Two years ago, Joe Biden’s agenda signaled that the Democratic Party wing of our governing class was finally ready to face the long-accumulating economic, political, and social crises facing the country. It was never going to be easy. The costs of transition to a secure and prosperous future are enormous—and it is a task of decades.
In his first year in office, Biden took some important steps: investments in infrastructure, technology, clean energy, social programs, and workforce diversity. He withdrew us from the quagmire in Afghanistan, forswore regime change, and promised a foreign policy for the middle class. A year later, we Americans can kiss tomorrow goodbye.
With bipartisan support from establishment politicians, plutocrats, and pundits, Biden has now committed us to a four-front global crusade against Russia, China, Iran, and a continually shifting terrorist hit list.
None of these “enemies” threaten the survival or well-being of Americans. And the record of the United States in coddling dictators and torturers, violating international law, and invading other countries mocks the claim that we are fighting for universal human values.
The core conflict in each theater of war is over the United States’ control of other nations’ geographic alliances. US armed forces are present in 750 bases in 80 countries. Analysts on both the left and the right concluded long ago that this “superb” military is bloated, inefficient, and overpriced. The war machine budget just for 2024 is $842 billion. Add the money for homeland security, the State Department, and the proposed budget for veterans’ benefits, and you reach a national security tab of over $1.3 trillion. Lots of money for a military that hasn’t won a serious war since 1945.
And at little political price. By abolishing the draft in 1973, Richard Nixon virtually wiped out the anti-war movement. A decade later, Ronald Reagan showed politicians how they could borrow money from the rest of the world to finance the military, muffle domestic discontent, and cut taxes while still calling themselves “fiscal conservatives.” Because the dollars we print were in demand as the world’s reserve currency, we wouldn’t have to pay them back.
So long as these forever wars were limited to distant places most Americans couldn’t find on a map, and Pentagon contracts were deftly allocated among congressional districts, it was all politically manageable. Protected by distance and dollars, Americans could root for Team America on their infotainment channels. Insulated from their constituents, politicians could play and profit from the “great game” of global geopolitics.
But this new Cold War is rapidly raising the stakes. The adversaries are formidable, and the conflicts will be much harder to exit.
We have already reached the limits of our productive capacity supplying weapons to Ukraine. Ukraine has used up a 13-year supply of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and a five-year supply of Javelin anti-tank missiles. The US produces 14,000 155-mm artillery shells a month; Ukraine burns through that much in two days. Neither we nor our NATO allies can deliver what Ukraine needs for the “victory” we are promising it.
At the same time, Washington is openly preparing for a war with China over Taiwan. War game simulations have shown that we would run out of long-range naval missiles a week after the shooting started. The Air Force is short 1,650 pilots; the Navy says it needs several hundred new warships; and the Army plans to reduce its troop count by 10,000 because it can’t get enough recruits. Biden has pledged to make Taiwan a “porcupine” of missiles aimed at China. Yet we have a $19 billion backlog in weapons previously promised to Taipei.
The long-term, cost-plus contracts are cascading out of the Pentagon in a corporate feeding frenzy. The defense sector is bidding up the price of technical talent and essential components. One casualty will be Biden’s CHIPS Act, meant to increase our competitiveness by subsidizing the semiconductor industry. He is locking the military-industrial com-
plex into a booming market whose principal customer doesn’t care much about the price. The new cutting-edge technologies will inevitably go into supersecret weapons, not competitive products for commercial markets.
Not to worry, say the pundits: The US can afford it all. The national security budget is only 3 to 5 percent of our GDP. Even if it doubles, so what? But abstract accounting is not the right measure of whether we have enough financial and political capital for both war and the metastasizing problems at home.
As he escalated the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson also assured us that we could have “guns and butter.” Later, a broken and bitter Johnson told his biographer that “that bitch of a war” had killed the Great Society.
Today, our 15 percent share of global GDP is slightly less than China’s. Two-thirds of the world’s countries trade more with China than with the US. We run chronic trade and fiscal deficits. The dollar still dominates but has slipped from 70 to 60 percent of global reserves in the past 20 years. And our aggressive confiscation of a growing list of foreigners’ assets is making investors nervous.
Our political capital has shrunk even more. The share of Americans who trust that their government will mostly do the right thing fell from almost 80 percent in the early 1960s to 20 percent today. And the once conservative Republican Party has become a wrecking ball of nihilism. Reflecting this, the president’s latest budget proposal is visionless and defensive: cutting the federal deficit while asking to protect—not expand—domestic programs with a dead-on-arrival tax increase on the rich.
Biden opened his global crusade against Russia by promising the world that Americans would sacrifice for others: “America stands up to bullies…. This is who we are.” Rather, this is who we say we are. Public support for our Ukraine adventure seems to be following the pattern of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan: an initial rush of jingoistic flag-waving and outrage at the enemy, then second thoughts. Support for sending weapons to Ukraine declined from 60 percent last May to 48 percent in January. A majority oppose sending troops—some of whom are already there as “inspectors.”
The new Cold War will further feed the militarism that has pervaded our political culture with increased government surveillance, weapons of war for local police departments, and the AK-47 as a sacred civilian icon. In a 2021 poll, 40 percent of Americans said they would accept a military coup. Charges that war skeptics are disloyal have begun to permeate the mainstream media; a whiff of McCarthyism is in the air.
The main opposition to Biden’s Ukraine policy is from the radical right and will disappear if the GOP wins in 2024. Left Democrats talk wistfully of “diplomacy.” But since Biden is currently their only prospect for 2024, Democrats who disagree with him have shut up.
If their agenda has any chance of being revived, progressives will have to build on the public’s “second thoughts,” challenging the bipartisan war party over where America is headed.
The dogs of war may be unleashed “over there,” but they will feed here at home. And devour our future.