The Danger of War without Sacrifice
“Hold on,” you say—“doesn’t the United States spend a huge amount of money on defense every year? How can we say that Americans don’t have to pay anything to use force overseas? Aren’t cruise missiles expensive?” It is true that the American defense establishment costs a lot. In 2015, the United States spent about $600 billion on defense, which was more than the next seven biggest spenders combined. Relative to the size of the American economy, however (nearly $18 trillion in 2015), this is not a large figure—a little more than 3% of annual GDP. In the early Cold War period, the United States routinely spent nearly 10% of GDP on defense annually. By contrast, the United States spent about 16.4% of its GDP on healthcare last year. In other words, the baseline cost of the U.S. defense establishment might seem high in absolute terms but is quite modest compared with historical trends.
Most importantly, the operating costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have generally circumvented normal budgeting procedures: much of the operating expenses for these wars came from special supplementary budget requests. Americans did not have to shoulder these additional costs through tax increases, however; instead, at the height of these wars Congress passed major tax cuts at a cost of at least $1.5 trillion (or $2.8 trillion if we include the extensions passed in 2011). To put this in perspective, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to have cost about $1.26 trillion through 2011. Instead of paying for America’s wars of choice with current revenues, policymakers in Washington turned to deficit spending to finance these two wars while handing out tax cuts and passed the bill for these foolish conflicts on to our children and grandchildren.
Why does this matter? These changes in the manner in which the United States conducts its military operations have paralleled the expansion of executive authority over foreign policy. The Obama administration asserted in 2011 that it did not need Congressional approval for the Libya intervention because of the “limited” nature of the operation. Similarly, we have been told that the most recent bombings of Libya in August 2016 are permitted under the authorization for the use of military force passed by Congress in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001. In other words: no oversight is necessary or possible.
It is no accident that the United States has evolved a model for the use of military force that shields Americans from the costs of U.S. action overseas. If the public does not have to pay, why would they bother to protest? This does not imply that there has been a long-running conspiracy to eliminate checks and balances from America’s foreign-policy apparatus. Instead, pressure from an American public unhappy about wars in the Middle East combined with advances in technology and commitment to a liberal interventionist foreign policy pushed successive administrations to develop this standoff strike model of warfare, while the fear of international terrorism allowed Americans to tolerate an overreaching executive branch. When we combine the standoff strike model of warfare with these recent expansions in the scope of executive power, we have a truly frightening foreign-policy machine: a model for the use of force that costs the vast majority of Americans nothing (at least in the short term) and an executive who thinks (s)he is entitled to use force without congressional approval. This is not a recipe for making prudent policy in a democracy, nor does it promise to be an effective long-term strategy for securing the United States’ interests.
Donald Trump may not have sacrificed much, but the vast majority of Americans have not had to make any sacrifices in service of the United States’ wars, either. Ask yourself: what have YOU sacrificed for the war effort? Unless you or someone in your immediate family served in the military in the last fifteen years, the answer is probably “nothing.” The standoff strike model of warfare reflects a desire to shield a war-weary American public from the true costs of the United States’ interventionist foreign policy in exchange for a diminished capacity to coerce target states and a steadily expanding interpretation of the president’s powers. Until and unless something happens to supplant the standoff strike model, the United States is likely to continue to blunder along using cheap force in limited and ineffective ways for the foreseeable future.