The U.S. Can No Longer Afford Its Empire

U.S. Empire Too ExpensivePresident Obama has presented Congress with a spending request of $3.8 trillion for the next fiscal year in 2011, but with a third of it not paid for with taxes, thus resulting in a $1.3 trillion deficit (a whopping 8.3 percent of GDP).

The small piece of good news is that this deficit is smaller as a portion of the nation’s economic output than this year’s gargantuan 10.6 percent for FY 2010 (that $1.6 trillion deficit is a post-World War II record). Budget deficits of this magnitude have occurred before, but only during cataclysmic wars—the Civil War and World Wars I and II.

Contrary to the rhetoric of congressional Republicans, who are stridently criticizing Obama for his excessive spending, these budget deficits are largely the result of George W. Bush’s new entitlement program (Medicare prescription drug coverage), the usual Republican fake tax cuts (tax cuts without concomitant reductions in government spending), bank and insurance bailouts, and the conduct of two disastrous U.S. occupations of foreign countries. Of course, Obama is far from blameless.

Using the key statistic of deficits as a portion of GDP, when Obama took office during FY 2009, the budget deficit was more than 9 percent of GDP. Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package and bailout of car companies increased an already gaping deficit into the 10.6 percent post-World War II record. The 8.3 percent figure for FY 2001 starts a downward projection but is still much too high. In fact, all budget projections for years out past the current and requested years (in this case, FY 2010 and FY 2011) are usually malarkey, because policy changes are unpredictable in the “out years.”

However, if history is any guide, Obama, a Democrat, over the long term will probably be better on deficits than George W. Bush, a Republican (he couldn’t be much worse). That’s because, according to conservative economist John H. Wood of Wake Forest University, historically, U.S. budget deficits have been closed after a crisis has passed.

Democrat Bill Clinton, with tax increases, cuts in military spending, and robust economic growth, managed to defy predictions for indefinite deficits from the Republican Reagan/Bush Sr. years and turned them into budget surpluses ending with FY 2001, the year he left office. Obama now faces a similar task of cleaning up the fiscal mess from the junior Bush’s eight years.

Obama made his task harder by buying into the flawed Keynesian argument that increased government spending is good for the economy. His stimulus package and car company bailouts just dug the fiscal hole deeper. But now the good news is that he seems to have quit digging and may have turned the corner to smaller deficits as a percentage of GDP. Only time will tell, but the wake-up call of the loss of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in liberal Massachusetts (in addition to dramatically lowering the probability that Obama’s stealth budget-busting health care program will be enacted) may cause Obama to become a “deficit-reduction Democrat,” much like his forebear Clinton.

After the Cold War, Clinton cut the defense budget despite the prosecution of many frivolous small wars that were unneeded for U.S. security. So far, Obama continues to increase military spending while freezing only a small part of non-security spending. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, has prudently said the avoidance of cutting security spending is unacceptable.

And security spending is massive. According to Winslow Wheeler of the Center on Defense Information, the annual U.S. security budget—including spending on the wars, the Defense Department, the Department of Energy nuclear weapons programs, homeland security, veterans compensation, international affairs, non-DoD military retirement payments, and interest on the national debt accounted for by defense programs—is well over $1 trillion per year.

Cuts to such spending should not entail just slashing a few weapon systems—as was done in FY 2010 but not in FY 2011—but need to result from a total reassessment of the non-traditional post-World War II U.S. foreign policy of U.S. militarized interventionism. Such a policy should have been pronounced a failure when it caused the horrendous retaliatory terrorist attacks on 9/11. Instead, the tragedy triggered the initiation of a neoconservative hyper-version of this same foreign policy, the War on Terror (which includes two unneeded and counterproductive occupations of two Muslim countries), which statistics show made the problem of terrorism worse.

ivan-eland.jpgThe Cold War is long over, and the concomitant rationale (dubious even then) for using an interventionist U.S. foreign policy to attempt to run the world is now obsolete and even dangerous in an era of blowback terrorism. Many empires throughout history have collapsed or withered away because their aspirations were too big for their wallets; the U.S. is in that perilous position now. Therefore, the United States should dramatically retract its defense perimeter, thus cutting the U.S. security budget by half and saving more than $500 billion a year. Of course, doing this will not cut even half the annual $1.3 trillion deficit. But it is a start on throwing dirt back in the cavernous budget hole.

Ivan Eland

This article first appeared in The Independent Institute and is republished with permission.

LA Progressive


  1. says

    Eland’s apparent priority – balanced federal budgets – is OK as one long-term goal among others, but not as an overriding principle to which all else must be sacrificed.

    Despite Eland’s misleading glib phrase about ‘flawed Keyenesian argument’, the basic practical insight of Keynes – the potential NET benefit (and actual, if done right) of government spending and pump-priming in a slack economy – has NOT been discredited. Progressives should at least keep that in mind.

    (I do mean NET benefit here: benefit to the whole economy minus impact on federal finance.)

    Eland speaks in vague generalities about a US ’empire’ being ‘unaffordable’ because its ‘defense perimeter’ is too large.
    About ‘interventionist’ US foreign policy, and an ‘attempt to ‘run the world”.

    His lingo will appeal to ideologues in the habit of using these terms as mere epithets or as absolutes, but at some point the rest of us must ask what are the actual realities and feasible alternatives to them.

    For instance, historically some empires – when compared with the feasible alternatives to them – have been quite ‘affordable’ – both for the rulers and the ruled.

    At least one of Eland’s glib terms carries an implication that is very wrong. Near his conclusion Eland implies that we are now in an era of ‘blowback terrorism’.

    The adjective ‘blowback’ implies that the only or most serious terrorism nowadays is just ‘blowback’ – just timely (and perhaps generally justifiable) retribution for something that others do.

    This picture of today’s terrorism, and indeed of violence altogether, is dangerously erroneous (but often convenient for those who believe in non-violent response at all costs). In particular, Islamic jihadist groups and movements have ambitious affirmative ’empire’ goals of their own, regardless of what specific acts or policies the USA or others do or don’t do or adopt from this point onward.

    The jihadists’ wars – in which terror so far has been their preferred or most feasible tactic – is in support of their ambitions, not merely in retribution. Sure, their self-serving rhetoric to outsiders tries whenever possible to portray their acts as justifiable retribution. Claims of such retribution can be and have been used to justify just about any sort of attack and crime, on whatever target e.g. 3000 office workers in the 9/11 attacks.

    Eland claims (on what basis other than Al Qaeda’s self-serving rhetoric?) that the 9/11 attack was basically just ‘retribution’. If he’s right, then just about every crime can thus be explained away.

    Despite Eland’s vague or mistaken claims, I do agree – for more definite and defensible reasons – that over time the present US ‘security’ budget can and should advantageously be drastically cut, with much of the uncut part radically redirected. The cutting and redirection can and must transform jobs and maintain income for affected workers and families.

  2. Timeparticle says

    Excerpts From: Global Research E-Newsletter
    Date: Feb 6, 2010 7:03 AM
    Subject: The Planning of War Behind Closed Doors

    The Planning of War Behind Closed Doors
    Brussels, London, Istanbul: A Week Of Western War Councils

    The defense chiefs of all 28 NATO nations and an undisclosed number of counterparts from non-Alliance partners gathered in Istanbul, Turkey on February 4 to begin two days of meetings focused on the war in Afghanistan, the withdrawal of military forces from Kosovo in the course of transferring control of security operations to the breakaway province’s embryonic army (the Kosovo Security Force) and “the transformation efforts required to best conduct the full range of NATO s agreed missions.”

    Istanbul was the site of the bloc’s 2004 summit which accounted for the largest expansion in its 60-year history – seven new Eastern European nations – and its strengthening military partnerships with thirteen Middle Eastern and African nations under the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.

    The Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe Admiral James Stavridis and the top commander of all U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan – soon to reach over 150,000 – General Stanley McChrystal are also in attendance, as are European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton and United Nations High Representative for Afghanistan Kai Eide as well as the defense and interior ministers of Afghanistan.

    The meetings follow by a week the International Conference on Afghanistan held in London, which in turn occurred the day after two days of meetings of the NATO Military Committee with the Chiefs of Defense of the military bloc’s 28 member states and 35 more from what were described as Troop Contributing Nations; presumably NATO partner nations with troops stationed in the Afghan war theater. In all, the military chiefs of 63 countries.

    The U.S.’s McChrystal was present there also as were Israeli Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi and Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Beforehand the bloc’s website reported that “The various meetings will focus on the progress made in ongoing operations and the New Strategic Concept for NATO.” That 35 top military commanders from non-NATO countries were present to hear plans for the escalation of what is already the largest war in the world is understandable, as their forces are on the ground as part of a 50-nation plus force under NATO military command.

    That the same conference discussed the bloc’s 21st century new global military doctrine – former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright delivered an address on the topic – raises the question of how many of the 35 partner states’ military chiefs may have joined their 28 NATO colleagues for that phase of discussions. That such a high percentage of the world’s leading military commanders attended a two-day affair which deliberated on both the war in South Asia and the expansion of the world’s only military bloc’s activities even further outside the Euro-Atlantic area (when it has already conducted operations in four continents) confirms that the Afghan war serves more than one purpose for the West. It is the laboratory for strengthening military ties with nations on every inhabited continent and for building the nucleus of and foundation for a potential future world army.

    As a recent example, during the second day of the NATO Military Committee meetings in Brussels and the day before the Afghan conference in London, an “international” conference on Yemen was also held in London which “Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for…in response to the failed bomb attack on an airliner over Detroit on December 25.”

    That bears repeating. The apprehension in the U.S. of a Nigerian national alleged to have been trained in Yemen led the head of state of the United Kingdom to summon representatives of the Group of Eight (Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the U.S.), the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Egypt, Jordan – but not the Arab League – Turkey and the European Union, United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund “to bolster Yemen’s fight against al Qaeda….” Soon 50,000 non-American NATO troops will be bogged down in Afghanistan because the bloc invoked its Article 5 collective defense provision in 2001…to fight against al-Qaeda.

    Ever-compliant UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon lent legitimacy to this American and British charade, as he did the following day’s Afghan conference where he delivered a speech in the presence of 28 NATO and perhaps dozens of its International Security Assistance Force non-member states foreign ministers.

    Yemen has joined the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq as a target for Western “assistance and stabilization.” NATO will conduct more planning sessions with scores of military chiefs and defense and foreign ministers and not only for the war in Afghanistan.

    Its new Strategic Concept knows no geographical bounds.

    This isn’t a question about our budget. The powers that be are strategizing everyday on the complexities of gaining global power. It is, and always has been, a basic priority for expansion and power plays. It is nearly out of our hands, as the choices are made for us, behind closed doors, as we struggle to survive and make ends meet during a lasting recession sustained by the powers that be….

  3. says

    With all of the jabbering going on out there about ways to cut spending, only Bernie Sanders of Vermont (God bless him!) has had the common sense to state what should be blatantly obvious: We need to make drastic slashes in military spending.

    “In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of power, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties and democratic processes.”

    Dwight D. Eisenhower
    January 17, 1961

    We could cut our military budget in half and still have enough really cool bombs in our arsenal to destroy the world three times over – and then some. The Cold War is over, folks. Why on earth are we still pissing away our national treasure on these military contractors? Could it possibly be that our very economic survival depends on our stockpiling the entire planet with weapons of mass destruction? That is the question we all should be asking.

    “Blessed are the peacemakers;
    for they shall be called sons of God.”

    Jesus of Nazareth

    Wish I’d said that.

    Tom Degan


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