There are many reasons why the U.S. government is in the red. One of the most important is because Washington insists on defending so many of its prosperous and populous allies around the world. They are the international version of Ronald Reagan's famed "welfare queens."
This year Uncle Sam is spending $3.8 trillion. Upward of $1.65 trillion of that will be borrowed, an incredible 40% or more. About $700 billion is going to the military, twice as much in real terms as just a decade ago.
Yet at a press briefing late last month Lt. Gen. John D. Johnson, commander of the U.S. Eighth Army in South Korea, said no reductions were planned in America's garrison of 28,500. The Army even arranged transportation to allow the force's participation in overseas exercises and immediate return to the Republic of Korea.
Gen. Johnson explained: "We can strengthen combat capabilities as well as readiness posture if [U.S. forces] take part in overseas drills and that will benefit South Korea's security." He added that "maintaining readiness posture to prepare for actual battles is the reason" for America's military presence.
The point that he did not address, however, was America's security. Why is the U.S. creating military units, stationing them overseas, and sending them back and forth for training to benefit the security of another nation, an advanced and wealthy country capable of defending itself? Why are American personnel preparing for battle to defend South Korea?
If American resources were infinite, then it might make sense to shower bases and garrisons all over the globe. If South Korea was still war-ravaged and impoverished and the Cold War was still raging, it might make sense for the U.S. to maintain a security guarantee. But neither of those conditions bears any relation to reality today.
Washington got into Korea inadvertently. Around the turn of the century Imperial Japan colonized the Korean peninsula and ruled with characteristic brutality. At the end of World War II the U.S. and Soviet Union created two occupation zones, which evolved into two competing states. North Korea's Kim Il-sung launched an invasion in 1950 to reunite the country.
The U.S., joined by a number of allies, intervened, followed by China on Pyongyang's side. After much bitter and blood fighting the front-line ended up back close to the original border, and in 1953 an armistice was signed. But the peninsula's quasi-cold war persists to this day.
In the early years the ROK would not have survived without American military support. But by the 1980s the South was pulling away economically from the misnamed Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The latter was a militarized wreck unable to feed its people; in the late 1990s a half million or perhaps more North Koreans starved to death.
Today the ROK economy ranks around number 13 in the world. The South boasts successful hi-tech industries, is known for its construction work and auto production, and is one of the world's top trading nations. South Korea also has twice the North's population as well as an overwhelming diplomatic edge.
In contrast, the DPRK is an economic disaster, again stalked by hunger. Pyongyang has defaulted on its international debts. It has nothing to offer other nations: in fact, the North recently went to Third World states begging for food assistance. Aid agencies are predicting that North Korea will run out of food in just a couple of months. Both China and Russia now have far greater economic ties with Seoul than with their one-time communist ally.
Only in terms of military power does North Korea enjoy an edge, and then only in terms of quantity. The North's weapons are antiquated; its soldiers are malnourished and ill-trained. The DPRK could devastate the South's capital of Seoul with artillery fire and missile attacks, but could not conquer South Korea. And the ROK lags behind the North in quantity only as a matter of choice. South Korea could spend the equivalent of the DPRK's entire annual GDP on defense if the former desired to do so.
But Seoul has no reason to do so when the U.S. government insists on conscripting American taxpayers to subsidize the South Koreans. Indeed, the ROK would be foolish to become self-sufficient and lose the aid of the world's superpower. A couple weeks ago Seoul issued a cheerful press release extolling its agreement with the U.S. not to weaken the ROK's defense "when North Korea keeps on making military provocations." Such a deal!
Uncle Sam plays the gullible fool, insisting on paying everyone else's bar tab even though he is deeply in debt and his house is in foreclosure. Of course, South Korea is not America's only international welfare queen. Japan long sported the world's second largest economy but preferred to devote its resources to economic development rather than defense.
The European Union collectively has a larger GDP and population than America, but relies on the U.S. military to guarantee the continent's security. The EU also pushes Washington to undertake a plethora of missions irrelevant to U.S. security, such as foolish nation-building in the Balkans and a purposeless war against Libya. If any of these conflicts is worth waging, then the countries nearby which have the most at stake should do the fighting.
Washington likes to remake countries that it doesn't defend, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Libya likely will be next on the list. For what reason? Why is the U.S. attempting to turn Afghanistan into a liberal, Westernized democracy with a strong central government? The effort might make a glimmer of sense if that nation remained home to al-Qaeda or other anti-American terrorists. But as we now know Osama bin Laden was hiding out in Pakistan near Pakistani military installations. If any country needs to be rebuilt, it is Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
Because of this foolishly interventionist policy America spends more, in real, inflation-adjusted terms, than at any point during the Cold War, Korean War, and Vietnam War. Promiscuous intervention is why the U.S. accounts for almost half of the globe's military expenditures. And as long as Washington defends most of the known world and attempts to remake much of the rest, American taxpayers will be forced to give generously to run an informal empire.
These activities have nothing to do with defense of America. Again, consider the Korean peninsula. During the Cold War the two Koreas were part of a "great game" between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The peninsula mattered not because it was intrinsically important to America — just consult any atlas — but because the battle between the two Koreas was tied to the larger global struggle. Today conquest of the South by Pyongyang would be a humanitarian tragedy and create an economic loss, but would have little geopolitical impact on America. And now, in contrast to 1950, the ROK is well able to defend itself.
Some advocates of permanent defense subsidies for Seoul point to the DPRK's nuclear program. There is no easy answer to the threat of North Korean nuclear proliferation: It might be better for the South to have its own nuclear deterrent than for the U.S. to stay involved. In any case, America's conventional forces do nothing to deter a North Korean nuclear attack. To the contrary, the U.S. has provided 28,500 nuclear hostages for Pyongyang to threaten. The North's nuclear program actually is yet another reason for America to bring home its troops.
Today the United States dominates the globe. Imperial Rome only controlled the Mediterraean and Europe. Other ancient empires were similarly bounded geographically. Britannia ruled the oceans, but was no match for numerous nations on land.
America seeks to dominate everywhere yet faces no meaningful conventional threats and possesses an overwhelming nuclear deterrent. Terrorism remains a problem, but does not pose an existential threat like another world war or a nuclear exchange. Defending America in this world isn't that expensive.
What is costly is maintaining a military almost entirely oriented to offense. Sept. 11 demonstrated that the Pentagon has only a limited capacity to actually defend America. Instead, Washington has scattered bases and troops around the globe for the purpose of intervening in foreign conflicts. The U.S. spends most of its time bombing other countries, invading nations big and small, and occupying some of the worst lands.
It is time to say no more.
Today's interventionist foreign policy is dangerous, entangling America in a host of conflicts not its own. Constant involvement overseas, especially micromanaging the affairs of other nations and killing people here, there, and everywhere, also creates enemies, determined to do the U.S. ill.
Moreover, the warfare state is no less expensive and no more affordable than the welfare state. If America is to regain its financial footing, it must cut back — everywhere. Including America's expansive military dole for other nations. A good place to start slashing would be welfare for South Korea.