It is time to admit the obvious. Nobody knows exactly where our defense funding, all $780 billion of it, is going. This is the biggest lump sum of discretionary money that swooshes around our coffers. Yet Americans are checked out on how it is spent. Why are not more people across the country angry from the announcement that $3.6 billion of taxpayer money will go toward a wall that will not do anything to make us safer?
The United States does not face a peer competitor, as it did during the Cold War. Nobody is threatening the homeland. The Islamic State is a bit player with its hands in lots of cookie jars and civil wars in the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Syria, but it is not planning attacks against Americans. It stretches the imagination to think that somehow our ubiquitous presence makes Americans safer, deters “great powers,” or contains terrorists. If anything, it often breeds local resentment, and the public face of our national power becomes soldiers instead of civilian diplomats.
It is common knowledge that the 136 military bands and 6,500 band members of the Defense Department dwarf of the State Department. The Pentagon spends $4.5 billion on public affairs, despite going 14 months without a press conference. It also spends a stunning $380 million each year on Guantanamo Bay, despite only housing 40 prisoners today.
The military establishment has grown too large. With a crude hammer of military power, everything, from eradicating Ebola to building a border wall, looks like a big fat nail. The share of defense spending as part of our discretionary budget, which goes toward protecting our parks, sustaining infrastructure, and investing in science, is a whopping 60 percent. The crisis in runaway defense spending is driven by several factors.
First, Americans are sold a narrative that the world is a scary place, and without our troops stationed virtually everywhere, it will come unraveled. To push back against this view is not a call for American retrenchment, but rather a call for a more measured military budget commensurate with the threats we face. Chinese military expenditures are a fraction of ours, yet it has only seen its global posture grow in recent years, not shrink. In other words, military spending does not guarantee greater safety or increased readiness. If anything, too many defense dollars sloshing around Washington can actually undermine these critical issues.
Second, military spending has become a bipartisan issue, which normally we should rejoice at during these hyperpartisan times, except that there is almost no constituency outside “the squad” calling for less money for the troops. The reason is business and jobs, as military contractors spread their manufacturing sector across nearly every state, throughout districts of both parties, to guarantee no pushback when it comes to cancelling big ticket items like the F-35 joint strike fighter, which costs $90 million for each plane. If the United States was in a direct confrontation against a conventional superpower like the Soviet Union or China, then such a fighter jet might make sense, but we are simply not in this situation.
A small handful of weapons contractors for the Defense Department now account for an astonishing share of the market, even as these firms no longer possess the intellectual dominance in new domains such as cyberspace. The Raytheons and Lockheeds of the world are also not poised to win the artificial intelligence race. That knowledge is in Silicon Valley, whose employees wage a silent war against the Pentagon.
The result of all this is ballooning budgets and dire lack of oversight from taxpayers and a supine Congress that regularly rubber stamps spending bills for the Pentagon. This has led to unchecked waste and redundancies in a sprawling bureaucracy that would be humanly impossible to map. To take one data point about the military, the “tooth to tail” ratio of the United States was ranked poorly in a research report by McKinsey.
The Pentagon has a new obsession with “great power” competition, whatever that is, which generates chuckles among political scientists, who have long suspected that the global war on terror was always a detour after 9/11. But there is a real fear that such an all encompassing defense posture will lead to unending commitments, a military required to be everywhere, and a defense budget that will lurch upward over time.
The United States should therefore recalibrate. We find ourselves scrambling in response to crises rather than playing a preventive role in the world. This is due mostly to unstaffed embassies overseas, lack of deep area expertise in government, and quite frankly little imagination among our foreign policy establishment. Nobody has articulated what an American grand strategy in a multipolar world should look like. We instead dump more dollars into the bottomless pit of the Pentagon, divert this money toward quixotic programs like building a southern border wall, and cross our fingers. All of that, in a nutshell, is the Trump Doctrine.
Lionel Beehner is a global affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.