Now’s the Time to Become a Truly ‘America First’ Military

This article appeared on The American Conservative on March 26, 2020.
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Congress is preparing to vote to spend trillions of dollars Washington doesn’t have to keep afloat an economy staggering under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Even before Uncle Sam was hopelessly overdrawn, expecting to run an annual trillion dollar deficit well into the future.

Yet the bipartisan war lobby continues to promote confrontation and conflict with nations as diverse as Venezuela, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and China. Even in good economic times it was increasingly difficult to underwrite Washington’s attempt to run the world. Today the effort is pure folly.

Last year the Congressional Budget Office published The 2019 Long‐​Term Budget Outlook. Among the conclusions of this profoundly depressing read:

  • “Large budget deficits over the next 30 years are projected to drive federal debt held by the public to unprecedented levels—from 78 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019 to 144 percent by 2049.”
  • Much depends on continuing low interest rates, which seem certain to jump as borrowing mushrooms. “If interest rates were one percentage point higher each year than CBO projects, debt in 2039 would be 199 percent of GDP.”
  • “If lawmakers changed current laws to maintain certain major policies now in place—most significantly, if they prevented a cut in discretionary spending in 2020 and an increase in individual income taxes in 2026—then debt held by the public would increase even more, reaching 219 percent of GDP by 2049.” Such actions were likely even before the coronavirus crisis.
  • “The projected increase in federal borrowing would lead to significantly higher interest costs. In CBO’s extended baseline projections, net outlays for interest more than triple in relation to the size of the economy over the next three decades, exceeding all discretionary spending by 2046.”
  • “Mainly owing to the aging of the population, spending for Social Security and the major health care programs (primarily Medicare) is projected to rise as a percentage of GDP over the coming decades.”

Uncle Sam’s fiscal collapse has been swift. Noted CBO, at the end of 2007 federal debt was but 35 percent of GDP (not counting intra‐​government borrowing tied to Social Security). However, “By the end of 2012, debt as a share of GDP had doubled, reaching 70 percent. The upward trajectory has generally continued since then, and debt is projected to be 78 percent of GDP by the end of this year—a very high level by historical standards.” The average over the last half century was just 42 percent.

Washington’s spendthrift ways when economic growth was strong make more difficult responding to the latest economic crisis. The long‐​term prognosis is dismal. The better case, suggested CBO, was to “Increase the likelihood of less abrupt, but still significant, negative economic and financial effects, such as expectations of higher rates of inflation and more difficulty financing public and private activity to international markets.”

Worse, however, federal improvidence could “Increase the risk of a fiscal crisis—that is, a situation in which the interest rate on federal debt rises abruptly because investors have lost confidence in the U.S. government’s fiscal position.” That is increasingly likely. Already, figures economic Laurence Kotlikoff at Boston University, the federal government has unfunded liabilities, or a “fiscal gap,” of $239 trillion—promises made with no money to meet them.

There is no easy solution. Revenues already are projected to rise as a share of GDP and above the average over the last half century. Washington is spending ever faster than it is taxing.

To cut, presidents and Congresses typically focus on domestic discretionary spending, but that only makes up about 15 percent of federal outlays. Eliminate it—stop paying federal employees, close the Washington monument, end all federal grants, and slash everything else—the deficit remains. Five program areas make up the rest of the budget: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, interest, and the military.

America’s growing elderly population is unlikely to sacrifice benefits seniors believe they have paid for. There is no cheap way to fund health care for the poor. Only repudiating the national debt can lower interest payments by fiat. Draconian cuts are unlikely in any let alone all of them.

Which leaves military outlays. Much of current spending has nothing to do with “defense.” Today America is constantly at war, but usually to attack rather than defend. Even when “defense” is theoretically the objective, Washington is protecting other nations, mostly prosperous, populous allies, rather than the U.S.

The result is extraordinarily high expenditures, since it costs far more to project power to the far reaches of the globe than to prevent other nations from harming America. Indeed, the Pentagon budget should be seen as the price of Washington’s highly interventionist foreign policy, which sees every other nations’ problems as America’s own.

Last year the president requested $718 billion for the military in 2020, a two percent real, inflation‐​adjusted increase. Although the administration projected no real rise through 2024, the real growth rate between 2017 and 2020 had been 3.5 percent. Moreover, observed CBO, “the cost of DOD’s plans would increase by 13 percent from 2024 to 2034, after adjusting for inflation.” Based on historical experience, the agency figured that actual spending likely “could be about two higher than DOD estimates and about four percent higher from 2020 to 2034.”

That likely is the floor. The bipartisan war lobby is constantly pushing to do and spend more. In 2018 the congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission urged real increases of between three and five percent annually. Reported CBO, the consequences of such a hike, “starting from the 2017 budget request, would result in a defense budget of between $822 billion and $958 billion (in 2020 dollars) by 2025, and between $1.1 trillion and $1.5 trillion (in 2020 dollars) by 2034.”

For what would this cash tsunami be used?

The Constitution sets the “common defense” as a core federal responsibility. That actually is rather easy today. The U.S. is geographically secure, with large oceans east and west and weak, peaceful neighbors south and north.

The only other state with an equal nuclear force capable of destroying America is Russia, which has no reason to do so and a good reason not to, since it would be destroyed in response. No hostile power might is going to dominate Eurasia. Moscow can’t. Anyway, its security objectives appear to be much more mundane, ensuring that the West takes its interests into account. Europe can’t and couldn’t imagine doing so.

Which leaves the People’s Republic of China. It might become America’s military peer, but even then it won’t be able to conquer or cow nuclear‐​armed Russia or more distant, economically advanced Europe. Beijing’s Asian neighbors are well able to deter aggression, especially if, someday, they develop nuclear weapons. China’s “threat” to the U.S., if it should be called that, is that the PRC might gain the sort of dominant influence in its neighborhood that America enjoys in the Western hemisphere. Discomfiting for Washington, yes. Existential threat to the U.S., no. And probably not worth fighting a largescale conventional and possibly nuclear war over.

The Middle East has lost its strategic significance as the oil market has diversified. Israel is able to deter attack, eliminating a heretofore major political issue in Washington. Africa holds economic promise and raises humanitarian concerns, but rests at the bottom of America’s security list. Latin America will always gain U.S. attention but little that happens there will matter much to North America’s global colossus.

Yet the supposedly isolationist‐​leaning Trump administration is anything but. The U.S. recently verged on war with Iran as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other administration hawks pushed to retaliate against Tehran for attacks by pro‐​Iran militias in Iraq, which Washington continues to occupy. The U.S. underwrites Saudi Arabia’s brutal, aggressive war against Yemen and has sent troops to act as the royal family’s bodyguards against Iran. The U.S. has steadily increased its force presence and fiscal outlays to confront Russia in Europe.

Despite his professed desire to leave Syria, the president ordered the illegal occupation of Syrian oil fields; his officials hope to use that presence to confront the Damascus government as well as Iran and Russia. This week Pompeo flew to Afghanistan to revive a “peace” agreement that, after nearly two decades of combat, can be effectively enforced only with a continued U.S. military presence.

Under congressional pressure, the administration has temporized over Pentagon proposals to withdraw forces from numerous conflicts across Africa. Venezuela remains in crisis but in opposition to America, with military intervention oft proposed as the remedy. Before talking with North Korea the president threatened “fire and fury.” The administration is taking an increasingly hard line against China, raising military as well as economic and diplomatic tensions.

Required is a truly America First defense. The U.S. should focus on preventing hostile threats to this hemisphere, while being ready to sustain critical allies if they face threats from hegemonic powers potentially dangerous to America. Washington has other interests, but advancing them normally would be matters of choice, rarely, if ever, warranting military action.

Washington would reduce its force structure and military outlays accordingly. The biggest cuts would be made in the army, while placing greater emphasis on the Reserves. The U.S. would become something much closer to a “normal country.”

Today America is following an imperial policy without an empire’s resources. Alas, the federal government is essentially bankrupt, facing nothing but red ink in coming years and decades. Ultimately domestic outlays must be curbed. But military spending which does not advance the “common defense” also should be slashed. The U.S. no longer can afford to play‐​act as global gendarme.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.