Costs of Empire

February 04, 1999

Mark Weisbrot
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, February 4, 1999

Is $1000 for every American– including children and babies– enough to cover the defense of the United States? Apparently not, if President Clinton and the Congressional leadership– at the behest of the nation’s largest military contractors– have their way.

President Clinton’s budget proposes an additional $112 billion for the military over the next 6 years. Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are still buying weapons systems that were designed to counter the next generation of Soviet weaponry. The majority of our federal discretionary spending over the next decade– that is, tax dollars that aren’t automatically allocated to mandatory entitlement programs like Social Security or Medicare, or interest on the debt– will go to the military.

Our leaders have scoured the globe for enemies that they can use to justify these massive expenditures. But the best prospects that they can find– Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria– spend a combined total of about $14 billion on their militaries, or about 5% of what we spend. None of these countries could harm us even if they were foolish enough to try. Even China spends only about a tenth as much as we do. And the Russian military has enough problems just feeding its troops.

But for all the rhetoric from conservatives about the excesses of big government, and their politically suicidal hatred of the President, this is one place where partisan wrangling subsides. The “world’s largest, most costly, most wasteful bureaucracy,” as Bob Borosage has aptly described it, needs more money thrown at it.

A fifth of America’s children are raised in poverty, by far the worst such incidence in the developed world, and we have 43 million people without health insurance. Under such circumstances it is indeed a national disgrace to place the interests of a handful of military contractors at the top of our national priorities.

But there are other costs to this folly as well. We have already damaged the prospects of the START 2 treaty for reducing nuclear weapons, by unnecessarily expanding NATO, causing the Russians to postpone their consideration of the treaty after it was already approved by the U.S. Senate. The Russian parliament pushed the treaty aside once again in response to President Clinton’s bombing of Iraq in December. Now the chances of ratification, which would require Russia to reduce by one half the number of nuclear warheads aimed at us, are falling again, thanks to the Clinton administration’s proposal to spend $6.6 billion on an anti-missile system. This would violate our 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with them.

And then there is the rest of the world. Should the United States police it? Most Americans would find this no more appealing than breaking up fights in local bars, especially when you have neither the authority nor the good reputation as an honest referee. On the international scene, we have half a century to our name of supporting dictators, tyrants, and mass murders everywhere from Indonesia to Chile. There is always hope that our foreign policy will change for the better now that the Cold War is history, but until it does, we can’t really expect the rest of the world to trust the U.S. as a global cop.

Unfortunately, there has been an implicit understanding for decades among the U.S., Europe, and Japan, that assigns exactly this role to the United States. In return, our leaders get to control the International Monetary Fund and World Bank– which set economic policy for most of the world’s nations– as well as the UN Security Council and other international bodies. For the American elite, this is a great deal: they get the arms contracts, including a swelling export industry, as well as the power to bring down the government of almost any poor country that does not bend to the will of U.S. multinational corporations and banks.

But the spoils of empire do not trickle down. Quite the opposite, in fact: the economic destruction brought on by the IMF and U.S. Treasury’s policies in Asia, Russia, and now Brazil are swelling our trade deficit. Tens of thousands of workers, especially in hard-hit industries like steel and electronics, have lost their jobs to Washington’s global economic mismanagement.

Meanwhile, rumors are circulating in Washington that the President’s lavish military spending is a reward to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for helping him “wag the dog”– that is, supporting his suspiciously-timed bombings of the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory and Iraq. True or not, we can be sure that under the “use it or lose it” principle of weapons procurement, bulking up the military will increase the likelihood of our involvement in reckless military adventures. All the more reason to tell your representative, before this huge package of pork goes barreling through Congress: further bloating of our military won’t make the world a safer place.

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