It is frequently noted that the United States spends more on “defense” than the next seven nations combined. It’s a staggering fact that doesn’t make any strategic or tactical sense. What threats do we face that can be met only by spending more than China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, Britain, and Germany collectively spend to ensure their own security? What have we achieved by spending such gargantuan amounts? The invasion and occupation of Iraq was a colossal failure that destabilized an entire region. The eighteen-year-long war in Afghanistan, the longest in American history, will also end in retreat, if not humiliation. Together those military actions have also been the most expensive in U.S. history. We have spent more on reconstruction in Afghanistan than on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. Yet, in the aftermath of 9/11, there seems to be no end in sight to ever-bigger military budgets and further U.S. military adventurism abroad.
Most of the facts in the paragraph above are drawn from Jessica T. Matthews’s important article “America’s Indefensible Defense Budget” in the July 18 New York Review of Books. Matthews, former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has also served in the State Department and on the National Security Council. Congress is now debating the 2020 defense budget. President Donald Trump has proposed a $750-billion defense budget, an increase of $34 billion over 2019. Trump has increased defense spending by $100 billion since moving into the White House. Democrats in the House just passed a $733-billion defense bill with provisions designed to hamstring Trump’s ability to wage war in Yemen or Iran, or to divert defense spending to border security. It is doubtful that the Republican-controlled Senate will endorse such limitations on presidential power. In any event, as Matthews notes, since 9/11 Democrats have largely gone along with the huge expansion of the Pentagon’s budget. Today’s military budgets now exceed those under the Reagan administration in the 1980s, when the United States was thought to face an existential threat from another superpower.