Empire or Republic?

Empire or Republic?

Imagine the benefits if we could make significant cutbacks in military spending.


This piece is excerpted from Robert Scheer’s latest book, The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America .

War doesn’t pay, nor does imperial ambition. This proposition should be evident to anyone who has paid attention to the fivefold increase in the price of oil since George W. Bush took office. The principle of nonintervention is neither liberal nor conservative in orientation, and at the inception of the Republic it was accepted as a commonsense.

The dominant assumption of our nation’s founders was to avoid “foreign entanglements,” to use Thomas Jefferson’s words of warning. Indeed, the policy of nonintervention was considered by the founders as a basic demarcation between the politics of the Old and New Worlds. Explaining in his farewell address why he, as our first President, followed “our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world,” George Washington cautioned his countrymen to “moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”

What has happened to the American people that these modest yet profound sentiments seem so foreign to the tongues of our politicians and the ears of their constituents? Who among our top leaders, Democrat or Republican, dares warn against the “impostures of pretended patriotism”?

As Washington warned, it is extremely difficult to unmask “pretended patriotism” when the nation is frightened by enemies real and imagined. But Washington could not have anticipated the sort of mass media society in which government propaganda becomes compelling and inconvenient truths are concealed behind the veil of national security. He certainly did not anticipate the modern militarized state, in which a permanent war footing has been the norm since the onset of the cold war.

For these reasons, Washington’s concerns needed the updating provided by our other great general turned President, Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike’s farewell address provides a perfect bookend to Washington’s, for it marks a modern President’s recognition that the fears of our first President had been realized. The Empire had come to replace the Republic. The “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower warned against was merely the logical extension of a stark policy of American intervention into the affairs of nations on every continent and the imperial reach of forward military bases throughout the world. What alarmed Eisenhower most was that the system that had grown up to counter communism (something he saw as a real threat) was self-perpetuating and disconnected from the defensive tasks at hand. Eisenhower predicted exactly what has come to pass. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the rationale for the cold war, the military-industrial complex soon found another enemy: terrorism.

The disconnect between the arsenal of the terrorist enemy and that arrayed against it in the post-9/11 years affirms Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex’s “unwarranted influence.” One wonders how lobbyists and politicians maintain a straight face as they argue, as Senator Joe Lieberman has, for $2.5 billion submarines to fight terrorists who lack even a dinghy. I don’t doubt that the lobbyists will continue to make their case and that the money spent toward that end will secure political and pundit support, but the gambit is wearing thin. So too is the effort to manufacture crises with “rogue nations” and to exaggerate the cohesion and power of the “terrorist” enemy.

The US military budget is roughly equal to those of all other nations combined, and it is inconceivable that any hostile state could emerge in the next twenty years to match the United States in a combat zone, even if no new weapons are added to the US arsenal. Indeed, our major rivals, China and Russia, are moving deeper into the fray of commercial markets rather than the theater of war games.

The benefits of a substantial cut in military spending would be dramatic, freeing government funds for other purposes, including health and education programs that would make the nation stronger. Neither party wants to raise taxes, and as a result, existing and new programs must compete for a fixed pool of tax dollars. Government funds are further limited because mandatory expenditures, like Social Security and Medicare, will not be cut, for fear of voter resentment. For these reasons, the full range of nonmandated programs, from farm subsidies to children’s health insurance to medical research, are competing with the military budget.

Therefore, after mandated programs are funded, the military consumes roughly six out of ten dollars. As a consequence, increases in domestic spending must be funded by cutbacks in military spending. That is the most honest way to judge the opportunity cost of the military dollar, as in, two unneeded submarines versus health insurance for 4 million kids.

There is, however, a greater cost to having a huge permanent military: the vitality of our democracy. As we saw in the run-up to the Iraq War, the fearmongers who seek an expanded military are not above using their enormous lobbying power to influence the debate. The public will not support the military unless it feels its activities are connected with a real threat, so the military and its suppliers and other allies have to exaggerate that threat. Such is the risk of “the total influence–economic, political, even spiritual” of the military-industrial complex, which Eisenhower warned is “felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the federal government.” It is a built-in and well-financed constituency that stresses the military option over the diplomatic one, that exaggerates the strength of the enemy rather than realistically appraises it and that desperately finds new wars to be fought.

What is going on in our name is irrational, costly and dangerous, but there are powerful vested interests that want to keep it that way. Those interests remain so strong that neither Barack Obama nor John McCain has called for cutting a military budget that is the largest since World War II. But without such cuts all the campaign promises about funding domestic programs, from education to healthcare, are an obvious fraud.

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