Terms of Engagement

All Guns, No Butter

What the debt ceiling deal tells us about the Tea Party's grim vision of American power.


I have been trying, and failing, to think of a period when Americans seemed as eager as they are now to shed their global burden — while at the same time insisting on depleting the national treasury to pay for the military. During past periods of national self-absorption, including the generation before the civil war and the decades after World War I, standing armies and military expenditures shrank or remained modest. No longer: At a moment when many Americans want to reduce the role of government at home and especially abroad, the debt deal just concluded is likely to preserve the country’s hypertrophied defense budget — at least if congressional Republicans get their way. One is left asking: What do you want to do with all that money?

Step back for a moment and think about the terms of the deal that emerged from the debt ceiling debate this week. The first installment of cuts, totaling about $900 billion, is to be achieved through across-the-board cuts to the budget, including the Pentagon; the second tranche, of at least $1.2 trillion, will be decided by a bipartisan congressional commission. In order to ensure Republican compliance with the commission’s recommendations, a budgetary sword of Damocles has been positioned over the one form of expenditure the party holds most dear: the defense budget, which will bear half the cuts should the commission fail to agree on a formula, or should Congress ignore its proposal.

Actually, it’s worse than that: The GOP won a concession that the cuts would come out of "security" rather than only "defense" spending. Since "security" includes diplomacy and foreign aid (as well as homeland security), the party could thus eliminate the traditional tools of foreign policy in order to reduce the cuts to the military. And there’s no reason to doubt that they would do so, since Republican legislators have sought to virtually get rid of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to gut development assistance, and to block increases in spending on the State Department. The United States would be left with a colossal military and a Ruritanian diplomatic corps.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Republicans knew why the United States needed to maintain its "position of unparalleled military strength," as President George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy put it: to fight the "terrorists of global reach" who had launched an unprecedented attack on American soil. The fight required the United States to be prepared to respond at a moment’s notice to terrorist threats, but also to "extend the benefits of freedom across the globe," whether through regime change, diplomacy, or the strategic use of foreign aid.

Ten years after the terrorist attack, both the fear of a sequel, and the faith in America’s capacity to shape a better world, have ebbed. Or perhaps that’s an overly analytical way of describing a national mood of sullen disillusionment with America’s imperial role. The killing of Osama bin Laden has licensed a widespread desire to escape from the swamp of Afghanistan, to bring the boys home as they are already coming home from Iraq. Large majorities of Americans now say that the U.S. "should not be involved" in Afghanistan, or that they oppose the war there. The number of Americans who believe that promoting democracy abroad — the heart of the Bush Doctrine — should be a "top long-range priority" is minute, and shrinking fast.

President Barack Obama acknowledged the spirit of fatigue when he declared in his June 22 speech charting the planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan that "it is time to focus on nation-building here at home." But while the president conceded that "this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world," he admonished his listeners that "we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events." It is precisely this obligation, however, that many Americans now want to dispose of like a boom-era mansion with a hopelessly underwater mortgage.

We no longer accept the obligation, but we’re still prepared — or at least the GOP is still prepared — to bankrupt ourselves in order to keep up payments on the mansion, currently running to $529 billion a year. It feels more like a reflex than a policy. Moreover, how can a party so deeply persuaded that government is bad, and government spending the enemy of the free market, make so immense an exception for a bureaucracy as vast and as deeply entrenched as the Pentagon? Of course those hundreds of billions create powerful economic interests which perpetuate spending; but so do farm supports, and even they seem more endangered than Raytheon contracts these days.

I understand the position of the remaining "greatness conservatives" — Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio, William Kristol or David Brooks — who still believe deeply in America’s singular role in the world, and are prepared to pay for it. That wing of the GOP and its constituency actually believes in government, if limited government. The new breed of Republican does not. Of course Tea Party conservatives like Michele Bachmann are aggressive exponents of "American exceptionalism," but they see the state not as an instrument of American greatness but as an impediment to it. American people are good; American government is bad. Except for defense spending, of course.

Some of us, on the other hand, have a view of American singularity — if not "greatness," a word with too much breast-beating in it — in which the state plays an indispensable role. Americans are neither better nor worse than other people, but at various time in its history the United States, as a national entity, has acted as a force for good in the world. The American military came to Europe’s rescue twice in the 20th century and contained the threat of Russian aggression for half of it. The world takes shelter under the American nuclear umbrella. But much of the good the United States has done over the last several generations has involved diplomacy and statecraft, rather than force. In the progressive internationalist view that Obama seems to share, the nation’s willingness to diminish its own power after World War II by pooling it into global institutions like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund is the clearest sign of American exceptionalism. Such institutions are rightly known as "global goods."

The United States is entering a grim period of national diminution — not, chiefly, because such contraction is being forced upon us by events, but rather because we no longer believe in the institutions and instruments through which American leaders have acted in the past. The national sense of purpose has been diminished as well. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell asserted that the central purpose of his party was to unseat the incumbent president, he was admitting as much; the mere fact that he was willing to say so shows how little store McConnell puts in nonpartisanship. The two leading impulses of today’s GOP are partisan pettiness and theological grandiosity. The steely gaze of this basilisk has paralyzed the Democrats.

The two parties will spend the next 15 months feverishly catering to a hostile electorate by competing over formulae to shrink the state. At least there may be some spectator sport in watching the Republicans make the awful choice between accepting the modest revenue increases Democratic members of the commission are likely to demand, and protecting the sacred defense budget. In the meanwhile, sleep safely, children, for nothing is likely to stop the Pentagon from spending $300 billion on the new F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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