Paul Waldman

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Why Everyone Wants the Military Budget to Be Bigger

Now that we've finally (almost) clarified who would have invaded Iraq and who wouldn't, 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 over $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 web site 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.

Programming Note

Flickr/Hernán Piñera

We just celebrated our 25th anniversary here at The American Prospect, and I've been writing for the magazine for half that time—my first piece for the Prospect appeared in late 2002, and since then I've written thousands of articles, columns and blog posts. But all things must change, and starting Monday, I will no longer be writing this blog. The good news is that I won't be going away completely—I'll still be doing a weekly column, which will appear every Monday. But if you need a daily fix of whatever I have to offer, you can head over to The Washington Post's Plum Line blog, where I've been writing for the last year or so, and The Week, where I'll now be a near-daily columnist.

Thanks for reading!

Photo of the Day, Another Brick In the Wall Edition

A visitor at an exhibition of artist Nathan Sawaya's Lego sculptures in Paris takes a moment to reflect. Are we all merely collections of interchangeable blocks, formed into temporary coherence only to be disassembled before we slip into the eternal void? Who is real, and who is the simulacrum? Will there be Lego-shaped candy bars in the gift shop? These are the questions we ask ourselves, only to find that the universe is mute, mocking us with its silence.

Now It's Time For Hillary Clinton to Answer Some Questions About the Iraq War

Jeb Bush has now been bludgeoned into submission on Iraq, a development that is remarkable when you step back and look at how quickly the Republican consensus on that topic has changed. Two weeks ago you wouldn't have predicted that most of the Republicans would now say the war should never have been launched, but that's where we've come, mostly because of the eagerness of Bush's opponents to make him squirm. Now that he's come around, it's time for some other people to answer questions about the Iraq War—not just what they should have or would have done in 2002 and 2003, but what they've learned since. And that means Hillary Clinton.

Much as she might enjoy watching Jeb Bush suffer, Clinton is surely none too eager to talk about this topic, given that in all likelihood she would have been elected president in 2008 had it not been for Iraq. But she needs to be asked questions about it—lots of them.

Clinton wouldn't have any trouble with the "If we knew now then what we know now" question, because that's how she has explained her Iraq vote for years, saying that hindsight shows that her vote in favor of the 2002 war resolution was wrong. But she ought to answer why she didn't know then.

Republicans would like us all to believe that in 2002 and 2003 everyone was in agreement that Iraq posed a terrifying threat to the United States and if we didn't invade, then they would surely attack us with their fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. But this is just false. Despite the unstoppable momentum for war, dissent was everywhere at the time.

As I wrote yesterday, the idea that the war was a result of "faulty intelligence" is a myth. The fact is that "the intelligence" on Iraq was a multi-faceted thing, and even at the time people understood that the Bush administration was manipulating it to its own ends, pressuring the intelligence community, cherry-picking the most nefarious-sounding bits, and ignoring the weight of evidence that there was no gigantic arsenal of WMD in Iraq, and that Saddam Hussein's government was not in fact in league with al-Qaeda. The administration got the intelligence it demanded, and what's most important to remember now is that plenty of people understood that at the time. While most of the media were beating the drums for war, there were outlets and individual reporters raising doubts about the line the administration was pushing and the specific pieces of evidence they were offering. Supposedly damning pieces of information like the uranium yellowcake from Niger and the aluminum tubes were quickly debunked. There was an active movement protesting the upcoming war. The administration's campaign of fear was so heavy-handed that no observer could doubt that they wanted war at all costs, no matter what the evidence actually said.

And many of Clinton's colleagues were not fooled. Twenty-one of the 50 Democrats then in the Senate voted against the war resolution, as did 126 of the 209 Democrats in the House. And let's not mince words about those who voted in favor of the war: It was, above all, an act of cowardice. They were afraid they'd be called unpatriotic, just as so many already had in the wake of September 11. They were afraid the war would be quick and easy like the first Gulf War, and they'd look foolish for doubting it. And most of all, the ones who wanted to run for president—including Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, and Joe Biden—were afraid they'd be attacked as weak, just as previous Democratic presidential candidates were. So they voted to give George W. Bush permission to go to war, with catastrophic consequences.

Republicans often defend their support of the war by saying that many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, looked at the same intelligence they did and came to the same conclusion. But it's also true, as Greg Sargent pointed out, that many of Clinton's colleagues looked at the same intelligence she did and came to a different conclusion. So what did she miss? What did the experience teach her about the way intelligence is produced and used? And what about everything that happened afterward?

I'm not particularly worried that Clinton is gung-ho to start another Middle East war, as some of the Republicans running for president seem to be. But the Iraq War continues to cast a long shadow over American foreign policy. Hillary Clinton got it wrong. We deserve to know as much as we can about why that was, how she thinks about her mistake today, and what kind of effect it would have on her decision-making if she becomes president. 

Photo of the Day, Men In Shorts Firing Antique Guns Edition

This picture comes from the celebration in Bavaria of Christi Himmelfahrt, marking the ascension of Christ to heaven. What does Jesus have to do with firing antique guns into the air while wearing traditional Bavarian outfits? I have no idea, but that guy in the middle isn't having nearly as much fun as he ought to be.  

The Myth of 'Faulty Intelligence'

The Iraq War, both how it began and how it proceeded, is now an active topic in the 2016 presidential campaign, which I think is a highly salutary development. But it does mean that we need to be on guard for the kind of distortions, misleading statements, and outright lies that characterized this debate from its very start in 2002. As you've heard by now, the Republican Party is currently divided over whether, knowing what we know now, we should ever have launched the war. Most of the Republican presidential candidates are (to my surprise, I'll admit), saying the answer is of course not, while Jeb Bush is saying that he really doesn't want to say, because doing so would be a "disservice" to the troops (which would only be true if he also thinks the answer is no).

One thing they all agree on, though, is that for better or worse the whole thing happened because of "faulty intelligence." If only America's intelligence agencies hadn't screwed up so badly, then everyone wouldn't have been convinced of what a terrifying threat Iraq was to America, and the whole thing would never have happened. Jeb Bush himself said that one of the most important lessons to take from the war is, "If you're going to go to war, make sure that you have the best intelligence possible and the intelligence broke down." But the intelligence didn't "break down."

You can't understand the decisions that led to the Iraq War without grasping just how incredibly politicized the intelligence process had become in the months before the war. Every piece of intelligence that passed through the American government was subject to different interpretations depending on who was looking at it, and throughout there was intense pressure on people within the intelligence community to deliver to the senior people in the Bush administration—the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, and others—exactly what everybody knew they wanted.

And what they wanted was war. Today, Republicans act as though the intelligence community burst into the Oval Office and said, "Mr. President, Mr. President, Iraq is a terrible threat, and if we don't invade we're doomed!" and then Bush said, "Gee, if you say so, I guess we'd better." But it worked the other way around.

Taking out Saddam Hussein was a priority for many of the senior people in the administration from the moment they took office, and after September 11 it was amped up into a public campaign that can go by no other name but propaganda. When those in the intelligence community saw the administration's leaders on TV talking about how Iraq was in cahoots with al-Qaeda and had all kinds of ghastly weapons, you better believe they got the message right quick.

Much of the pressure was informal and much of it came from the understandable desire not to miss something that could lead to another 9/11, but there were practical ways in which "the intelligence" was distorted to serve the administration's purposes as well. For instance, there was a special office within the Department of Defense, staffed by neoconservatives long committed to overthrowing Saddam Hussein, whose job was to cherry-pick intelligence snippets that could be used to paint a picture of a terribly threatening Iraq, then send it up the chain to be used by senior officials in their public persuasion efforts. The administration even pressured CIA interrogators to torture detainees in a futile effort to produce "evidence" of a link between Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda.

So it isn't correct to say "the intelligence" about Iraq was wrong, even if there were specific bits of information that turned out to be false. The truth is that the Bush administration hyped every bit of intelligence it could find that could be presented as proving that Iraq presented a dire threat, while downplaying any information or conclusion that pointed in the other direction.

Yet if there was anything that characterized the administration and its defenders during the run-up to the war, it was confidence, their absolute certainty that the case for the existence of Saddam's WMD arsenal was iron-clad and the war would go precisely according to plan. "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction; there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us," said Dick Cheney in a key speech in August 2002. "We know they have weapons of mass destruction. We know they have active programs. There isn't any debate about it," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "This is going to be a two-month war, not an eight-year war," said Bill Kristol. And of course, Cheney insisted that "We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators."

To hear Republicans tell it today, it wasn't just the administration but everyone who believed that at the time, yet this too is false. While many Democrats cast a craven vote in favor of the war, there were plenty of people at the time warning that the evidence for WMDs was shaky and that we were headed for a disaster that would play out over the course of years, just as it did. For instance, reporters from Knight-Ridder produced a series of articles casting serious doubts on the WMD claims. In the fall of 2002, months before the war began, James Fallows published a long article in the The Atlantic entitled "The Fifty-First State?" based on interviews with dozens of experts who painted a grim picture of what lay ahead. "Merely itemizing the foreseeable effects of a war with Iraq suggests reverberations that would be felt for decades," Fallows wrote. "If we can judge from past wars, the effects we can't imagine when the fighting begins will prove to be the ones that matter most."

So let's make no mistake: "Faulty intelligence" didn't produce the deaths of 4,000 American servicemembers and a couple of hundred thousand Iraqi civilians. Faulty intelligence didn't strengthen Iran's position in the region, lead to an exponential increase in anti-Americanism, and give rise to ISIS. It was the delusions, deceptions, and hubris of the Bush administration and its supporters. They got exactly the intelligence they demanded, and used it to ends they had decided on long before.

This history is absolutely critical to understand today, because if the only lesson politicians take from Iraq is "make sure the intelligence is right" then they will have learned nothing. And when the time comes to decide what to do about Iran or Syria or some other foreign policy challenge, we'll be no less likely to go hurtling down into another nightmare that will take years to crawl out of.

Photo of the Day, You Look Mahvelous Edition

A staffer at Madame Tussaud's in London prepares Chewbacca for the wax museum's new Star Wars exhibit. I can only imagine the amount of conditioner it takes to keep all that hair shiny and manageable.

How Changes In Americans' Religious Views Are Cornering the GOP

Just yesterday, I wrote a critical post about Jeb Bush's recent speech at Liberty University in which he essentially made a case for Christianity as the greatest of all religions ("Consider a whole alternative universe of power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, achievement without grace, and it's all just a glimpse of human experience without the Christian influence"). I pointed out that while Republican primary voters might be eager to hear that message, it wouldn't go over as well among the broader population, where Christians are declining as a proportion of the population and the group sometimes referred to as the "nones"—a combination of atheists, agnostics, and people who just say they aren't part of any religion—is growing rapidly. Well today the Pew Research Center is out with its latest report on Americans' religious affiliations, and the results are not only striking, they demonstrate the point I was making even more clearly (so nice when things work out like that).  

There are lots of fascinating things in the report, but I'll just highlight a couple. First, not only has the absolute number of Christians declined since they last did this study in 2007 (and by the way, it's a huge survey with a sample of 35,000), they've declined as a proportion of the population from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. That decline is most concentrated among Catholics and mainline Protestants. All the non-Christian faiths like Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists showed an increase. But the most dramatic rise is among the "nones," who went from 16.1 percent of the population in 2007 to 22.8 percent now.

It's important to understand that the nones are a diverse group; within them you have committed atheists, people who just say religion isn't important to them, and those who sometimes call themselves "spiritual but not religious." That diversity means it would be a stretch to say they all share a worldview in the same way that a group like evangelical Christians do (even though there's a good deal of ideological diversity within evangelicals). Nevertheless, there are now more of these unaffiliated Americans than there are Catholics or mainline Protestants, something that would have been unimaginable not long ago.

What jumped out most to me was the differences across generations. Pew didn't include a graph of this particular finding, so I made one myself:

We obviously don't know what will happen in the future—there could well be a religious revival in America, and we're still far and away the most religious of the highly developed countries. But unless there's a dramatic shift in the opposite direction from where we're now moving, simple generational replacement will produce a country that is more religiously diverse overall, less Christian, and less religious.

To return to where we began, this is yet another way in which the Republican Party is bound to the past. Their base is white and Christian in a country that's steadily becoming less of both, and they need to hold on to that base while expanding their appeal beyond it. Part of the problem is that the more diverse the country becomes, the more embattled and oppressed conservative whites and Christians feel. Republican politicians respond to those feelings by reinforcing their victimhood narratives and emphasizing identity politics. That then further alienates non-whites and non-Christians, hardening the limits of the GOP's appeal and making it more difficult to "reach out" to those voters they're going to need to stay competitive. It's a vicious cycle, and one they can't quite figure out how to break out of.

Photo of the Day, Adorable Monk Edition

A young boy participating in a ceremony at a Buddhist temple in Seoul, South Korea to honor the Buddha's birthday. 

What Really Matters in 2016

So over the weekend, Rick Perry reminded Republicans of what's really at stake in this election:

"Something I want you all to think about is that the next president of the United States, whoever that individual may be, could choose up to three, maybe even four members of the Supreme Court," he said. "Now this isn't about who's going to be the president of the United States for just the next four years. This could be about individuals who have an impact on you, your children, and even our grandchildren. That's the weight of what this election is really about."

"That, I will suggest to you, is the real question we need to be asking ourselves," he continued. "What would those justices look like if, let's be theoretical here and say, if it were Hillary Clinton versus Rick Perry? And if that won't make you go work, if I do decide to get into the race, then I don't know what will."

Perry is absolutely right, and what everyone focuses on when this topic comes up is just how long in the tooth the current Court is; by next year's election day, three of the justices will be in their 80s and another will be 78. What's really important in the short to medium term isn't just that the next presidency will see multiple retirements, it's that the next presidency will likely see a shift in the Court's ideological balance.

That's because the aging justices come from both wings of the Court. For instance, the two oldest justices are Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will be 87 when the next president finishes his or her first term, and Antonin Scalia, who will be 84. The next oldest is Anthony Kennedy, who will also be 84 by then. Imagine if all three were to retire some time in those four years. If the president were a Democrat, that would mean that the Court would wind up with a 6-3 liberal majority. If the president were a Republican, it would be a 6-3 conservative majority. Now for a real scare, add in Stephen Breyer (who will be 82 by the end of the next president's first term, and you could wind up with a 7-2 conservative majority.

Nothing is assured, of course, because you don't know how health, fatigue, or politics might keep any particular justice on the Court or make them leave. But the odds are quite high that the next president will be able to leave the Court with a strong majority leaning toward his or her ideology. That kind of shift hasn't happened in decades; the last time a retiring justice was replaced by someone appointed by a president from the other party was in 1991, when Clarence Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama only got the chance to replace a justice they liked with another justice they liked, leaving the Court's balance unchanged. But that streak will probably be broken by the next president. And the results for the country will be at least as profound as anything else the president does.