The Empire at Dusk

American pundits decry the onset of sharp defense cuts, but the Pentagon can’t even account for $1 trillion in its own spending. Isn't it time to rein in the beast?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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.

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.

American embassies loom imperiously over the skylines of the world’s capital cities, barricaded against terrorist attacks and estranged from their hosts. They engender resentment from without and a siege mentality from within. Thanks to the gutting of State Department and foreign aid budgets by Senator Jesse Helms, followed by the disastrously militant politics of President George W. Bush, America’s diplomats and aid workers are undermanned and overwhelmed. Absent an aggressive restructuring of America’s civilian aid and diplomatic agencies, their dependence on, and submission to, the military will only intensify. An early draft of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s long-term threat assessment, put its civilian counterparts on notice. A key provision that demanded the Pentagon’s "unprecedented say over U.S. security assistance programs" was softened to the wordy but more diplomatic: "Years of war have proven how important it is for America’s civilian agencies to possess the resources and authorities needed to operate alongside the U.S. Armed Forces during complex contingencies at home and abroad." In other words, civilians must be harnessed in the service of military objectives in unstable regions or post-conflict areas, rather than focus on their core mission of nurturing U.S. diplomatic interests and reducing poverty. Or, as a source close to the QDR drafting process put it, "It is clear from the deleted parts that what DOD is saying about security assistance is: ‘We want in on the whole shebang.’"

Such is the state of disequilibrium between America’s civilian and military resources as it enters the post, post-Cold War world. The years that followed the end of the Soviet era were but a prelude to what will be a far more enduring shift in the topography of geopolitical affairs. For the first time in two decades, U.S. hegemony will demand a price. The transaction Washington has kept with its allies — generous subsidies in exchange for "full spectrum" control — will be subject to competing claims. In theory at least, this should bid up the value of nonmilitary methods of protecting U.S. interests overseas. The aforementioned QDR, however, suggests otherwise. It makes numerous and repeated references to the centrality of "access," a catchword for the U.S. military’s ability to operate unimpeded anywhere in the world. It identifies as a new and enduring threat "states armed with advanced anti-access capabilities and/or nuclear weapons," a veiled reference to the evolution of China as a regional power and the kind of peer competitor that Washington has made a policy of preempting. The looming rivalry between Beijing and Washington has already replaced Islamic extremism as the main preoccupation of U.S. security planners, the same way al Qaeda filled the void left by the departed Soviet Union on the Pentagon’s revolving rotisserie of existential threats. Just as Washington militarized the Cold War and its response to the September 11 attacks, so too is it militarizing its relations with China.

In 2001, the Defense Department produced a study called "Asia 2025," which identified China as a "persistent competitor of the United States," bent on "foreign military adventurism." A U.S. base realignment plan made public in 2004 called for a new chain of bases to be erected in Central Asia and the Middle East, in part to box in China. A 2008 deal between the United States and India that would allow New Delhi to greatly expand its nuclear weapons capability was established very much with China, their mutual rival, in mind. At the same time, the Pentagon is well into a multiyear effort to transform its military base on Guam into its primary hub for operations in the Pacific. While the QDR drily refers to "the Guam buildup" as a means to "deter and defeat" regional aggressors, John Pike of the Washington, D.C. based Globalsecurity.org has speculated that the Pentagon wants to "run the planet from Guam and Diego Garcia by 2015."

In March 2011, Inside the Navy reported how the U.S. government was deep in the planning stages of a major military buildup in Asia. In response, China is expanding its fleet of diesel-powered subs at a base on Hainan Island and is developing the capacity to attack and destroy satellites as well as aircraft carriers. It has also laid a provocative marker down on a cluster of islands in the South China Sea that are the subject of a simmering territorial row between it and Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Indonesia. In 2010, Beijing identified the South China Sea as a "core interest," a term it previously applied only to Tibet and Taiwan, a move that was seized upon in Washington as a de facto declaration of sovereignty over the region and an augur of Chinese bullying to come. If a Sino-American war is inevitable, it is now generally assumed that a hotly contested South China Sea may be its epicenter.

There is nothing inevitable about an American war with China, however, and even Chinese security planners believe the U.S.-Chinese rivalry will be economic, rather than military, in character. There is, however, an emerging rhythm to Sino-U.S. affairs: The Pentagon, still clinging to the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, reflexively interprets an emerging regional power or political movement as a strategic threat. It gathers allies and punishes neutrals in an undeclared policy to isolate it. Defense analysts exaggerate the threat’s military might while discounting the historical factors that inform and motivate it. Politicians in Washington convene hearings and, briefed as to the nation’s ill-preparedness, demand an immediate military buildup. Pundits condemn the commander in chief for being soft on America’s adversaries even as diplomats and intelligence experts overseas assure the White House that the danger is largely in the minds of those peddling it back home. Such admonitions, however, are obscured or ignored in what is now a key election-year issue. Surveillance is met with countersurveillance. Heightened alert status provokes the same. An incident occurs, either by accident or by design.

It is war.

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