In ancient times, empires exacted tribute from their dependencies. In the age of American hegemony, just the opposite is the case. In return for the global commons, the United States bankrolls a geopolitical welfare state that allows some of its largest beneficiaries to neglect their basic responsibilities as sovereign states and allies. A national debate over the economic and moral costs of this exchange is noteworthy for its absence. Segregated from the military and its burdens, with no reason to fear the consequences of war for themselves or their loved ones, a great majority of Americans are easily manipulated into backing a militarized response to challenges more suited to diplomacy. The purpose of hegemony is to preempt potential threats rather than respond to a clear and present danger. As voters are unlikely to support such a policy on its merits, hegemonists resort to gross exaggerations of speculative rivals, be they Russia and China or geopolitical runts such as North Korea and Iran.
The price of this deception is vast. If the Pentagon were a corporation, it would be the largest in the world as well as the most sloppily run. Its procurement budget, at a staggering $107 billion in 2010, expands even as the number of deployable warplanes, combat ships, and troops diminishes. To entice lawmakers into approving costly weapons programs, the Pentagon dangles the prospect of jobs in the states and districts of key lawmakers, a costly way of manufacturing but an astute political maneuver. Waste, inefficiency, and political patronage, no stranger to military-legislative affairs, get more lavish by the year. In April 2008, the Government Accountability Office found that 95 major Pentagon projects exceeded their original budgets by a total of nearly $300 billion. A year later, it concluded that nothing had changed. In 2009, lawmakers larded the Pentagon's annual budget proposal with nearly $5 billion in programs and weapons it did not request. With arms factories scattered like feeding troughs nationwide, America has become the equivalent of a company town with the Pentagon as primary employer. The making of war, or at least the preparation for it, has become a money center, a business line --- a racket, as Marine general and Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler put it nearly a century ago.
Though the Pentagon did not ask for empire, neither did it shirk from its calling. From 2001 to 2010, the baseline defense budget grew at an inflation-adjusted rate of 6 percent a year, to more than double its pre-September 11 size. Like interlocking threads in a great tapestry, no one really knows where the military's preserve begins and where it ends. Pentagon financial statements have been all but unauditable since 1991, the year it began submitting its accounts to Congress. In an October 2009 report, the Defense Department's Inspector General exposed more than a dozen "significant deficiencies" in Pentagon balance sheets from fiscal years 2004 to 2008. Mining opaque audit trails and murky contracting systems, the report uncovered more than $1 trillion in unsupported account entries. In September 2010, the Senate Finance Committee issued a report that slammed the Pentagon's "total lack of fiscal accountability" for "leaving huge sums of the taxpayers' money vulnerable to fraud and outright theft."
Even as defense officials and warfighters acknowledge that America's adversaries cannot be defeated with armed might alone, the Pentagon still has more lawyers than the State Department does diplomats. Washington's foreign aid budget routinely comes under assault by Congress as overly generous when in fact the United States is among the most miserly of countries when it comes to overseas assistance. The White House has called for 2,200 new Foreign Service officers for the State Department and USAID -- a drop in the bucket given the mismatch between the nation's resources and its commitments overseas. The number of State Department diplomats and support staff is only 10 percent greater than what it was a quarter century ago, when there were 24 fewer countries in the world and U.S. interests were concentrated in Europe and northeast Asia. The Pentagon, in contrast, has 1.5 million active-duty military personnel, an equal number of reservists and National Guardsmen, and 790,000 civilian employees. Moreover, unlike the U.S. military, which bases a fifth of its personnel overseas, nearly three-quarters of America's diplomatic corps are posted abroad. At any one time, a third of U.S.-based Foreign Service jobs are vacant, while 12 percent of the overseas positions, not including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, are unmanned. Foreign language proficiency, a core competency of the service, has languished due to funding gaps. Salaries have been slashed, and stingy retirement benefits have undercut retention rates.