Now that we've finally (almost) clarified who would have invaded Iraq and who wouldn't have, it's time for a little perspective. Yes, it's a good thing that elite Republicans are moving toward agreeing with the rest of us that invading Iraq was a mistake, even if they base their argument on the myth of "faulty intelligence." But there's another consensus in Washington, one that says that our military should never be anything short of gargantuan, ready to start more wars whenever a future George W. Bush wants to.
At the end of last week, the House passed a defense authorization bill worth $612 billion, a number that was possible to reach only with some budgetary hocus-pocus involving classifying $89 billion of it as "emergency" spending, thereby avoiding the cuts mandated by sequestration. While the White House has objected to the way the bill moves money around, that $612 billion number is exactly what President Obama asked for. Even the guy who's supposedly trying to weaken America to the point where we can be invaded and conquered by Costa Rica wants to increase military spending.
Let's take a moment to marvel at just what a behemoth our military is. While current levels of spending are down slightly from their recent peak of more than $700 billion in 2011 (when Americans were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan), we still account for about a third of the world's military expenditures. If you happen to peruse the latest Base Structure Report (on the off-chance you haven't yet), you'll read that the Department of Defense occupies a stunning 284,458 buildings around the world, totalling over 2.2 billion square feet. It also controls 24.7 million acres of land, an area about the size of Virginia. The DoD has a presence in all 50 states, 7 U.S. territories, and 40 countries around the world—even before they impose martial law in Texas.
And with the exception of Bernie Sanders, all the presidential candidates, Democrat and Republican, want our military to be as big as it is or bigger. While Hillary Clinton hasn't yet made any campaign statements about the military budget, she's always been known as among the most hawkish of Democrats, so it would be shocking if she proposed defense cuts. Even Rand Paul supports an increase in the military budget; the only question among the other Republican candidates is who wants to increase spending the most.
What's most alarming when hearing the Republicans talk is how removed their guiding principles are from reality. "Having a military equal to any threat," said Jeb Bush in a recent speech, "makes it less likely we will have to put our men and women in uniform in harm's way. I believe that weakness invites war." That seems to make some sense, until you stop and think about it for a moment. Can you name me the war the United States had to fight because our military wasn't big enough? Iraq? Afghanistan? Panama? Grenada? Vietnam? We start wars when we want to, and nobody in this world is going to wage war on the global hegemon because they think our defense budget is so small they can defeat us bullet-for-bullet.
Or let's look at Marco Rubio, who has been selling himself as the heir to the Bush Doctrine, and recently proposed a 2016 military budget of $661 billion. As Rubio's website says (on a page entitled "Nothing matters if we aren't safe"), "The world has never been more dangerous than it is today," an assertion that is not merely false, it's downright bizarre. Is the world more dangerous than it was in 1941, when Japan attacked the United States and the Nazis were marching across Europe, in a war that ultimately killed 60 million people? Or more dangerous than in 1962, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union came within inches of launching a global nuclear war that could have literally extinguished the human species?
Of course not. So let's be honest: We build our military not to deal with threats to us, but to accommodate the myriad ways we'd like to project American power outward. Though we've referred to our military as "defense" since the Department of War was renamed in 1949, almost nothing our military does is about defending the United States from direct attack. If you joined up tomorrow, the chances that you'd be trained and deployed to stop foreign invasion would be almost nil.
You can fervently support every mission we've given the U.S. military in the last few decades and still acknowledge that fact. Yet for some reason, presidential candidates seem to believe that they can only justify the military budgets they want by telling the voters that unless we keep spending more, before you know it your kids will have to pledge allegiance to a poster of Kim Jong Un.
So how about some honesty for a change? We spend so much on our military not because that's what we need to avoid war, but because that's what we need to wage war. Whether you think any one of those wars is right or wrong, it's what we do. It's what we've done before, and it's what we're going to do again.
About the Author
Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.