How US Military Supremacy is a Soviet-Style Poison Pill

Viewed through the lens of the greater than $3 trillion federal budget, the expense of a $700+ billion per year military clearly doesn’t stand alone as the nation’s biggest financial threat. Mandatory entitlement expenses including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are already higher and rising more quickly, and, of course, there’s the national debt at over $13 trillion.

However, national defense is by far the largest portion of US discretionary spending, meaning it must be approved by Congress every year. That yearly green light says a lot about the priorities of the nation. How that singular focus comes about makes defense spending an interesting area to explore further. A recent article by author Tom Engelhardt, comparing the US military expenditures now to the Soviet Union just before its collapse, helps to explain why.

From AlterNet:

“Looking back, the most distinctive feature of the last years of the Soviet Union may have been the way it continued to pour money into its military — and its military adventure in Afghanistan — when it was already going bankrupt and the society it had built was beginning to collapse around it. In the end, its aging leaders made a devastating miscalculation. They mistook military power for power on this planet.”

Is it possible that the US has forgotten most of its military strength has derived from its extraordinary economic success, and not the other way around? Here’s what Engelhardt thinks…

“In the fall of 2008, the abyss opened under the U.S. economy, which the Bush administration had been blissfully ignoring, and millions of people fell into it. Giant institutions wobbled or crashed; extended unemployment wouldn’t go away; foreclosures happened on a mind-boggling scale; infrastructure began to buckle; state budgets were caught in a death grip; teachers’ jobs, another kind of infrastructure, went down the tubes in startling numbers; and the federal deficit soared…

“…But here was the strange thing. In the midst of the Great Recession, under a new president with assumedly far fewer illusions about American omnipotence and power, war policy continued to expand in just about every way […] As in the Soviet Union before its collapse, the exaltation and feeding of the military at the expense of the rest of society and the economy had by now become the new normal…”

The “new normal” Engelhardt describes isn’t new because of the critical importance of US warfare. It’s new because of how severe the tradeoffs are now, given a more meager US pocketbook. Alongside entitlement spending, not to mention recent bailouts and stimulus, the nation has accumulated vast amounts of debt, which are not going to diminish and certainly can’t serve national interests well. Engelhardt continues:

“Drunk on war as Washington may be, the U.S. is still not the Soviet Union in 1991 — not yet. But it’s not the triumphant “sole superpower” anymore either. Its global power is visibly waning, its ability to win wars distinctly in question, its economic viability open to doubt. It has been transformed from a can-do into a can’t-do nation, a fact only highlighted by the ongoing BP catastrophe […] And if its armies come home in defeat… watch out.”

The cost of maintaining the world’s largest military would naturally be astronomical, but, in addition, the costs seem to only escalate and become increasingly inescapable. Even outside of the expense, the distraction of US leadership by the worldwide operations of manpower, bases, weaponry, and new research, takes away from the ability of the White House and Congress to focus on severe problems at home. And, according to Engelhardt, the potential for mistaking military power for power more broadly could cause the US to go down much like the Soviets.


Rocky Vega,
The Daily Reckoning