What if the United States had a military whose strength was at least roughly commensurate with the military threats we face? At present, our military is gargantuan: In 2009, the US spent $668 billion on defense, fully 43% of all the money spent on armaments in the entire world. In the midst of a severe recession, we devoted 4.3% of our GDP to defense, far higher than any other democratic, industrialized country except Israel. Yet, in military terms, we are in a remarkably secure position. We have oceans on two sides of us, and the smaller, friendly countries of Canada and Mexico on the other two sides. Furthermore, there is no country that threatens us from afar. Not only is America far and away the leader in military spending, but of the next 19 countries rounding out the top 20, 15 are allies of ours. Even China– mildly hostile and several times larger than us– spent less than 1/6 what America did on its military. We fear terrorism, of course, but that’s not a military threat, and experience has shown that there is little or nothing that a conventional military force can do to prevent it. Indeed, it may make the danger greater. So clearly, if the purpose of our military were to defend America against threats, it ought to be a fraction of its current size.
Obviously, in a world of limited resources, maintaining a military force as absurdly bloated as ours requires strong justification. And this is relevant for thinking about “humanitarian interventions” such as our most recent foray into Libya. Taken in isolation, the argument for intervention is straightforward and compelling: Clearly the world would be a better place without Muammar el-Qaddafi, and better still if he could be replaced without massive bloodshed among the rebels trying to topple him. The allied assault will cost lives, of course, but in the overall balance it will save them and, in utilitarian terms, produce a favorable balance of pleasure over pain. (This is only true, however, on the questionable assumption that everything in this operation goes according to plan. There is plenty that could go wrong: The rebellion against Qaddafi might falter, leaving us with a choice of deeper involvement or accepting a slaughter after all,. The rebels might win, and turn out to be as bad as Qaddafi. The operation might succeed, but provoke anger in the Arab world over yet another Western attack on a Muslim country. We just don’t know.)
But helping the heroic Libyan rebels is not the only outcome of “Operation Odyssey Dawn.” It also contributes to justifying the military-industrial state that America has become. Let us assume that we support attacking Libya. But that attack is possible only because we have a military that far exceeds our defense needs. Support for the attack therefore entails support for the necessary condition of the attack. More generally, the widespread acceptance among the American people of the legitimacy of humanitarian interventions has served to justify the farthest tentacles of empire. Our conquest of Iraq was supported by many liberals, and both on the left and on the right that particular adventure was lauded as a preemptive defensive act but also (especially when the claims of self-defense were revealed as lies) as a good deed we were doing the world. The US Navy now lures recruits with images of American seamen helping the helpless at home and abroad, under the slogan “A Force for Good.”
The cost of maintaining a military as large and powerful as ours is draining our economy and weakening our democracy. It is also alienating people around the world who might otherwise be our allies. If we want to change that, we must accept that that will mean that we are not able to right some of the wrongs we see in the world.