The Case For a Military Too Small for Obama (Or Any President) To Abuse

If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If politicians have a whole bunch of Tomahawk missiles, they look for places to put craters.

Duck SoupDuck SoupAn old saying has it that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It's probably fair to say that when you have a honking huge military machine, everything looks like...Kosovo? Iraq? Afghanistan? Libya? Syria? Well, a handy target for some expensive ordnance, anyway. If you want everything to stop looking nail-ish, it's a good idea to put that hammer away. And if we want Syria—let alone the next target of opportunity—to stop looking like the latest good place for the U.S. to install new craters, we probably need to reduce our military's ability to reach around the world at will.

Over the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, acccording to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, annual U.S. military expenditures rose, in constant 2010 dollars, from roughly $385 billion to $690 billion, and from three percent of GDP to 4.8 percent. SIPRI's definition of such expenditures is more inclusive than some governments use, and so perhaps a tad more eye-popping (and honest) than most officials like, since they tend to emphasize "defense budgets" and downplay military aid and the often off-budget costs of actual operations. That means other numbers float around out there, military spending-wise, but these are good numbers with which to start and they can be compared across nations.

And what a comparison!

World military expendituresStockholm International Peace Research InstituteIn 2012, the United States was responsible for 39 percent of the world's total military expenditures (PDF). That's actually down a hair, percent-wise, since the fall of the Soviet Union left the U.S responsible for more than 40 percent of world military expenditures. Hey, somebody had to fill the vacuum. But it's still more than the next 10 countries combined.

That kind of spending on guns, planes, missiles, ships and troops buys a huge can of whup-ass, and the U.S. hasn't been reluctant to use it. Granted, 9/11 called for some sort of response against Al Qaeda and its Taliban protectors, so we invaded Afghanistan. Then we invaded Iraq because... Well, apparently because...elusive weapons of mass destruction? Supposed sponsorship of terrorism? General dislike of the local tyrant? Take your pick.

Eight years later, even the Iraqi puppet government we'd installed had tired of its uninvited guests. It denied legal immunity to the remaining troops, effectively closing the door on the occupation, though only after the deaths of 4,804 coalition (mostly American) troops and a heartbreaking number of Iraqis, though the actual number may never be known.

Troops remain in Afghanistan, though the Taliban government that sheltered Al Qaeda has long since been replaced with something predictably corrupt, though less threatening to the American people than its predecessor. Coalition forces there have lost 3,371 lives (and counting), about two-thirds of which are American. Civilian casualties in that country rank in the thousands, both from insurgents and from occupation forces.

Iraq and Afghanistan have occupied most of the public's attention, military action-wise, over the past decade—logically enough, since they've been the primary sources of Americans in body bags—but U.S. military might has had its lethal way elsewhere, too. Notably, American forces, largely in the form of Tomahawk missiles, participated in an international effort to replace Libya's lunatic dictator with whatever is going on in that country now.

In these image-sensitive days, much U.S. military action is carried out by killer robots raining death from the skies. Fewer body bags come home that way, though there are plenty on the receiving end. Columbia University's Human Rights Clinic estimates that up to 155 Pakistani civilians (PDF) were killed by drones in 2011 alone. CIA drones reportedly stick around after the first hit to blow up whoever shows up to help.

Lee tankU.S. ArmyAside from chasing the Taliban and its Al Qaeda buddies out of Afghanistan, sort of, it's difficult to see what the U.S. has gained from all of this invading, shooting and detonating. Well, other than a percentage of the world's population phobic about buzzing noises in the sky, ever-more unkind thoughts about the United States, and a huge burden on U.S. taxpayers who foot the bill for these bloody adventures, that is.

Those costs, in lives and money, will only go up with any action against Syria. Americans seem to know that, because poll after poll overwhelmingly shows public opposition to military action in that country.

But all of these military incursions are possible only because an enormous military apparatus begs to be used by the sort of people—politicians—who aren't known for self-restraint. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said to then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

You don't have to be a pacifist—in fact, you can still support a perfectly potent defensive capability—to believe that scaling back the military apparatus to something less expensive, dangerous and tempting might be a wise idea. We could probably get by with 10 or 15 percent of the world's total military budget, and still be fully able to clobber anybody who picked a fight wiith us.

There are no guarantees. The elected and appointed political leaders of this country have proven themselves entirely competent to extract the worst possible outcomes from any circumstances. But without such an enormous hammer, the world's trouble spots might look to them a bit less like nails.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • CE||

    Easy -- just don't renew the Army's Constitutionally mandated 2-year funding limit when it runs out. Go back to the state militias (National Guard now, but under state control, like in Texas) as the main defensive threat against ground invasion. Leave an Army Reserve command structure in place for emergencies. Downsize the Navy and Air Force and bring them back to defend the US homeland. Abolish the unconstitutional Selective Service registration. Impeach the current president for bombing Libya without authorization, as a warning to future presidents. Your credibility is on the line if you don't.

  • bassjoe||

    It's interesting to think about what the drafters of that clause we're thinking when they put in 2-year funding limits. Most likely some grand debate in the Houses of Congress on the use of the military, whether the war the drafters likely presumed we would be fighting was worth the cost, etc.

    Instead, 95% of the American people don't even know that particular clause exists, and likely 75% of our own Congresspeople don't. Army funding is approved and a simple vague one liner referring to the clause is inserted at the top of the bill.

  • wwhorton||

    The only reason you need a military as large and advanced as our own is if you intend to maintain operational capability in multiple theaters for extended periods of time. Which we do. I forget the exact name of the document, but DoD puts out a whitepaper that essentially outlines the general strategic objectives around which budget requests will be made. Last one I saw was about three years ago, and wanted the ability to maintain active military presences in at least two separate theaters along with the capability to initiate a third, while retaining enough resources in reserve to respond to two or three lower-intensity threats. That's not a defensive force in any meaningful sense of the word, that's a global army of occupation, frankly.

  • Floridian||

    Yup. My dad is career army and lamented that if you cut the budget we couldn't fight a global war in two hemispheres at the same time. Well the USA is the only front a defensive military should care about.

  • Mickey Rat||

    You may take note of the fact that the US is in two hemispheres.

  • ClosetClausewitz||

    I think you are referring to either the National Military Strategy (NMS) or the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The former is usually more closely tied to acquisitions.

  • ||

    The nation of Others is in second place with 18%! The US cannot stand for this challenge of its authority.

    We have always been at war with Others.

  • bassjoe||

    It would be interesting to see what percentage our post 9/11 "enemies" spent/spend on military.

    If Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya and Syria made 2% of total expenditures in 2001, I'd be shocked.

  • Entropy Void||

    Nice WWII vintage tank you have there ... be a shame if sumpin 'appened to it ...

  • JWatts||

    No, actually that was a crappy WW2 vintage tank. And bad things happened to it just about everywhere it went.

  • seguin||

    When the British used it at Gazala, it was the one of the very few tanks they had that could engage German armor at range - it outranged the Pak50s and PzIIIs they had in the field, and it was pretty darn effective if they kept at arm's length. It was still archaic even when it was new though - it just had one redeeming feature (the 75mm).

  • Drake||

    Until the Germans figured out what happens when they point an 88 at it...

  • seguin||

    Pretty much.

  • seguin||

    Argh, not Pak50. Pak36, a 37mm gun.

  • wxman40||

    The problem with that 75 was that it was bow mounted, basically making it more of a tank destroyer with a rather limited field of fire than a turreted weapon. Which was OK if you were facing the right way to the avenue of attack but Rommel had the nasty habit of not using frontal assaults.

  • Entropy Void||

    So you prefer the Grant or the Lee , Appomattox notwithstanding?

  • wxman40||

    Kind of like the Churchill tanks the Russians used at Kursk. Really bad things.

  • Ted Levy||

    "An old saying has it that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It's probably fair to say that when you have a honking huge military machine, everything looks like...Kosovo? Iraq? Afghanistan? Libya? Syria?..."

    HITLER!!

  • ClosetClausewitz||

    If you want to right-size the U.S. Military, that would mean we would actually need to decide on clear and consistent policy goals, that would lead to a coherent National Security Strategy (NSS), which would in turn inform a coherent Nation Military Strategy (NMS). Strategy, by the military's own definition, is the balancing of ends, ways, means, and risk to achieve policy objectives. Of course, I, and just about everyone else who has read these documents (publicly available on line) will tell you that there is no strategy in them, nor has there been one since the Soviet Union Collapsed. Note I say no strategy, not a bad strategy. Without that fundamental bedrock of planning, any discussion about force size and composition is about as realistic as playing Dungeons and Dragons... perhaps less so.

  • Drake||

    Yep - saw some of it first hand. I got out of my National Guard unit as they were taking away our tanks and remaking the unit into glorified MP's (RSTA).

    It wasn't because somebody decided armor wasn't needed against future threats. It was money and (as it turned out) a need for warm bodies too guard an Iraqi prison for a year.

    They are in a purely reactive mode with no objective.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    A proper size is ZERO. Who is going to invade us? Even if you think the Mexican border needs to be impermeable, police can do that without being militarized. Nuclear strike from Russia or China? China owns so much treasury bonds and has so much trade they'd be fools to hit us for no reason. Russia would lose its favorite whipping boy for drumming up public support. Iran? The Taliban or al Qaeda? They only hate us because we beat up on them so much.

    I had a great time in the navy, floating around the Pacific and watching flight ops and flying fish and unreps. But I never thought I was doing anything other than getting paid (meagerly) for having a great time.

  • ClosetClausewitz||

    Scarecrow Repair, that is more strategy than you will find in the NSS or NMS.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    A complement to treasure coming from someone with that name :-)

  • setTHEline||

    What like it's Obama's fault that Syria is practically begging to be a smoking crater? Get over it, it's time to spread some freedom!

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    And yet somehow China has many more men in uniform than the US. Absolute expenditures don't tell the whole story, nor are the China numbers exceptionally reliable. We want an all volunteer force and we pay for it. Many other countries have mandatory national service or an explicit draft. Go back to that and I guarantee you can save a lot of cost. Somehow that's not what the author was thinking though.

    Yes we can save on defense spending. I'm not claiming otherwise, but this particular argument is as misleading as the arguments in favor of single payer health care (beyond the already single payer monstrosities of Medicaid/Medicare). At least defense spending is actually explicitly included in the Constitution and not the other welfare bloat that is really blowing up the budget.

  • radical centrist blogger||

    you nitwit kids and your ignorant schemes. One unspoken assumption of this article --and indeed of this entire site-- is that americans have some sort of voice or input into the really important aspects of how america is run.

    We do not.

    And in fact if you were half as smart and educated as you think you are you would know that the federal governmental structure was designed to prevent the majority from controlling the govt. That is the written, stated foundational principle of the type of governmental structure of the american govt, as expressed by the founding plutocrats in the seminal documents associated with the creation of the current federal govt over 200 ago.

    So all these articles on this site and other sites etc about how 'we ought to do this' and 'we ought to do that' are much the same as cattle arguing that slaughterhouses need to be outlawed.

    Let me put it this way: the military of america operates at the behest of Capital. You aint Capital. So you got no input.

    Is that crystal?

    Now shaddup.

  • setTHEline||

    Yeah good point, I suppose we should just roll over and die now yeah? Oh and I'm not sure the federal government is supposed to be ruled by the majority (maybe you meant people as opposed to ruling elite?). That's the point of each state having two senators, regardless of population. Get it? Majority rule is called democracy. We belong to a constitutional republic. That's not to say it's functional, obviously. What I'm getting at is that you're not as smart and educated as you think you are.

  • radical centrist blogger||

    it's almost like you twerps are some kind of mindless robot. Or perhaps a more apt comparison is that you are like some kind of zombified insect that has been parasitized by a parasite insect, which parasitization involves use of of some behavior-modifying molecules that cause the victim to react in certain ways to certain stimuli. The societal institutions fill your empty little head with propaganda and in return you wander about the internet regurgitating it.

    fascinating and yet sad....

  • setTHEline||

    What a confused analogy. Not surprising considering your general confusion. By the way, you should pick a more descriptive name. I wish I knew if you blogged, and what your blog was about! As far as robots go, you got me.
    01001011011010010111001101110011
    01001101011110010000110100001010
    011000010111001101110011

  • mtrueman||

    "So you got no input."

    Not quite true. Americans still have the option of misbehaving. A few broken windows, a few shattered kneecaps still get the attention of their betters. Those posting on this site however treat the misbehavers with far more contempt than the politicians or their parasites.

  • Redmanfms||

    A few broken windows, a few shattered kneecaps still get the attention of their betters.

    Yeah just what we need, a mob-violence fueled reenactment of the French Revolution.

    If OWS and the anti-trade hissy fits are any indication, the "attention" is a few riot cops.

    Those posting on this site however treat the misbehavers with far more contempt than the politicians or their parasites.

    Probably because the windows that get broken and the kneecaps that get shattered in the hissy fits never belong to the people who've actually done anything wrong, even by the protestors' fucked up calculus. Never mind the fact that these guys are usually calling for more government tyranny, just directed the way they want.

    More tedious mendacious twat being tedious and mendacious. And a twat.

  • mtrueman||

    You underestimate the power of fear. A politician who doesn't fear you doesn't respect you.

    "even by the protestors' fucked up calculus"

    But I'm not talking about protesting, which is no more effective than voting. I'm talking about direct action. Terror, as well as non-violent actions can mobilize large numbers. As long as people like you want to confine their opposition to actions the state deems legal, then little will be accomplished. I understand when you see someone battling with police, your sympathies are with the police. That's still pretty typical, I suppose.

  • Redmanfms||

    Terror, as well as non-violent actions can mobilize large numbers.

    And this unequivocally shows you have literally zero understanding of libertarians, despite trolling this site for quite some time.

    Also, this is no such thing as "non-violent" direct action. It is by definition violent.

    I understand when you see someone battling with police, your sympathies are with the police.

    Holy fucking shit, have you never read any of the many weekly nutpunch violent cop threads here?

    See above, you know nothing.

    You really are a vile piece of shit. You aren't just mendacious, you're fucking evil.

  • Quatloo||

    I think at this point a retreat to fortress USA is not feasible; we are the center of the spider web of global trade. But a posture similar to turn of the 19-20 Century Britain would not be unreasonable: US Navy guarding sea born international trade routes. If we ever need a huge army, we could evolve one, like we did in WW 2. The CIA did a better job when they were raised up for the purpose in WW 2. (The OSS, I know.) We do need to maintain a technological lead on our potential rivals. So building a few modern submarines, and some jet fighters. But the days of picking up a 70 ton tank, and moving it halfway around the globe should come to an end. (This is what MacArthur was speaking of, and so nicely referred to in "The Princess' Bride, about never getting involved in a land war in Asia.)

  • ClosetClausewitz||

    Quatloo, 19th -20th century Britain's "splendid isolation" is somewhat appealing, until one realizes that they were constantly engaging in military actions around the globe. Of course, the British had a strategy during the latter 19th century (police the empire, stay out of European Wars) and devised a military to carry it out. We lack a strategy, but we keep trying to add capabilities that we think would be "good to have". Has for the CIA/OSS, they manage to get good press, but were pretty ineffective overall; I suggest reading Legacy of Ashes.

    As far as a technological lead, that has been the U.S. tendancy since WWII, and it has gotten prohibitively expensive. Witness the JSF debacle, whcih may not actually be better than peer aircraft, but will certainly beggar us. To maintain a real military superiority, you need a well-trained force with good commanders who are then equipped, not a host of equipment that we seek to man.

  • rudedog4||

    The actual quote is "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." Abraham Maslow
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_the_instrument

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement