The Long-Term State of the Union - Counting the Cost of Empire?

There is something desperate about the current quality of politics in Washington DC. It is not that our elected representatives steadily avoid any discussion of key issues. It is rather that -- on far too many occasions -- the way in which they choose to discuss those key issues trivializes them to the point of folly.

We have just experienced yet another example of this -- a debt ceiling debate briefly linked to the correction of the inadvertent erosion of veterans' pensions. It is appalling that such a correction was ever necessary. But it is equally appalling that, after abandoning the linkage -- by deciding instead to offset the cost of the correction by extending automatic cuts to Medicare -- both the House and the Senate should then have ducked the bigger questions involved. Once more, they missed a vital opportunity to explore the deeper issue in play: namely the on-going relationship between the level of federal debt and the current scale of defense spending. Instead of exploring that relationship, our elected representatives merely raced home to avoid the snow.

That wider relationship between overall federal spending and spending on defense is important because, right now, the scale of defense spending is so enormous.

The cost of defense. The official defense budget is huge -- currently just short of $700 billion. It is significantly larger than it was before 9/11 (in 2001, just $287 billion) and even when sequestered in 2013 only fell back to 2007 levels -- and in 2007 the Iraq War was still in full flow. The unofficial defense budget, the one that also takes into account the cost of homeland security, the nuclear program and the intelligence services and veterans' affairs -- that unofficial budget is larger still. On some counts, it may be twice as large as official Pentagon spending. But in 2010, even the smaller figure made the U.S. defense budget greater than the defense budgets of the next 10 national spenders on defense, many of which are actually also our allies. Right now, the U.S., with five percent of the world's population and a quarter of total global economic output, is responsible for at least 40 percent of all global military expenditure. Those expenditures are real costs that collectively absorb between a fifth and a quarter of federal spending year-on-year.

The opportunity costs of all that defense spending. The flipside of the real costs of defense spending are the things lost because that spending is so directed. Those opportunity costs are less immediately visible and can be measured in many different ways, but they are always substantial. The opportunity costs of a large military budget can be measured in terms of domestic policies not pursued for want of federal funds. They can be measured in terms of the greater multiplier effect on the rest of the economy of domestic rather than military spending. They can be measured by the erosion of international economic competitiveness caused by the resulting over-concentration of R&D on military products. They can even be measured by the loss of civil liberties associated with NSA programs and secret intelligence services that are difficult to effectively regulate. President Eisenhower put the point about the opportunity costs of defense spending very starkly long ago, when still a general: "every gun that is made," he said, "every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are cold and are not clothed."

The human costs of forward engagement. These have also been and remain enormous. The U.S. military lost over 4000 soldiers in Iraq, and sent home more than 32,000 injured. American casualties in Afghanistan now exceed 2000. And those figures are just the tip of the iceberg for those two wars alone. As many as one in three of the men and women who served in either theater -- some 500,000 Americans overall -- are now suffering long-term physical and mental problems as a result of their service; and the burden on civilians in both countries was and remains even heavier. The number of civilians killed in Iraq during the American occupation totaled anywhere between 110,000 and 1.2 million, depending on the source used. The number of Afghan civilian dead is not even known. The number of internally displaced Iraqis was probably 1.25 million. The number of refugees was over 1.5 million. These are huge numbers, capturing human suffering and distress of the most basic kind.

The effectiveness of all the treasure spent. Perhaps that would not matter quite so much if either war had been successful in American terms. But neither was. The invasion of Iraq proved to be 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 there being no greater than that achieved by previous invaders: the British in the nineteenth century and the Soviets three decades ago. Freedom House, the great measurer of democratic stability and rights, currently grades Iraq as "not free" -- scoring badly on both civil liberties and political rights -- as well it might, given the on-going and deadly tit-for-tat sectarian violence which remains dominant in the Baghdad that U.S.-led troops supposedly "liberated" more than a decade ago. And with the Taliban resurgent in today's Afghanistan, and its President now releasing prisoners still deemed dangerous by U.S. military commanders there, our "success rate" in Kabul is likely to be lower still.

Of course it remains the case that many of the most strident deficit hawks in Congress tend also to be enthusiastic advocates of more defense spending rather than less. They combine those two ostensibly incompatible positions in part because they believe that the United States is still under attack by jihadists of various stripes, and will remain so be regardless of whether America is militarily active abroad or not. But even when talking to them, it is surely worth raising at least the first of the four big question-sets that such a level of global military engagement ought now to be holding central attention in Washington D.C.

The sets of questions are these.

1. Given the vastness of the defense budget, are we genuinely convinced that there is no scope for large-scale efficiency savings? Do we genuinely believe that the military capacity of this nation will be irreparably damaged if the cuts made to the Pentagon budget are of a scale equivalent to/bigger than the cuts now being advocated on things like food stamps? Because if such cuts and efficiency savings are possible, why are they not top of the deficit-reduction agenda?

2. Given the track record of American arms in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, are we right to pursue a strategy of hunting & killing jihadists in the manner into which we have settled? Is it the case that there is simply a fixed number of anti-American fighters whom drone strikes need to kill? And is it true that the vast majority of jihadists would target Americans in their campaigns against local power-holders if the U.S. military was not there in the first place, giving support to those power-holders?

3. Then the big question: are we absolutely sure that American security is enhanced by spreading our military capacity so extensively overseas, or would American security be better served by shifting the focus of U.S. foreign policy from this heavy a reliance on hard power towards a more sustained concentration on the deployment of soft power? Is it really the case that, if American military power is pulled back in some significant manner, the rest of the world would quickly descend into chaos and mayhem?

For progressives at least, maybe a fourth set.

4. Are there any political or social conditions in countries abroad that are so vital to the human condition, and so offensive to core American values, as to justify unilateral intervention by the U.S. military? Would such interventions enjoy full legitimacy if any trace of those conditions remained within the United States itself?

I have a personal view on each of those. My own judgment would be that the scale of spending can be cut significantly without impairing capacity, that killing jihadists through drone attacks simply creates more terrorists that later we have to kill, and that too great a military presence abroad only serves to stoke the fires of anti-Americanism. As far as I can see, covert operations by black-op teams, and the funding of dictators who are ostensibly "on our side," only serves over time to strengthen "the other side" and draw us ever deeper into regional conflicts that we can neither win nor control. Putting our men and women in uniform in harm's way, that is, both damages them and damages us. It is therefore surely better to re-orient our presence abroad, by re-focusing our military effort on the protection of friends who are genuinely in peril and on embassies, which are genuinely at risk, and by otherwise leaving the bulk of the American message overseas to be delivered by organizations of diplomacy and peace. And that, in my view, is even true when considering issues as vital to progressives as democratic institutions and women's rights. Soft power, not hard power, is the most effective route to their attainment. We cannot unilaterally shoot our way to global social justice and we shouldn't try. As Talleyrand told Napoleon long ago, "you can do anything with a bayonet except sit on it."

But of course in the end it is the questions that are important, rather than any one personal set of answers. It is the governing consensus in Washington D.C. on the benign and unavoidable nature of America's global role -- what Andrew Bacevich called "Washington Rules" -- that now needs to be discussed far and wide in the United States. We have had at least one major blue-ribbon commission on the deficit side of the federal spending equation under President Obama. How much more useful would it be if, to balance that out, the President now used the quiet time of his last term to call together an equivalent commission on the effectiveness and costs of America's global role.

American politicians too often package the many small decisions they make in the language of tough choices contemplated and resolved. Well, it is surely time for the trivia to stop. It is time instead for a serious and well-informed conversation about the genuinely tough decisions that do now need to be made, time for serious and calm contemplation on the underlying choices that we actually face as a nation. As the Afghan War at long last winds down, it is surely time for Washington to lift both its sights and its game, for there is so much more at stake here than simply immediate electoral advantage.

Posted with full citations at

This argument is developed more fully in David Coates, America in the Shadow of Empires, (forthcoming 2014), relevant extracts from which are at