Insecurity in Security

“Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?”

It’s a reasonable question. But to hear this coming from the US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, at a speech to the Navy League on May 3rd, has forced me to reconsider some of my assumptions about the blood-sucking nature of ‘not-for-profit’ organizations (kidding, kidding … sort of). When was the last time a powerful figurehead leveled with his patrons: “You know what? Y’all probably gave us a little too much money last year.” And just last Saturday, at a celebration of the 65th Anniversary of VE-Day held at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Gates echoed Eisenhower’s warning about the “grave implications” of a powerful military industrial complex. According to Gates’ press secretary, the speech was intended as a “hard-hitting message.“ 

Gates’ remarks suggest a reorganization of current military priorities away from standing military infrastructure designed to combat formidable, national military forces simultaneously on two fronts. The common logic here is that we will need a leaner, more agile military force, with a focus on intelligence, to address contemporary security threats such as stateless terrorists or rogue military regimes with high-yield weaponry. This seems to make sense. To finance the transition, Gates has expressed opposition to standing military assets such as juggernaut flotillas and additional F-22, F-35 (JSF) and C-17 production. Such expenditures, which require the commercialization of advanced robotics, avionics, weaponry, and digital technology, as well as employing scores of well-trained servicemen with lifelong benefits, are burdensome. Since Bush’s election in 2000, military spending has risen steadily, and according to Gates those additional costs have not been effectively targeted at solving contemporary security threats but rather to beef-up of the status quo: “When all was said and done, the way the Pentagon selected, evaluated, developed and paid for major new weapons systems and equipment did not fundamentally change — even after September 11th.“ 

So how much money are we talking about? Well, it’s famously hard to figure, as a number of other departments such as Energy, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security receive federal funding for defense-related outlays. The top-line Department of Defense budget for fiscal 2009 was $719 billion. However, if you follow Robert Higgs and throw in non-DOD military expenditures, you will get a number just over $900 billion dollars. That’s about 5% of GDP, compared to around 3% at the end of the Clinton years. All the while, gross debt rose from 58% of GDP to 70% of GDP during the Bush years, from $5.6 trillion in January 2001 to $10.7 trillion by December 2008. 

I’m not convinced Americans are any better for it. Over the last decade, an admittedly small but most relevant sample size, any correlation between military spending and the prosperity of Americans, and non-Americans, seems negative. The relative slide in US power has, if anything, been accelerated by excessive military spending and record deficits. Our $900 billion budget is at least six times more than China’s defense spending, which is probably the greatest potential long-term counterbalance to US military dominance.

The opportunity costs are the real killer here. Military spending alone doesn’t necessarily detract from US power, though its irresponsible use probably does. But think about what we could have done with all that money, at time when unemployment hovers around 10%, budget deficits (state and federal) are out of control, high-school graduation rates are below 80%, and the US is ill-prepared for an impending energy and environmental crisis. Like it or not, these are the issues that will probably determine the fate of Americans and our national priorities. Not terrorists. 

We cannot continue to repaint the facade as the structure crumbles from within like a porkbarrelled Iraqi Police College. The obvious excesses of our military complex are a wasteful tragedy and a grave threat to the continued prosperity of Americans. If, say, $450 billion — still three times more than China — is not enough to defend our borders then something is terribly wrong within. 

Why hasn’t this become a bigger issue for conservatives? Shouldn’t they be at the forefront challenging self-perpetuating, unnecessary establishment spending that doesn’t empower the people? All I hear today from the Tea Party crowd is the inclusion of Hispanic immigrants into the Axis of Evil. And all along I thought immigrants were supposed to be the ones having the party.