should very much be considered a problem. Just because it's insane doesn't imply that it's not operative.

Betts assures himself a continued hearing in the halls of power by painting a picture of American imperialism as essentially benign—

If the current U.S. defense budget is larger than necessary to counter existing and plausible future threats, it is much smaller than necessary to support a truly effective American effort at imperial policing. The notion that the United States has the right and the responsibility to regulate regional peace, discipline violators of civilized norms, and promote democracy and world order is one of the hallmarks of the Wilsonian tradition in U.S. foreign policy. During the Cold War, such ambitions were kept partially in check by Soviet power, but the emergence of a unipolar world has allowed them to flourish.

We are left to ponder why the Soviet Union wouldn't want us to do all those nice things for the world.

It is in part because such mush is purveyed as foreign policy analysis that the American public cannot form a clear picture of what is going on.

But back to the problem of excessive military spending. What is Betts' recommendation for convincing Congress to curb the excess? I know you're not going to believe this but Betts' solution is to promote the slogan "Half a trillion dollars is more than enough."

Marshaling the political will for restraint will be an uphill battle. A starting point might be the slogan "Half a trillion dollars is more than enough."

Once everyone has absorbed the concept Betts concludes that—

Modest reductions for a few years and a steady budget eroded by inflation for a few more could tighten the system's belt. The case for cuts should be made on the principle that expensive programs must fulfill unmet needs for countering real enemy capabilities, not merely maintain traditional service priorities, pursue the technological frontier for its own sake, or consume resources that happen to be politically available.

I'm not sure how we get the slogan across. Do we take out newspaper ads? Chant it in the halls of Congress? Offer tapes for our representatives to sleep on?

We are well and truly fucked.

Related posts
A war we can't afford to win (1/24/07)
Quote of the Day (10/25/07)
Headline of the Day (10/26/07)
Rhetorical Question of the Day, or How to MOP up? (10/28/07)



1By "traditional constituencies" I presume that he means New Deal liberals who wanted to see the money going back into society instead of into armaments and paleoconservatives who wanted to limit government spending of any sort. [back]

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