The Duck of Minerva

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No More Neocon Faux-Cassandra Posturing: American Defense is not “in Decline”

November 7, 2013

Two pieces got emailed to me in the last few days that nicely illustrate just how entrenched semi-imperial thinking has become in Washington, how wildly disconnected from the reality of US security our foreign policy community’s threat assessments have become, and the hysteria that greets serious debate on DoD’s size in this post-Great Recession era of high unemployment and large deficits. This, by good-journalist-turned-disturbing-militarist Robert Kaplan, and this, by the ‘Iraq was a victory’ crowd at AEI. Here’s Kaplan:

“The bottom may be starting to fall out of the U.S. defense budget. I do not refer to numbers when I say this. I am not interested in numbers. I am only interested in public support for those numbers…. Actually, we might need a big army for an occupation of part of North Korea… The public, in short, wants protection on the cheap. It may not necessarily be willing to police the world with a big navy and a big air force at least to the degree that it has in the past — that is, unless a clear and demonstrable conventional threat can be identified.”

The rest basically follows the depressing, well-established neocon pattern: the (invariably hawkish and hegemony-loving) Washington foreign policy community knows America’s interests, while the public is annoyingly ‘isolationist.’ If only they believed in the US globocop, (cue grave headshaking at our ignorance), then we wouldn’t have to write these sanctimonious, tsk-tsk op-eds. The AEI brief is even more predictable: throwaway boilerplate about the need for a strong defense in a world of unpredictable and diverse threats and all that. Got it already. Neocons and DC hawks have been saying that sorta stuff now for so long, that I really don’t even need to read this stuff anymore. And of course, any cuts automatically ‘reduce our readiness,’ the all-time favorite cliché of hawks everywhere as if somehow ‘only’ $680+ billion would leave us unable to defend ourselves. Come on, neocons! I thought you were supposed to be intellectuals. Stop recycling 1990s ‘indispensible nation’ bromides, and try a little harder. Zack Beauchamp and Daniel Drezner’s correctives are very useful here. But here’s mine:


Where to start? Because honestly, no one in the US think-tank-industrial complex seems to have learned much from Iraq. Linking to each and every argument below would take forever, so bear with me and correct me if I make any whoppers. But here’s what I see:

Kaplan ostentatiously doesn’t want to talk about the “numbers”, – not because of his posturing as some great analyst of the American psyche (gimme a break) – but because they completely blow his argument out of the water. We spend 40-45% of total global defense spending; include US allies into that, and it’s around 70%. Because US GDP is so big today, we spend more in absolute figures, even adjusted for inflation, than we did during the Cold War (but perhaps for the early 50s and the Korean war). And the Cold War is over! Which fact I guess everyone who lived through the 1980s just can’t seem to digest. And OBL is dead. And unemployment is over 7%. So wait, why exactly do we have to spend on defense like this? Why is the world’s safest, most powerful country its biggest defense spender, more than triple the next spender (China)?

And it goes on: as a percentage of GDP defense has been hovering around 4-5% since the end of the Cold War. Nothing big has changed recently, but for an increase in DoD’s budget after 9/11 that is now being scaled back. The USAF is decades ahead of the Chinese and Russians in stealth and UAVs. We’re weaponizing space. We have ten times the number of nuclear warheads the Chinese have. (The Chinese are actually very responsible on MAD, not wildly overbuilding like we did, but no one ever gives them credit for that.) We have 11 carrier groups; China has zero. If you look at the total US national security budget – because a lot of defense-related spending in the US is done outside of DoD as a gimmick to make the DoD number look smaller than it really should be – it’s actually closer to 8% of GDP: DoD + VA + DHS + the intel community + DoE (which pays for US nukes) = $1 trillion per annum. If Chalmers Johnson is right, we have bases of one kind or another in something like 2/3 of the world’s countries. If anything we look like an imperium, like the Delian League morphing into the Athenian Empire. But one Obama official says ‘leading from behind’ and we don’t charge into Syria – despite charging into Libya and Obama’s first term surge into Afghanistan – and suddenly it’s national security crisis. Good grief, think-tankers. Don’t be so lazy.

And this whole bit about the US requiring a big army to occupy North Korea is just embarrassing. I love the blissful unwillingness to learn even the most obvious lessons from the GWoT: that the US – yes, even America – can’t do occupations well. But keep calm and carry on, neocon exceptionalists – even though the latest research on the war says it killed close to half a million Iraqis. But they’re brown Muslims, right? As Tommy Franks told us, “we don’t do body counts.” So no one cares that that blood is on our hands, and our force-loving foreign policy community can just ignore how badly the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan went and suggest the same in Korea. Wow. It must be nice to live in a fantasy world where the last 10 years didn’t happen. If I were the ROKG, I’d be planning on keeping occupying US forces out of NK as much as possible, or only limiting  it to searching for WMD (which is the plan today so far as I know). I don’t know anyone who thinks it would be a good idea to have US Humvees patrolling Nampo or whatever like it’s Fallujah all over again. That has insurgency written all over it.

This is what I mean when I say I just can’t read this stuff anymore. It’s so Washington, imperial, macho and childish simultaneously, Americanist, hackneyed, blind to the limits of military power, vain US exceptionalist strutting, and so on. I think there must be a neocon op-ed recycling machine that just manufactures this boilerplate by recombining words like freedom, credibility, American power, strength, willpower, Obama the weakling, and so on. Does Kaplan even bother reading about places like North Korea before makes these pronouncement in major venues with a wide readership? Do his editors ever review him?

I see two possible drivers for this stuff:

1. This is the angst of DC defense intellectuals, think-tankers, neocons, and so on that they’ll lose their raison d’etre, what gets them on CNN and in the Atlantic Monthly, if the US scales back. I deeply resent this neocon equation of restraint and a little more post-Iraq reticence with isolationism, betraying freedom, selling out Israel and our allies, a return to a pre-9/11 mindset, a return the 30s, Munich, etc. etc. If it makes me an ‘isolationist’ to say we shouldn’t be drone-striking US citizens in obvious violation of the 5th Amendment due process requirements, then I guess I am. If that’s the attitude, then we can never cut defense, ever, and Asians, Muslims and so many others are right – we are an empire. There must alternatives to this; there must be limits and exits. Otherwise we are Rome.

2. American elites love American global hegemony. DC loves the idea that we’re the world’s capital. They read Ikenberry and Nye saying that stuff, and they swoon. We’re intoxicated on our power, bewitched by the awesomeness of our military might. That’s why US military-themed action movies like the Transformers or Battleship, and games like Call of Duty, are so popular. That’s why Fox invokes ‘the troops’ endlessly. That’s why USAF airshows are so popular. That’s why we keep thinking we can fix the Middle East when we can’t. We’re enraptured by our capabilities and high on analogies peddled by right-wing historians like Paul Johnson, VD Hanson, or Niall Ferguson that we are the new Rome or Periclean Athens. US foreign policy elites WANT us to be Rome. They love the drama, the ‘world-historic importance’ of it all. Who doesn’t want to imagine their participaing in events of the ‘Thucydidean’ magnitude ? Just look at Kaplan’s own histrionic geopolitical work for years now – fetishizing the US military to the point of sycophancy (‘imperial grunts’ and all that). It’s also worth noting that this, then, is why allies free-ride on us. We’d rather infantilize them and complain that they don’t pay, then actually cede power if they had real independent capabilities. Here’s why Germany couldn’t quickly deploy into the Balkans in the 90s; why France and Britain could scarcely act in Libya or Syria without us; why Korea and Japan would rather scratch at each other than focus on China. Is it surprising that they free-ride?

I could go on and on, but this is giving me a headache. I just can’t read Kaplan, the Kagans, Bill Kristol, and the rest of these guys anymore. So yes, I believe in American power; so do you probably. I am glad the US won the titanic ideological struggles of the 20th century; I don’t want China to dominate Asia; I am as happy as anyone that al Qaeda is struggling, and so on. But American power ≠ American militarism. If Iraq taught us anything, it should be that US force is a blunt tool and should be used sparingly and solemnly, not like some macho neocon exercise in ‘national greatness.’

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

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Associate Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy, Pusan National University, Korea
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Twitter: @Robert_E_Kelly