The Skeptics

Conservatives for Empire

The U.S. government is effectively bankrupt. Angry citizens in the Tea Party movement are bypassing traditional politicians. Republican Party apparatchiks are scrambling to turn popular frustration to their advantage.

The conservative movement also is in flux. Some pundits identified with the Right, such as David Frum and Ross Douthat, have advocated that conservatives become “liberals lite,” abandoning their commitment to limited government and learning to live with the expensive, expansive and intrusive welfare state.

Most traditional conservative leaders have rejected this advice, choosing instead to support the conservative verities of fiscal responsibility and individual liberty. But many of the same people have joined Frum in advocating continuation of America’s essentially imperial foreign policy. They would replace traditional conservative views of foreign policy and executive power with Wilsonian warmongering.

The most recent example of conservatives promoting an essentially liberal foreign policy is the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, and Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Feulner. They wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “It is unrealistic to imagine a return to long-term prosperity if we face instability around the globe because of a hollowed-out U.S. military lacking the size and strength to defend American interests around the world.”

There is no more basic responsibility for the national government than defense. But when it speaks of “the common defense,” the Constitution means America. The nation’s founders never imagined their country as an international governess, subsidizing wealthy allies, hectoring presumed friends, bombing unfriendly critics, remaking failed societies and creating endless enemies.

Indeed, today the military does almost everything except defend the United States. On September 11, 2001, America’s Department of “Defense” proved unable to safeguard Americans. As a result, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security.

There should be no doubt as to the cost of America’s expansive foreign policy. First is the Pentagon budget—in essence, military spending is the price of our foreign policy. Kristol, Brooks and Feulner play a shell game by focusing on GDP percentages rather than actual outlays. In real terms, the GDP today is more than twelve times as large as in 1940 and seven times as large as in 1950. Thus, spending 1 percent of GDP on the military today means providing twelve times as much money as spending 1 percent in 1940, and seven times as much money as spending 1 percent in 1950. Military outlays should reflect the threats facing America, not America’s economic wealth.

In fiscal year 2011 the U.S. will spend about $740 billion on the military, more than $550 billion on “normal” military expenditures. Although Defense Secretary Robert Gates is looking for economies in defense outlays, he still expects total military spending to rise in real terms. In constant dollars, military outlays have more than doubled over the last decade. Strip out war expenses, and real expenditures are still up 1.8 times. Yet the Weekly Standard complains that we are “skimping on our defense budgets” and signaling “weakness to friends and enemies alike.”

Even more astonishing, current outlays are greater than Washington spent at any point during the Cold, Korean and Vietnam Wars. We are supposed to believe that America is at greater risk today than when aggressive, totalitarian communist dictatorships ruled the Soviet Union and China, America’s allies were still recovering from devastating conflicts and proxy wars raged in the Third World.

Today, hegemonic communism has disappeared. Even supposedly resurgent Russia is a shadow of the former Soviet Union. Moscow’s old allies have joined the European Union and NATO. The European Union spends upwards of five times as much as Russia on the military, and has a more-than-ten-fold economic and three-fold population advantage.

Maoism has disappeared from China, which has much at stake in a stable economic order. Japan’s economy is as large as that of China, and Tokyo, despite decades of anemic defense spending, nevertheless has created a potent, if limited, military. South Korea enjoys an economic advantage over the North as large as forty to one. Most of the other East Asian nations are growing and wary of Beijing’s ambitions.

The United States is allied with every major industrialized power, save China and Russia. The U.S. Navy is as large as the next thirteen navies combined, eleven of which are from allied states. America retains its geographic advantage of peaceful neighbors to the north and south, and oceans to the east and west. In contrast, the People’s Republic of China, Russia and India all face far harsher security environments.

In this world against what must the United States defend itself?

Moscow can beat up on a small neighboring nation like Georgia, but has no capacity to threaten America or conquer Europe. China might become the next peer competitor to America, but that is long in the future. This supposedly dangerous competitor possesses a small intercontinental-ballistic-missile force and no aircraft carriers. Its military spending is a fraction of America’s.

India is another potential great power, but has little cause to be hostile to the United States. And Delhi shares an interest with Washington in constraining Beijing.

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