America, world’s top military forever?
America’s defense establishment, from the Pentagon to think tanks, is trying to work out ways to cut military spending at a time of economic trouble. Proposals range from $100 billion to $1 trillion. None touches the underlying philosophy that led the United States to spend almost as much on military power as the rest of the world combined.
Of the many explanations of that philosophy American leaders have offered over the past few decades, one of the most succinct came from Madeleine Albright, when she was Secretary of State in the Clinton administration: “It is the threat of the use of force…if we have to use force, it is because we are America, we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other nations into the future…”
Since Albright made that remark, in 1998, the U.S. defense budget has grown every year, in real terms, and is now higher than at any time since the end of World War Two, according to the liberal Center for American Progress, one of the Washington think tanks to make savings suggestions. Even if the United States were to cut its spending in half, that would still be more than its current and potential adversaries.
The figures are remarkable: the United States accounts for five percent of the world’s population, around 23 percent of its economic output and 46.5 percent of its military spending. China comes a distant second, with 6.6 percent of the world share, followed by France (4.2 percent), Britain (3.8 percent) and Russia (3.5 percent).
How did the United States get there? Because every American president since Harry Truman has subscribed to four basic assertions: the world must be organized, lest chaos reigns; the U.S. is the only country capable of organizing the world; Washington’s writ includes articulating the principles of the international order; and the world actually wants America to lead, a few rogue nations and terrorists excepted.
This is the catechism of American statecraft to which mainstream Republicans and mainstream Democrats are equally devoted, writes Andrew Bacevich, a retired army colonel and prolific author on military matters, in his just-published book “Washington Rules – America’s Path to Permanent War.”
There’s little empirical evidence to demonstrate the catechism’s validity, says Bacevich, but that doesn’t matter. “When it comes to matters of faith, proof is unnecessary. In American politics, adherence to this creed qualifies as a matter of faith. Public … figures continually affirm and reinforce its validity.”
President Barack Obama is no exception and has shown no sign that he differs from his post-World War Two predecessors in believing it is essential for America to have a global military presence, global power projection and the right to global intervention.
Bacevich calls this the sacred trinity. It is a national security consensus that among other things keeps around 300,000 American soldiers stationed abroad and U.S. military bases in at least 39 countries. Even the most radical of recent proposals to cut military spending only envisions reducing rather than ending the global U.S. military presence.
WASHINGTON – CORRUPT AND CORRUPTING
The Cold War ended in 1989 and while the U.S. presence abroad has been thinned out, around 150,000 still remain in Asia and Europe alone, where they served as a high-profile deterrent to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That would be capped at 100,000 if a panel of experts commissioned by a bipartisan group in Congress, led by Barney Frank, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, had its way.
The commission found that about $1 trillion could be cut from defense budgets over the next decade without “compromising the essential security of the United States.” It’s a far-reaching proposal, unlikely to get traction, but it does not clash with the American credo of global leadership.
Neither does a determined attempt by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to find $100 billion in savings over the next five years by eliminating projects for futuristic weapons systems, cutting flab from the Pentagon’s bloated bureaucracy, eliminating duplication and reducing “overhead,” i.e. people and infrastructure not directly involved in fighting.
The $100 billion plan is modest — U.S. military spending over the next five years is likely to exceed $3.5 trillion — and does not affect the overwhelming military superiority enshrined in official policy. “America’s interests and role in the world require Armed Forces with unmatched capabilities,” according to the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a report required by Congress on the future of U.S. national security strategy.
Despite their relatively limited scope, Gates’s reform plans have run into fierce opposition from the heirs of what President Dwight Eisenhower, the World War Two general who led U.S. forces to victory in France and Germany, termed the “military-industrial complex” five decades ago.
That term, Bacevich writes, “no longer suffices to describe the congeries of interests profiting from and committed to preserving the national security consensus” and the money that lubricates American politics and fills campaign coffers.
The list of beneficiaries has lengthened since Eisenhower coined the phrase but their base of operations has not, which makes Washington “one of the most captivating, corrupt and corrupting places on the face of the earth.”