Sunday, September 21, 2008
America's limits and the long war to deny them (3)A major gap in Andrew Bachevich's theory of American militarism is that his conservative assumptions about economics lead him to an excessive focus on the relatively small role of US military spending as a percentage of GDP. The Alex Roland and Benjamin Fordham essays in The Long War don't close the gap. But they do give some indications of how that can be done.
The degree of "militarism" or military power cannot be measured by military spending as a percentage of GDP. It was a favorite propaganda point during the Cold War to point to that percentage in the USSR, which was higher than in the US, as evidence of the Soviets' hostile intent and of the militarized nature of their economy. But if one country with a smaller economy is trying to match the military preparedness of a country with a much larger GDP, of course it will have a higher military percentage of GDP. In itself, that really tells us only that one country's GDP is bigger than the other's.
Two features of US military spending make it problematic: the fact that we spend about half the military budgets of the entire world, and the fact that there really are economic interests and military bureaucracies that have institutional stakes in maintaining such disproportionate levels of military spending and in maximizing the perception of the external threats that justify them.
Fordham provides a chart in 2004 dollars (p. 274) that shows a trendline for US defense outlays from 1947 through 2004. It shows the trendline almost flat at around $310B. But the peaks tell a striking story. They are 1953 (Korean War, early Cold War anti-Soviet buildup), 1968 (Vietnam War), 1989 (peak of the Reagan buildup, final year of Cold War) and 2004.
The so-called global war on terror (GWOT), in which our main enemies are terrorists hiding in caves in Pakistan, is costing us as much as those earlier events, in which the US faced a nuclear-armed adversary for the first time and was fighting a hot war against the Chinese and North Korean Armies (1953), the peak of the 1960s arms race and the height of the Vietnam War (1968) and the final year of the Cold War in the period where Reagan's conscious policy was to force the USSR into levels of military spending they could not afford (1989). In 1977, outlays dropped to around $250B. Their lowest point in the post-Cold War period was around $285B in constant dollars. As Fordham puts it:
Although budgets do not translate directly into military power..., it is clear that when compared to the military outlays of great powers up to World War II, the scale of resources the United States has dedicated to its military since 1945 is historically unprecedented. [my emphasis]When we look at the military budget as a percentage of GDP, 1953 and 1968 provide notable peaks at around 14% and 10%, respectively. The percentage of GDP has generally declined with minor ups and downs to around 4% in 2004. A more strongly pronounced pattern in the same direction appears in the trend for military spending as a percentage of the federal budget. Fordham writes:
The declining Pentagon shares indicate not an erosion of military power but rather massive growth in both the federal budget and the overall U.S. economy. However, the declining proportion of the economy or the budget spent on the military does point to some important limits on what the American political system was willing to bear absent the impetus provided by an extreme national emergency. These limits required choices that successive postwar administrations made in different ways.This means that economically, the US could afford much higher military expenditures without in itself damaging the economy. It's also a reminder that the right size for the military budget cannot be determined from its percentage of GDP. Whether the military budget is big enough depends on the real external threats and the strategy developed for meeting them.
And one of the worst habits developed during the Cold War was threat inflation, sometimes massive threat inflation. A vast overestimate of the threat posed by a unified government ruled by Ho Chi Minh's Communists lead to the unnecessary US involvement in the Vietnam War, which did real harm to the US, not least in the number killed and wounded. The threat inflation stemmed from many sources, not all of them by any means cynical or venal.
Alex Roland, however, reminds us that there were big profits to be made by providing weaponry to the armed forces. And institutional competition between the services was real and led to escalating demands for weaponry and troops as well as providing a context powerfully conducive to that threat inflation. That phenomenon did not begin with Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), and the neoconservatives they played for suckers over the Iraq War.
Tags: alex roland, andrew bacevich, benjamin fordham, long war
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No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."
-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?
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