Political conservatives routinely assert that they favor substantial reductions in government spending, lower tax rates and more individual responsibility. Fine. Yet most talking-head conservatives go ballistic when anyone suggests that U.S. military spending should be reduced or that the nation no longer can afford to be the worlds policeman.
I maintain small-government conservatism and big-government military spending are inherently contradictory. Simply put, maintaining and expanding a substantial U.S. military presence throughout the world for 60 years has proved incredibly expensive and has inevitably grown the size of government. Major wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention extensive bombing and missile attacks in Yugoslavia and Libya) have all have been associated with significant increases in government spending and an unsustainable national debt.
The Department of Defense spends more than $700 billion annually (fiscal 2010), about 20 percent of federal spending. Even that number substantially understates total taxpayer burdens. Some military spending is hidden in other agencies, such as the Department of Energy and the National Security Agency, while substantial off budget spending is provided by so-called supplemental appropriations. As an example, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone have cost U.S. taxpayers an additional $3 trillion in supplemental dollars and increased debt and interest payments. To provide some perspective, that war cost would have fully funded all Social Security benefits for more than four years.
Aside from the raw cost, much of our military spending is questionable. As an infamous example, the U.S. embassy in Iraq (Fortress Baghdad), which covers 104 acres and includes machine gun emplacements, six apartment buildings, a gym, a swimming pool and assorted commercial shops, cost U.S. taxpayers a staggering three quarters of a billion dollars to construct, let alone maintain. Would anyone care to justify that expense or explain how it contributes to domestic security?
U.S. troops on foreign bases and in foreign wars (international security) absorb an increasing share of all military spending. Less than half of DOD appropriations are associated with defense of the homeland. For instance, the DOD admits to having 716 U.S. military bases on foreign soil in 38 countries. The real numbers are closer to 1,000, since official numbers omit secret bases and espionage bases in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, there are more than 300,000 U.S. troops based in 177 countries and 11 territories. Incredibly, almost six decades after the end of World War II and the Korean War, there are more than 25,000 U.S. military personnel still stationed in South Korea, more than 35,000 in Japan and almost 54,000 in Germany.
The larger policy question is whether the cost of foreign policy contributes on balance to our safety and security. About 36,000 U.S. soldiers were lost in the (undeclared) Korean War; the armistice signed in 1953 divided Korea in the same place it was divided before the war. A staggering 58,000 soldiers (many of them draftees) lost their lives in Vietnam; what conceivable benefit to U.S. security was derived from that massive misadventure? Finally, 6,300 brave U.S. soldiers (men and women) have paid the ultimate price in Iraq and Afghanistan; yet whether that sacrifice abroad has made the nation safer at home is problematic.
Its time for fiscal conservatives to face reality: Our interventionist foreign policy has contributed to our near-bankruptcy. We have a $16 trillion national debt, tax revenue that covers only 60 percent of current expenditures, and an inability to pay our bills without massive borrowing or Federal Reserve money inflation.
Bluntly put, our federal government is broken. Can and should we fund legitimate domestic defense? Of course. But should we continue to pay for so-called wars of opportunity, the subsidization of our prosperous European allies, or nation building in Africa or in the Middle East? No way.
Dominick T. Armentano
Dominick T. Armentano is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and professor emeritus in economics at the University of Hartford (Connecticut). He is the author of Antitrust & Monopoly.
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