America’s budget black hole

by Doug Bandow

WASHINGTON — The Iraq war continues to consume lives, both American and Iraqi. The conflict also is burning mountains of cash.

In early February, the Bush administration proposed a complex $715 billion defense spending package. There is $481 billion for standard Pentagon operations in 2008. There is $142 billion for the war next year. There is an extra $93 billion for the war this year — on top of the $70 billion already approved.

Even these figures are too low, ignoring the costs of the Bush escalation. Moreover, by so straining the U.S. Army, in particular, the Iraq war has caused the administration to seek an additional 92,000 soldiers and marines. This expansion will run some $117.6 billion through 2013.

So far, Iraq and Afghanistan have cost an estimated $661 billion. By the time U.S. forces finally go home, Americans will be out $1 trillion or more.

The Iraq war. So costly yet so unnecessary. The conflict that keeps on giving.

But Iraq is only part of a larger problem. The United States spends so much on the military because of Washington’s policy of promiscuous foreign intervention. The attempt to micro-manage world affairs and engage in social engineering across nations, cultures, and religions is inevitably expensive.

Indeed, America’s military budget must be seen as the price of America’s foreign policy. The more Washington policymakers desire to do around the globe, the more American taxpayers will have to pay.

Those who push for ever more military outlays argue that the U.S. devotes “only” 4.3 percent of GDP to the military, compared to 6.2 percent during the Reagan military buildup. Robert Caldwell of the San Diego Union-Tribune opines: “the right question is not whether the defense budget is too big but whether it’s big enough.”

However, the economy is much larger today, so even a smaller percentage of the GDP yields vastly higher military outlays. We are engaged in Cold War levels of spending without a cold war.

The high price of global intervention is most obvious when comparing American expenditures to those of other nations. The International Institute for Strategic Studies figures world military outlays at $1.2 trillion in 2005. The U.S. accounted for $495.3 billion, or 41 percent.

American expenditures are roughly twice those of the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 4.5 times those of China, and 8.5 times those of Russia. Washington spends as much as the next 20 countries combined, most of which are allies and friends. Indeed, the U.S. devotes almost three times as much to the military as do all of its potential adversaries combined: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Myanmar, Venezuela and a handful of others.

America is not alone, however. Toss in NATO, non-NATO but friendly European countries, America’s Asian allies, and Israel, and the “free world coalition” comes in at $873.8 billion, or 72 percent of global spending. Most of the rest aren’t hostile, of course, simply not fully allied.

In short, America’s military expenditures are vastly disproportionate to its threats.

The Iraq conflict has put extraordinary pressure on the military, but it is only one of many significant, and unnecessary, military commitments that now occupy a force of 1.5 million active and one million reserve personnel. The U.S. continues to deploy hundreds of thousands of troops to Europe, which faces no military threats; Japan, which could defend its own interests from threats that remain mostly potential; and South Korea, which vastly outranges its antagonist to the north.

Without an overarching global threat, the security of such allies is no longer vital to the security of America. Moreover, these populous and prosperous nations face mostly negligible threats and are well able to defend themselves.

The U.S. could spend far less while remaining the most powerful single nation, able to play the role of an “off-shore balancer” dedicated to ensuring that no hegemonic power dominates Eurasia. The U.S. faces few other dangers.

Real threats to the U.S. primarily involve terrorism and nuclear proliferation. However, these dangers are not easily met with carrier groups, armored divisions, and vast military expenditures. To the contrary, promiscuous intervention generates the very hostility toward America that leads to terrorism.

It’s time for a bipartisan, or trans-partisan, alliance to transform U.S. foreign policy. Most pressing is the task of getting out of Iraq, sooner rather than later. But it also is time to focus on protecting the homeland, withdrawing America’s outdated garrisons strung across the globe.

The U.S. would be far more secure if it returned to a more traditional foreign policy, treating most international events with benign detachment. Then America’s defense budget would be genuinely devoted to America’s defense. And would cost Americans far less.