Foreign and Defense Policy, Defense

Yes, America’s military is expensive. But maintaining it saves money–and lives–in the long run

Image Credit: The U.S. Army (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

Image Credit: The U.S. Army (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

Earlier this year, Barack Obama told military commanders and Pentagon civilian leaders that his goal was to “reduce US military activity around the world.” That’s what he said. But what he meant was that he intends to constrain US foreign policy by shrinking military capacity and capabilities so that the United States cannot engage in military activities around the world.

Under Obama, the number of missions heaped on those in uniform has not declined. Indeed, that number has not gone down under any president of either political party since the end of the Cold War. From Haiti to Bosnia to Kosovo to Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya, our forces keep getting busier.

Should we engage in these missions or shouldn’t we? This might be a worthy debate if the American people were somehow involved, but they’re constantly told otherwise: We can keep cutting the military’s budget but still magically retain a force that is second to none. At some point, getting more and spending less not only rings hollow but actually produces a hollow force.

Notwithstanding, many continue making similar claims. Earlier this week, the Center for American Progress released a new report proposing roughly $1 trillion dollars in new defense cuts over the next decade.

CAP’s basic argument is that military spending should be diluted proportionately to other elements of national power, such as diplomacy, development, and homeland security. The report categorizes military spending as offensive, drawing a contrast with diplomatic and development spending, which it calls preventative.

But this distinction is overly simplistic and misleading. American military might is rarely employed for offensive purposes. Rather, our forces spend most of their time deterring and preventing conflict through multinational exercises with allies, training foreign militaries, and being present over time to build relationships and trust.

The CAP report tries to address this by briefly discussing “environment shaping,” but argues that forward-deployed forces are an inefficient economic investment because it encourages free riding by allies that would otherwise invest in their own defense and defensive arms purchases by enemies could increase. Rather, the argument goes, the United States should become an offshore balancer, only surging into vital regions when events threaten to get out of hand.

This is the thinking that cements the alliance of America’s isolationist Libertarians and progressives. But Libertarians are more honest because they are clear that their goal is an America in retreat.

Both fail to appreciate that our presence in vital regions like the Asia-Pacific inhibits, not encourages, conflict. It’s true that under the American security umbrella there’s probably some free riding by allies. But for every dollar spent on a professional force, advanced technologies, training, or weapons, there are invisible savings gained in blood and treasure by not having to fight unnecessary wars. Or are they really suggesting we allow Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan – for instance – to succumb to Chinese predations?

There’s no question that diplomacy and foreign aid contribute important components to the preventative mission. But the military deterrent is a key element in that mix. And we have a vital stake in the peaceful resolution of disputes that may otherwise suck us into dangerous international conflicts.

America tried to be an offshore balancer twice before, and the result both times was a World War. We saved pennies and lost pounds and tens of thousands of lives in the bargain.

If we’re going to have a military, those in it need something to sail, something to fly, something to drive. Breaking contracts to buy those things to “save” money isn’t free. Flying and driving half century old equipment has its own implications. But the costs of a weak deterrent and an incapacitated military are greater still. Is defense expensive? You bet. Peace costs a great deal. Is fighting a war even more expensive? By any standard – in dollars and in blood – so much more.

5 thoughts on “Yes, America’s military is expensive. But maintaining it saves money–and lives–in the long run

  1. Does it really save more lives that it KILLS?
    I’m anti-obama, but I’m also against the war monger IMPERIALISTS (Bush/Romney/etc) who are puppets of the Elite who want to own the world so they can STEAL the wealth of other countries. Obama is for FASCISM whereby there is a one-world government (New World Order) which sounds good until you think how it would be just one more layer of government to make getting anything done less likely and more passing of the buck. The War Mongers are FASCISM whereby the corporations run the governmentS and then run the world.
    I’m for what Gary Johnson and Ron Paul are for, a military for DEFENSE and not OFFENSE!

    • Okay. I’ll play.

      1. Quantifying the number of direct and indirect casualties of wars with US military participation is reasonably straightforward. Quantifying the number of lives saved or protected through military action, intervention, or presence is a much more complex process. And will essentially boil down to whether or not you like/respect the military. Which you don’t.

      2. Imperialism is the creation of an empire, where one nation subjugates, oppresses, conquers, colonizes, or dominates other nations/territories. Please identify the last war of conquest undertaken by the United States, which resulted in actual, legal, official expansion of US sovereign soil.

      3. Who are these Elite? Do they have names? Where do they exist? How do you identify them? If the politicans/war mongers are the public face puppets, who pulls the strings? It’s remarkably easy to accuse a faceless, nameless ‘They’ as some shadowy mastermind.

      4. Steal the wealth. Which countries are demonstrably poorer because of their interactions with the United States? Or, more specifically, which countries would be both prosperous and peaceful in the absence of US involvement/presence?

      5. Fascism is not one world government.

      6. One world government is not one more layer of government.

      7. Warmongers are not fascists. Politicians who authorize the use of military force, or who sign declarations of war, are not necessarily warmongers. Warmongers are those who eagerly push for war, for the sake of war. If you do not believe there is ever a just cause for waging war, then anyone who speaks of some necessity of war will appear to be a warmonger.

      8. Fascism is not government run by corporations. That is plutocracy, or corporatism, or even syndicalism.

      9. Gary Johnson and Ron Paul make good arguments for redefining the role of the US military in the world. I would be surprised if those arguments included assertions of New World Order or Fascism or mysterious Elite.

      • So, you want to PRETEND you’re playing? Okay.
        I respect he military but NOT those who control the military. If you want to educate yourself on the subject, read up on General Smedley Butler and how he said it was all a scam by the Elite.
        Who are the Elite? Well, if you read up on Smedley Butler, you can read who wanted to TAKE OVER the USA back then, with HIM chosen to lead the way.
        If you don’t believe that imperialism has happened, you need to educate yourself in that realm, too. I saw a nice documentary of the folks in Indonesia telling how the IMF/World Bank/etc (the money arm of the Elite) “loaned” their country money to “industrialize” them, the money mainly went to the corrupt “leaders”, the country had NO MARKET for what they were “helped” to be good at making, and thus THE PEOPLE were essentially slaves to the Elites to pay back the debt.
        There are two versions of the Fascist New World Order (obama’s version or romney’s, both of which are new concoctions and not like old forms). Obama’s is one where BIG government rules the peasants while an Elite few live lavish lives. Romney’s version (though he’s too ignorant to know how he’s helping go in that direction) is that the Corporations will run “government” so there is an Elite core (kind of like congress now) who live lavish lives and rule over the peasants.

  2. we current spend more for national defense that we take in – in income taxes.

    we spend more on the military than the next 10 countries combined including Russia and China.

    what percent of how much money we take – in in taxes should we be spending on National Defense?

    Don’t talk about GDP. Talk about how much we take in – in taxes because that’s what we have to spend.

    how much of our tax revenues should go to National Defense?

    Keep in mind that we are now at the cusp of having more military retirees (receiving pension and health care benefits) than we have active duty – and the numbers only get worse as more and more military people retiree.

    How much can we really afford?

    Ronald Reagan got the USSR to spend more than it could afford and it essentially broke up that country.

    Can we do the same thing to ourselves?

  3. For the life of me, I don’t understand the author’s perjorative use of the word “isolationist.” North Korea is run by isolationists. But would the author really go so far as to say that the leaders of Germany, Poland, Brazil, Ireland, Portugal, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, India and Australia are “isolationists” simply because they don’t have foreign military bases in every corner of the world? Of course not. Indeed, most of these nations have substantial trade surpluses from doing so much business outside their borders.

    I also chuckle at the author’s binary option of either continuing to fund massive foreign military operations now or face the prospect of a full scale war against China, or some other vague and undefined threat. First, the author ignores the obvious fact that China benefits from the United States consumer who buys Chinese products needed to keep its economy running. Second, if China wanted to harm the US, it doesn’t even need a single gun, ship or soldier. All that it has to do is start liquidating its $1.2 trillion of US Treasury bonds in a fire sale. Interest rates on US debt would immediately skyrocket to crippling levels – even if the interest rate rose to the historical average rate of 5%, we would still have to pay $1 trillion in annual interest payments by 2016. As the interest rates continued to rise, it would jeopardize our ability to meet our nation’s other financial commitments, thus prompting even higher interest rates, and so goes the death spiral from there. Should that happen, we’ll be lucky if we can even afford a standing military. And that will be the least of our troubles.

    Compared to the very real economic damage China could unleash on us at any time, the speculative risks posed by China’s one (1) old, decommissioned Soviet aircraft carrier are downright laughable.

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