Conservatives for Empire

Conservatives for Empire

America spends more than anyone on defense, yet faces no existential threats. So what are the likes of Bill Kristol, Arthur Brooks and Ed Feulner afraid of?

Ironically, despite the attempt of neoconservatives to appropriate his legacy, Ronald Reagan led the way toward a responsible conservative foreign policy. He used the military only three times—to retaliate against Libya for its terrorist attack in Berlin, remove the communist government from power in Grenada and intervene in Lebanon. After the attacks on the American embassy and the Marines he recognized the last to have been a terrible mistake, withdrawing rather than launching an attempt at nation building—causing some conservative critics to accuse him of encouraging terrorism.

Even worse was the neoconservative reaction to his commitment to end the Cold War. Many neocons saw him as a dupe. Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz compared Reagan to Jimmy Carter and even Great Britain’s Neville Chamberlain. Podhoretz charged that “appeasement by any other name smells as rank, and the stench of it now pervades the American political atmosphere.” While it’s presumptuous to predict what Ronald Reagan would say about foreign policy today, it is hard to believe that he would be on the side of “conservatives” who advocate endless war.

Today the United States maintains around one thousand military installations of various forms overseas. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are stationed on foreign soil. Most of the U.S. military is configured for offensive action abroad. America may not be a traditional empire, annexing foreign territories and exploiting foreign peoples. But Washington is following an imperial policy. Ultimately, conservatives must choose what matters more: preserving liberties at home or conducting social engineering abroad.

It is no response to argue that domestic entitlements pose the biggest financial threat to America. With a $1.3 trillion deficit, $13.5 trillion national debt, and more than $100 trillion in unfunded Medicare and Social Security liabilities, the United States can’t afford to waste money on anything, especially the defense of populous and prosperous allies.

Moreover, war also creates unfunded liabilities. Today the “defense” budget accounts for roughly one-quarter of U.S. outlays. But that is just current expenditures. Counting expenses for past military operations, such as veterans’ benefits and interest on borrowing for military expenditures, the Friends Committee on National Legislation figures that the military accounts for about 44 percent of current outlays.

One can quibble about specifics, but consider the case of Iraq. That conflict has cost about $740 billion so far. However, total costs are conservatively expected to hit $2 trillion as the government cares for veterans who have lost limbs and suffered serious head injuries. Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes believe the ultimate price of the Bush administration’s folly may end up even higher.

Tea Party activists face an important crossroads. They can adopt the failed Republican model of combining budget-cutting rhetoric with foreign warmongering. Or the movement can maintain a consistent commitment to promote limited government and individual liberty. An imperial foreign policy impoverishes rather than enriches America. Our overriding objective should be to preserve America as a free and prosperous republic.