Offensive Defense

The United States spends more on defense – 40% of the world’s yearly defense outlays – than the next seventeen nations combined. In fiscal year 2010, the U.S. defense budget accounted for about 19% of the total federal budget and 28% of estimated tax revenue.

When a country is attacked, the priority of its leaders should be to protect its citizens. But for many decades, United States military decisions have favored offensive invasions in place of defensive operations. In other words, the U.S. military has been focused on exercising power abroad rather than on self-defense. In Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. embarked on military campaigns against countries that hadn’t attacked the United States. The rationale was that the world would be better off – and the U.S. more secure and influential – if certain despots or unsavory groups, living in or around these countries, were eradicated. With, perhaps, the best of intentions, the U.S. embarked on becoming the global cop. Given the urgent need to reduce its own indebtedness, the U.S. now needs to evaluate the costs and benefits of pursing its decades’ long “defense” strategy.

Let’s briefly look at the Vietnam War. It cost the United States 58,000 lives and 350,000 casualties. It also resulted in between one and two million Vietnamese deaths. Adjusting for inflation, the war cost $738 billion. One is hard pressed to find any constructive benefits from having engaged in this ill advised conflict.

Next up Iraq and Afghanistan: according to the Eisenhower Research Project, these two wars have already cost $3.2 trillion (at least $4.0 trillion with future veterans’ care factored in). They calculate the number of war dead, in and out of uniform, at 236,000, with war refugees and displaced persons totaling 7,800,000. The U.S. invasion was premised on, among other things, bringing peace and democracy to those countries. Yet both countries continue to rank low in the global rankings of political freedom; corrupt warlords still hold power in Afghanistan and Iraqi communities are more divided by gender and ethnicity than before the war. From a moral standpoint, the U.S, while caught up in the vagaries of war, committed civil liberties violations at home and ignored human rights violations overseas. It is hard to justify paying any price for these dismal results let alone for all the lives lost and disrupted plus accumulated debts that now represent 25% of our $15 trillion debt burden.

If the desire for peace and democracy doesn’t well up from a country’s citizens, which means they are ready to make untold sacrifices, no amount of foreign troops or money will accomplish this objective. Recent uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria all took place without U.S. troops or money because the people of these countries were fed up and willing to die for freedom and self-determination.

A few suggestions for defense spending cuts

The Pentagon spends tens of billions of dollars annually on weapons systems built to counteract last century’s threats. Politics dominates many decisions; legislators fight to preserve weapons built in their districts, regardless of their need or efficacy. As Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said, “Defense cannot be exempted from efforts to get our financial house in order.” A country’s economic strength is the foundation for its security. Eliminating funding for outdated defense programs has to be a key part of any budget-balancing strategy. 

In this regard, an estimated $700 billion dollars is proposed to be spent over the next 10 years on new nuclear submarines, bombers and bomb plants. Yet today’s primary threats are terrorism and cyber warfare; nuclear weapons won’t diminish these worries one iota. Since the U.S. currently has overwhelming nuclear superiority and its nuclear capacity dwarfs the programs of potential adversaries, even some defense hawks are suggesting cutbacks in nuclear weapon systems. A country deeply in debt is not secure no matter how many weapons it has.

Excluding the Afghan and Iraq war costs, military pay, benefit and retirement costs rose more than 50% in the last decade and now amount to about one-third of Pentagon spending. Most veterans, including those who have served multiple combat tours, will never qualify for any military pension or retiree health benefits. At the other extreme, some who do qualify can start collecting their pensions in their late 30’s. The military’s pay and benefits system is poorly designed, unsustainable and needs to be reined in. 

Rampant waste and fraud can be found throughout the defense establishment. The Defense Department recently acknowledged that its financial reporting systems are unreliable and promised to correct the problem by 2017. The Government Accountability Office reported that, although the military services can track incoming appropriations, they still can’t demonstrate that their funds are being spent properly. 

In addition, a bipartisan commission recently estimated that the U.S. lost as much as $60 billion to waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan and will do so in future conflicts unless major changes are made in awarding and managing contracts for battlefield support and reconstruction projects. The commission’s 15 recommendations include: creating an inspector general to monitor war zone contracting, improving planning and coordination among federal agencies, reducing private security companies and increasing monitoring of contractor performance. 

The U.S. spends billions of dollars maintaining an enormous number of foreign military bases. Bases are found in Japan, Europe and South Korea more than fifty years after combat in those countries ended. In addition, the U.S. has supported repressive governments to gain or preserve access to military bases. It is time to require all nations to assume responsibility for their own defense. The decades-long military forays onto foreign lands have been ill conceived, financed by borrowed money and are no longer affordable.

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