In 1922, the British Empire held sway over a population of about 458 million people, one-quarter of the world’s population,and covered more than 13,000,000 square miles: approximately a quarter of the Earth’s total land area. By 1956, after the disastrous attempt to hold on to the Suez Canal, the British finally abandoned the last of their imperial pretensions and settled into rebuilding their own country, culture and spirit. By 1964 the world was sharing in the joy of life after empire.
To read the analysis of David Sanger in the New York Times this morning, life in America for our children will be a pinched, pale shadow of itself.
For Mr. Obama and his successors, the effect of those projections is clear: Unless miraculous growth, or miraculous political compromises, creates some unforeseen change over the next decade, there is virtually no room for new domestic initiatives for Mr. Obama or his successors. Beyond that lies the possibility that the United States could begin to suffer the same disease that has afflicted Japan over the past decade. As debt grew more rapidly than income, that country’s influence around the world eroded.
Or, as Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, used to ask before he entered government a year ago, “How long can the world’s biggest borrower remain the world’s biggest power?”
It seems to me the very basis of both Sanger’s and Summer’s assumptions (that the Defense Budget is off limits to cuts) are so flawed and filled with “the conventional wisdom” that we must step back and consider what life in America After Empire might be like. Let’s start with this chart of comparative military spending.
In what way does this have to be the world’s reality? Who named us the unpaid cop of the planet? The fact that this dominance of our discretionary spending by the Pentagon surprises even the military contracting fraternity.
“The defense industry is pleased but bemused,” said Loren Thompson, the chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a policy group financed partly by military contractors. “It’s been telling itself for years that when the Democrats got control it would be bad news for weapons programs. But the spending keeps going on.”
So let’s look at the reality of “discretionary spending. This chart is three years old, but the proportions have not changed.
Of course this chart and the official Pentagon budget of $708 Billion does not tell the whole cost of empire.
By the way, if you were to add up the real “defense” budget, including funds for the Department of Homeland Security, the Energy Department (which handles the U.S. nuclear arsenal), veterans’ care, the State Department’s planned near-billion-dollar expansion of its embassy in Pakistan into a mega-command post for the region and the planned doubling of the number of personnel in its already monstrous embassy in Baghdad for a similar purpose, and many other relevant things, you would be closing in on $1 trillion per year.
What if we took $300 billion from that $1 trillion and financed a “go to the moon” style program to make the U.S. Energy Independent by 2020? Just as the British realized their need “to hold the Suez Canal” was not strategic to their survival, we need to see that garrisoning the globe is a fool’s errand.
According to the Pentagon’s 2008 “Base Structure Report,” its annual unclassified inventory of the real estate it owns or leases around the world, the United States maintains 761 active military “sites” in foreign countries. (That’s the Defense Department’s preferred term, rather than “bases,” although bases are what they are.) Counting domestic military bases and those on US territories, the total is 5,429.
We need to put all of this on the table politically. Just who in Congress has the guts to form a coalition between progressives and libertarians, to really air the cost of empire and to imagine what America could be like once it shed its imperial burdens, is still an open question. But the conversation needs to start now.
Let it start here.