When Osama bin Laden launched the 9/11 attacks, he hoped to provoke an American overreaction that would bleed us to death with unending, futile military adventures and alienate the Muslim world from the thrashing giant. He dreamed of bringing out our worst.
One of the fascinating aspects of the so-called fiscal cliff "negotiations" — as well as the presidential campaign — is the hysteria surrounding reduced or even stable military spending. We have become such a garrison state, and an economy so dependent on war, that we can't even imagine another reality. Or at least our elites and a large number in the media can't.
Today, using constant 2010 dollars, we spend significantly more on defense than in 1988, with the Cold War still under way ($689 billion vs. $540 billion). In 1998, we spent $367 billion. We spend more than the next 13 largest militaries combined, including China and Russia. And yet, with the war in Iraq over (and failed) and Afghanistan winding down (failed), we're told that it's dangerous, virtually treasonous, to expect a reduction in defense spending. A common response comes from wealthy Republican Sen. John Sidney McCain III, R-Fox News, said it would result in "a crippling blow to our military."
Meanwhile, facing $16 trillion in debt, McCain and company would have us destroy the safety net. And tax cuts for the rich and corporations must not just be preserved but further lowered. Gee, defunding Amtrak would save $1.4 billion a year — that's about five days worth of operations in Afghanistan. The Military-Industrial Complex is doing quite well, thank you. It wants a status quo that allows for vast waste, corruption (e.g. non-bid contracts in violation of federal law) and budgetary sinkholes such as the Joint Strike Fighter program. Veterans health is gutted, while contractors keep profiting. And climate change is not a national security issue? The Pentagon thinks so, even if Sen. McCain and the governor of the state he nominally "represents" don't.
The costs of permanent war are rarely discussed. Among them are what economists call "opportunity costs." In other words, what if we had spent the $3 trillion to $6 trillion the past decade's adventures cost on more productive things: Advanced infrastructure, better public schools, research, seeding sustainable industries, even helping underwater house owners. As we hang onto empire, our economy and opportunity for average Americans are in deep trouble. A more pernicious cost comes to democracy, society and the rule of law from the garrison state. This was something much on Woodrow Wilson's mind when he saw it would be impossible (to his mind) for America to stay out of World War I. We slowly lost much of our democracy because of the national security state in the Cold War. We have nearly lost it entirely in the "war on terror," from indefinite detention of American citizens and domestic drones to the constant drumbeat of mass shootings by an increasingly deranged populace.
And Americans appear more terrified than ever. This in a nation that fought two powerful enemies at once in World War II and faced off against nuclear holocaust in the Cold War.
Who are our enemies? Some terrorists who would be undercut by smart diplomacy (including with Israel) and Special Forces? China? Really? We're going to be willing to go to war over what China considers its Gulf of Mexico? Or is it all a sham just to keep the money going to the oligarchs from a permanently large and entitled military establishment. Check how that worked out for Imperial Russia. The bemedaled Gen. David Petraeus is the perfect example of our decay, and not because he was canoodling his biographer. Dave was little more than a self-promoter who wouldn't have lasted a day under George Marshall in World War II. Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, both five-star generals, wore two modest rows of ribbons in their portraits. Douglas MacArthur, a five-star, combat hero from WW I and Medal of Honor winner, wore none at all (contrary to the claims of his detractors, he wore the beaten up scrambled-egg cap because it had been with him in the Philippine siege).
It is no coincidence that we have enjoyed the longest period of peace among major powers in centuries. But Pax Americana is a result not just of our military might, but also the international institutions we created, our strong economy with benefits extending throughout society, solid and legitimate democratic institutions, and liberty enjoyed along with responsibility to the national good. All this is at risk, save huge loads of cash for the Pentagon. And that arguably makes us less safe, more prone to dangerous, costly adventures.
Yes, we have a "free rider" issue. The U.S. Navy polices the 10,000-mile supply chain upon which China benefits. It keeps the sea-lanes safe for oil transportation. This is good to the extent that we reduce militarization elsewhere. It is bad when Europe, specifically the Cameron government in the U.K., so reduces its military as to be a worthless partner. The Royal Navy is a shell, and for what? So Cameron can please the lords of finance in the City of London?
But what about Iran? What about North Korea? First, why are these our problems alone? Second, they can be dealt with, in extreme circumstances, by a couple of Minuteman ICBMs or one missile from an Ohio-class submarine. The scandal of endless war is the real threat to America.