For big-spending hawks, the U.S. military’s work is never done

Doug Bandow Senior Fellow, The Cato Institute
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The U.S. strides the globe as a colossus, stronger than any other state and more dominant than any empire at any time in human history. The entire militaries of “rogue” states have less total firepower than one American carrier group while terrorist groups create more popular angst than extreme danger. The U.S. faces no existential threat like it did during World War II and the Cold War.

Nevertheless, the call continues to go out from otherwise limited government conservatives for a bigger military. Spending as much as the rest of the world on the military isn’t enough. Nor is spending more, in real terms, than during the Korean, Vietnam, and Cold Wars. Neoconservative intellectuals and hawkish Republican politicians alike insist that the Pentagon needs more money, troops, and weapons. For something. Or everything.

Whatever it is, it has nothing to do with defense. The Constitution authorizes the national government to act in the “common defense” — of America, not the rest of the world. None of the founders imagined that the U.S. would become Globocop, busy protecting populous and prosperous allies (international social welfare) and attempting to rebuild failed societies (foreign social engineering).

Indeed, 9/11 demonstrated that the Department of Defense is lousy at defense. Most of America’s armed forces are deployed for offensive operations on behalf of other nations. Congress ended up creating the Department of Homeland Security to actually protect America.

Washington’s current globe-spanning alliances would seem to be sufficient burden for even a committed internationalist, but some self-professed conservatives continue to find new tasks for U.S. troops. Which, of course, requires an ever larger military.

For instance, John Guardiano points to North Korea’s latest misbehavior as demonstrating “the need for a much bigger and modernized U.S. Army and Marine Corps.” Why? Guardiano explains, “to occupy and rebuild North Korea when it implodes, as it inevitably will.” At least he admits that this would be no mean task: “we likely will have to occupy and rebuild the country just as we have done in Iraq and are now doing in Afghanistan. And that will require a lot of boots on the ground.”

Egads! How could defense planners have missed this? Normally the elimination of a heavily-militarized adversary threatening an American ally would reduce U.S. defense requirements. But not here.

Instead, the American people have to add yet another client state. Under the theory that only the U.S. can do anything in the world, it apparently has become America’s job to fix a country which Washington did not defeat in war and with which Washington did not have an alliance (or even diplomatic relations), even though that nation’s wealthy neighbors have more at stake in regional security.

Just as God is concerned about even a single sparrow falling to earth, the U.S. must be concerned about even a single adversary falling apart.

Of course, what Guardiano wants the American military to do has nothing to do with America’s defense. Moreover, he’s assuming an inevitable collapse of the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As many people have been doing for years. And as they have been doing equally long for Cuba. Alas, those extra divisions Guardiano wants to raise might end up sitting around a long time before receiving their call to action.

One also has to wonder what Seoul would think of Guardiano’s proposal for turning the North into an American colony. South Koreans always have presumed that the end of the DPRK would result in unification, just as the collapse of East Germany led to German reunification. America’s German allies might not have reacted well if the 101st Airborne had dropped into East Berlin on November 10, 1989 to begin a U.S.-led nation-building project.

But even if Seoul didn’t mind America doing all of the hard work in rebuilding North Korea, there’s no reason to stick Americans with that bill. God created a Korean peninsula where twice as many people with 40 times the GDP live in the nation to the south for a reason: to clean up North Korea whenever it finally expires.

Unfortunately, Guardiano’s idea reflects the dominant mindset in Washington: America must do everything.

The Balkans didn’t matter to the U.S. and the Europeans were more than able to respond to any crises there, but the Clinton administration wanted to decide which ethnic group could secede from which nation a continent away. Washington’s vital interest is preventing terrorism against Americans, not creating a liberal Westminster-style democracy in Kabul, but nine years into the Afghan war the U.S. remains engaged in an expensive nation-building adventure.

So naturally, if North Korea falls apart, Washington should jump right in.

If so, however, why only in North Korea? There’s Cuba, which is right next door to America. The Castros were supposed to have fallen two decades ago after the end of the Soviet Union, but never mind. Surely the communist regime’s collapse is “inevitable.” Thus, the U.S. needs “a much bigger and modernized U.S. Army and Marine Corps” to rebuild Cuba.

Then there’s Africa. The entire continent needs to be re-colonized, with national boundaries redrawn to reflect tribal lines. Then there needs to be an intensive nation-building, democracy-promoting campaign. The U.S. will need a much, much larger military to do this!

And how about China? Predictions of its imminent rise as another superpower are premature. Economic growth is unbalanced, political protests are rife, and the government lacks popular legitimacy. A serious economic slowdown could create a political crisis. The country might even fall apart, with coastal and rural provinces separating. If that happened, the U.S. would, as Guardiano observed of North Korea, “have to occupy and rebuild the country just as we have done in Iraq and are now doing in Afghanistan. And that will require a lot of boots on the ground.”

Really a lot of boots. So America obviously needs an even bigger military build-up.

However, why stop with nation-building? There’s so much more the U.S. armed services could do. Like recreate the seven wonders of the ancient world.

These projects all were grand examples of the human spirit in action. Even without modern machinery, ancient peoples demonstrated mankind’s extraordinary creativity.

Unfortunately, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the only one of the seven still standing. Why shouldn’t Washington demonstrate its power and resolve by rebuilding the other six? No one else is going to do so!

It shouldn’t be a big deal. After all, recreating the Lighthouse of Alexandria, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Mausoleum of Maussollos at Halicarnassus, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, and Colossus of Rhodes would be easy for the American military after establishing liberal democracies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and North Korea. It is about time to give U.S. troops an easy task.

Fulfilling this strange desire to have Americans do everything for everyone does not come cheap. The fact that military outlays now constitute a smaller percentage of our GDP means that the economy has grown faster than defense expenditures have, not that military outlays have fallen. But “defense” spending should be based on threats, not wealth. In real terms, America’s GDP today is more than 12 times larger than it was in 1940 and seven times larger than it was in 1950. If the U.S. was devoting the same percentage of its GDP to the armed services today as it did in 1940 and 1950, it would be spending 12 times and seven times as much money, respectively, even though fascist Italy, militarist Japan, Nazi Germany, and communist Russia all have disappeared. That would make no sense.

The final card played by those hoping for a big military build-up is to blame today’s deficits and tomorrow’s projected debts on entitlements spending. But the fact that other outlays are rising uncontrollably is no reason to spend more than necessary on the military. And at least entitlement spending subsidizes Americans, rather than Americans’ economic competitors.

In fact, Republicans may find it increasingly hard to win votes while advocating more money for the Pentagon. In effect, conservative hawks are demanding that Uncle Sam cut the welfare state for Americans in order to subsidize the welfare state for Europeans.

The military big spenders want U.S. taxpayers to pay for the defense of the Japanese as the latter spend their money competing economically with China. Rather than have South Koreans foot the bill for reunification of their peninsula, conservative hawks want Americans to pay for the process. Which means the South Koreans can continue to spend their money building better autos while limiting the sale of American cars in South Korea.

Just wait until America’s elderly understand that the Republicans want to cut Medicare and Social Security in order to subsidize the Asians and Europeans. Then the political fun will really begin.

The U.S. is a republic. The national government is supposed to be one of limited, enumerated powers.

The defense of America is the federal government’s most important responsibility. But that means the defense of America. Not subsidizing wealthy allies or rebuilding failed states. It is time to return U.S. foreign policy and military spending to those appropriate for a republic.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon).