Another year and another unchallenged Pentagon budget goes by. This year the nation is officially committing $636 billion to its defense budget with $128 billion allocated for “overseas contingency operations”—the military campaigns formerly known as the global war on terror—assumed into the official budget for the first time. The 2010 and proposed 2011 Pentagon budgets continue the escalation of the nation’s defense spending initiated after the terrorist attacks that began the 21st century. The United States is currently spending more than 10 times the amount of the world’s other big spenders, the United Kingdom and China, which each commit about $60 billion a year to defense, and accounts for about half of all defense spending in the world.
And let’s remember that the nation’s total defense spending includes much more than the amounts allocated to the Pentagon. A comprehensive listing of defense costs would also include defense contributions from the federal departments of energy (nuclear weapons development and clean-up of weapons sites), justice (F.B.I. counterterrorism), state (military aid programs), homeland security, and treasury (military retirements); the Veterans Administration; NASA’s counterterrorism programs; and the military share of the nation’s annual debt servicing. All together, the total defense tab quickly approaches $1 trillion a year or more. There comes a point when one must ask whether this is not a sinful misallocation of the nation’s limited fiscal resources.
While the Obama administration has made some small efforts to contain defense spending—cutting back missile defense, killing the F-22 fighter program—the nation’s ongoing confrontation with worldwide Islamic terrorism since 2001 has basically meant carte blanche for the Pentagon. Few legislators challenge the bloating of the budget or the strategic and economic assumptions underlying it for fear of seeming soft on terrorism or vaguely unpatriotic. This is a poor understanding of patriotism, just as our reliance on defense is a poor substitute for real security. It has been the historic fate of empires to diminish themselves through overspending on military might while their rivals and allies allow themselves more judicious investments of their resources. It is unfortunate that the United States seems set on this familiar course.
While Washington wonks are aware of the danger of a global strategy and foreign policy overdetermined by military force, few U.S. citizens can calculate the profound opportunity costs of our current and projected defense spending. Will we have the discipline to roll back this budget expansion as our military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq is eventually concluded?
One can argue endlessly about the proper role of the federal government in responding to the economic and social challenges menacing the country. But defense spending sets severe limits on what the government can and cannot do: in terms of saving failing states, paying down the national debt, creating employment, patching our social safety net, making creative investments in human capital and bankrolling infrastructure maintenance and expansion.
The way to put ourselves on a sustainable path to true strength and security is to reassess our international responsibilities and focus on reducing our debt, investing in our people and rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. We cannot alter the maximalist mentality of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists through force, though we can surely still protect ourselves and our national interests with more sensible allocations for defense.
The United States cannot afford to be the world’s biggest defense spender. While our nation continues to make dead-end commitments, the world’s rising nations are investing in their own future. Weighed down by its defense allocations, the United States may be shaping for itself a future of complaint, lamenting its falling standard of living and overwhelming debt. In such a future we may reach a point where we will no longer be free to choose between guns and butter. Both will be denied us by our debt holders.
$1 million, the amount required to put one U.S. soldier into the field in Afghanistan for one year.
$3.6 billion, the cost of one month of war in Afghanistan.
$8 billion, the “reduced” amount committed to missile defense.
$7 billion, the amount the Navy will receive for seven vessels.
$7 billion, the amount the U.S. Air Force will spend to acquire 30 new fighters.
$5.7 billion, the unallocated price tag for sending every at-risk 4-year-old in the United States to quality pre-school.
$3 billion, the unallocated cost of preventing 59 million children in the developing world from going to school hungry.
$10 billion, the annual amount still needed to ensure that those same children have a classroom to go to.