In its scramble to avoid another legislative gang war over the nation's debt ceiling, Washington is preparing to shake down the Defense Department in the name of deficit reduction. While budget cutters preoccupy themselves with line-item expenditures, they overlook the Pentagon's biggest cost center: empire. The burden of global hegemony, the commitment to project force across every strategic waterway, air corridor, and land bridge, has exhausted the U.S. military and will be even harder to sustain as budget cuts force strategists and logisticians to do more with less. A national discussion about the logic of maintaining huge forward bases, to say nothing of their financial and human costs, is long overdue.
American relations with the world, and increasingly America's security policy at home, have become thoroughly and all but irreparably militarized. The culprits are not the nation's military leaders, though they can be aggressive and cunning interagency operators, but civilian elites who have seen to it that the nation is engaged in a self-perpetuating cycle of low-grade conflict. They have been hiding in plain sight, hyping threats and exaggerating the capabilities and resources of adversaries. They have convinced a plurality of citizens that their best guarantee of security is not peace but war, and they did so with the help of a supine or complicit Congress. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. presidents have ordered troops into battle 22 times, compared with 14 times during the Cold War. Not once did they appeal to lawmakers for a declaration of war.
The legacy of American militarism is a national security complex that thrives on fraud, falsehood, and deception. In the 1950s, Americans were told the Soviets had not only the means to destroy the United States but the desire to do so. In reality, Moscow lacked the former and so gave little thought to the latter, while Washington squandered billions of dollars on needless weaponry. Time and again, U.S. presidents weaponized their response to challenges overseas to protect them from charges of appeasement from the right. Habitually, their administrations misinterpreted events -- from Russia's Bolshevik revolution to the September 11 attacks -- to disastrous effect. In each case, expert advice was overlooked, ignored, or concealed, while in others, threats were manufactured as chips in petty political wagers. The fraudulent bomber and missile gaps and the Gulf of Tonkin incident did as much to injure U.S. interests overseas as did the notion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and intended to use them preemptively.
Only a country so rich in resources and blessed by favorable geography could afford such malfeasance. America has been spared foreign invasion for more than 200 years and it can expect to remain inviolate for centuries to come. Yet each year, it spends enough money on national security to match the economic output of Indonesia -- with money borrowed largely from China, a country with which it is preparing for conflict. It insists on its right to launch a preemptive nuclear attack against such countries as North Korea and Iran -- oafish, bankrupt regimes that seek a complement of atomic bombs because they are surrounded by countries with bunkers full of them. America guarantees its friends and allies a place under its security umbrella even if their interests, particularly in the Middle East, diverge markedly from its own. In Europe, NATO remains a feudal confederation of armed forces with no raison d'être save to lend sanction to America's far-flung military enterprises. In Asia, South Korea, the world's 15th-largest economy, remains critically dependent on U.S. forces as a deterrent against its isolated, impoverished northern neighbor, while Japan wallows in a twilight world of middle-class prosperity and political ennui, content to slowly diminish as an American vassal.