Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The US's Bloated Military Budget - and Global "Mission"

I detest much of the white-folks-first message that underlies much of the Tea Partiers' agenda, but on one score at least, I find a lot of sense in a message at least some of them (like Rand Paul, of whom - on most any other point -  I most assuredly am NOT a fan) espouse:
  •  the US military budget is out of control
  •  so is the US foreign-policy establishment's sense of the US's global mission

The first point is nicely addressed by Jacob Heilbrunn's recent post at The National Interest, where he contrasts pov's of Paul Krugman and Ross Douthat in the NYT.  Krugman's larger point, by the way, focused on how the visionary "yes we can" Barack Obama that leaped to the forefront of our imaginations in 2008 seems to have disappeared.  Anyhow, here's Heilbrunn:
One thing that neither [Douthat] nor Krugman mentions . . . is the bloated state of the military budget. There can be no doubting that Medicare and Medicaid are due for reform. But so is the military. The budget for 2011 is set to exceed $700 billion. According to Time, America spends about 35% of the total military outlays on the planet. These sums are astronomical. They pose a dire threat to the health of the economy. Not only are these exorbitant outlays, but they also encourage other democratic countries to allow America to shoulder burdens they should be assuming—the well-known free-rider syndrome.

Germany's budget deficit, for example, will be about 2.5% this year and is slated to fall to 0.5% by 2014. This means that, barring a total collapse of the European Union, the Euro will be a very healthy and strong currency. Meanwhile, the value of the dollar may decrease further. American leaders will increasingly face the temptation to inflate their way out of the deficit, thereby debauching the dollar. Once inflation begins expectations of further price hikes set in. It's very difficult to curb it.

The bloated state of the military budget, of course, is linked directly to the bloated expectations of the US foreign-policy establishment - something that former US Army officer and Vietnam-veteran Andrew Bacevich has dealt with in numerous forums, perhaps most notably in his recent book, Washington Rules, and most recently today, via TomDispatch.  Like Paul Krugman, Bacevich also points out that the visionary Obama we thought we'd elected has disappeared himself into the mold of presidents past when it comes to foreign policy, and especially when it comes to the "Islamic world":
even as journalists and historians preoccupy themselves with trying to explain why something happened, they are playing a mug’s game.  However creative or well-sourced, their answers are necessarily speculative, partial, and ambiguous.  It can’t be otherwise.

Rather than why, what deserves far more attention than it generally receives is the question of how.  Here is where we find Barack Obama and George W. Bush (not to mention Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter) joined at the hip.  When it comes to the Islamic world, for more than three decades now Washington’s answer to how has been remarkably consistent: through the determined application of hard power wielded by the United States.  Simply put, Washington’s how implies a concerted emphasis on girding for and engaging in war.

Presidents may not agree on exactly what we are trying to achieve in the Greater Middle East (Obama wouldn’t be caught dead reciting lines from Bush’s Freedom Agenda, for example), but for the past several decades, they have agreed on means: whatever it is we want done, military might holds the key to doing it.  So today, we have the extraordinary spectacle of Obama embracing and expanding Bush’s Global War on Terror even after having permanently banished that phrase to the Guantanamo of politically incorrect speech.

And now, Obama and his crew have extended to Libya  this now ingrained  approach of what Bacevich calls "seeing the Greater Middle East as a region of loose nails badly in need of being hammered," even in the face of overwhelming evidence that, notwithstanding the lofty motives (read, for the Libya adventure: "humanitarian intervention" - though George Will's "humanitarian imperialism" probably rings just as true, especially in the eyes of people around that Greater Middle East), that approach does not, cannot, and will not work.

Indeed, as the news out of Pakistan suggests, that approach is self-defeating.  Obama's stepping-up of unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan - combined with the fallout from the CIA/Raymond Davis fiasco - has produced so much "collateral damage," and has enraged Pakistani opinion and offended the Pakistani military's sense of pride and national sovereignty so greatly, that Pakistan's military chief - arguably the most powerful and respected leader in the country - has demanded that the drone campaign - and activity by the CIA in Pakistan - be dramatically reduced.

And this, atop revelations that, because capture and interrogation are such a "headache" (to borrow Paul Pillar's characterization), CIA policy now is to kill suspected bad guys (except - so we're told - those captured in Iraq or Afghanistan).

Stupid.  Why?
  • It's illegal according to international law.
  • Many of the "bad guys" the US rounded up in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years turned out to be just local guys - wrong place, wrong time - who were nonetheless detained, interrogated (= often abused and tortured) - and if released, returned mad as hell and out to get revenge = new recruits for jihadism.
  • If they were indeed "bad guys," simply killing them also eliminates potential sources of the information the CIA so desperately wants in order to avert another 9-11-type attack.

Bottom lines?  The crush-'em approach
  • doesn't work.  It's counterproductive to the mission of protecting the US, and it makes the US an object of hate, not respect, abroad.
  • costs more than the US can bear, and robs the US of resources with which it could supporting its scientists and entrepreneurs to address both current and future needs: infrastructure, education, clean energy, the impacts of climate change both here and globally.

In other words, the kind of efforts that help the US build what Joseph Nye identified years ago as "soft power" - the kind of power that makes the US an object of respect, and a source of emulation - or, to borrow Mr. Obama's phrase, "who we are."

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