The idea that a country spends as much on its military as the rest of the world and has military personnel deployed in three-quarters of the world’s countries does so for purely defensive reasons is the absurdity it appears to be.
As former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright memorably said to General Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Ah, bipartisanship. Neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have been shy in this regard: The United States militarily has invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973.
Secretary Albright doesn’t have a short memory so much as ideological blinders. And she of course is far from alone there. But before tackling some of those details, an examination of the size of U.S. military spending is in order, although that is not necessarily an easy number to determine. What is undisputed is that the U.S. spends many times more than any other country on Earth.
One measure of the world’s military spending is provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a self-described independent research organization that is nonetheless largely funded by the Swedish government. According to its figures, the U.S. spent $640 billion in 2013, roughly equal to the combined military spending of the next nine largest spenders combined.
The Stockholm Institute estimates China’s military spending (the world’s second highest) at $188 billion, about 50 percent higher than the figure found in the official Chinese budget, based on its analysis of China’s budget. That is reasonable, but the same standard should be applied to the United States, rather than simply accepting the Pentagon budget figure as the Stockholm Institute has done.
Pentagon budget only part of U.S. military spending
One estimate of actual U.S. military spending in 2013, put forth by the War Resisters League, is $1.355 trillion. The league arrives at that figure by adding military spending deriving from parts of the government other than the Pentagon, including veterans’ benefits and assigning 80 percent of the interest on the national debt. These are in addition to the official Pentagon budget.
In its annual pie charts exposing this spending, the league notes that other groups estimate that 50 to 60 percent of the national debt is attributable to military spending. For the sake of argument, splitting the difference between the high and low figures (using a figure of 65 percent debt assignment), lowers U.S. military spending to about $1.285 trillion. Adjusting U.S. spending to that level, while accepting the Stockholm Institute’s upward revisions for China and Russia, means that the United States spends more on its military than every other country on Earth put together.
There is no conceivable defensive purpose for such massive spending.
Nor is there one for the geographical breadth of the Pentagon. A web site for veterans, Vet Friends, states that the United States currently has military personnel deployed in about 150 countries, and 56 countries have hosted at least 1,000 U.S. troops at some time since 1950. The number of overseas U.S. military bases to which personnel are assigned is a matter of dispute. The Pentagon, in a 2003 report, said it had 702 overseas installations. As the Bush II/Cheney administration’s “war on terror” was then in its early stages, that number has likely grown. A report published by the conservative Canadian newspaper National Post estimates the actual figure is anywhere from 700 to 1,000.
The cost of that vast overseas deployment is no easier to estimate. David Vine, writing for Al-Jazeera, did his best to pin down a reasonable figure:
“How much does the U.S. spend each year occupying the planet with its bases and troops? How much does it spend on its global presence? Forced by Congress to account for its spending overseas, the Pentagon has put that figure at $22.1bn a year. It turns out that even a conservative estimate of the true costs of garrisoning the globe comes to an annual total of about $170bn. In fact, it may be considerably higher. Since the onset of ‘the Global War on Terror’ in 2001, the total cost for our garrisoning policies, for our presence abroad, has probably reached $1.8 trillion to $2.1 trillion.”
Playing the ‘democracy’ card never gets old
Why does the United States government put itself into debt for such unjustifiable spending? The usual story spoon-fed to United Statesians and to the rest of the world is a benign, even self-sacrificing, willingness to be the world’s policeman. The question then becomes one of “Can we afford to do this?” The actual reason — to enforce and extend U.S. dominance and to boost profitability of U.S.-based multi-national corporations — is treated as if such considerations did not exist, despite being repeatedly demonstrated by the words of U.S. government officials.
A splendid example of this self-serving myopia is a 2012 paper produced by the Cato Institute, a font of far right, libertarian material taken seriously in such circles, at least before the Koch Brothers’ coup two years ago that tightened their control over the organization. This paper, “Why the U.S. Military Budget is ‘Foolish and Sustainable,’ ” does acknowledge that military spending “is designed for projecting power abroad, not protecting Americans.” But the paper would have us believe that is because the U.S. is too nice:
“We adopted our current strategy — which amounts to trying to run the world with the American military — because we could, not because it was wisest. … U.S. security guarantees can create moral hazard — emboldening weak allies to take risks they would otherwise avoid in their dealings with neighbors, heightening instability and threatening to pull the United States into wars facilitated by its benevolence.”
The problem, this Cato Institute paper asserts, is that the U.S. allows its allies to “free-ride” on its “benevolence” while receiving nothing tangible in return. The solution to this is to force other countries to spend more on their militaries. In this fairy tale, a global arms buildup would bring an end to the “infantilization” of U.S.-allied countries. Better to force the rest of the world to grow up, the paper asserts:
“Abandoning the pretension that global trade depends on U.S. protection would allow vast reductions in overseas missions and peace-time military expenditures. Avoiding the conflation of foreign disorder would allow American leaders to plan for fewer occupational wars.”
Although those on the receiving end of imperial bombs and dictated “structural adjustments” are not in doubt about the phantasmagoria of these Cato Institute arguments — consistent as they are with the level of debate found in elite circles and the corporate mass media — let us at least dip our toes into a real world-based examination of U.S. foreign policy.
Bankers, banana barons and military interventions
At the beginning of the 20th century, U.S. President William Howard Taft declared that his foreign policy was “to include active intervention to secure our merchandise and our capitalists opportunity for profitable investment” abroad. Those were not idle words, as a Nicaraguan dictator, José Santos Zelaya, was overthrown in 1909 because he angered the United States by accepting a loan from British bankers instead of U.S. bankers. Taft then placed Nicaragua’s customs collections under U.S. control and refinanced the loan through two U.S. banks, which were given control of Nicaragua’s national bank and railroad as a reward.
Half a century later, the U.S. overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, on behalf of the United Fruit Company. That was a company with friends in high places — Central Intelligence Agency Director Allen Dulles and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles earlier in their careers were partners in United Fruit’s main law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell. A 1952 “national intelligence estimate” (a joint document put together by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies) had this to say about United Fruit’s efforts to maintain its dominant position:
“If the company should submit to Guatemalan demands the political position of the Arbenz Administration would be greatly strengthened. The result, even if it were a compromise agreement, would be presented as a national triumph over ‘colonialism’ and would arouse popular enthusiasm. … The Government and the unions, under Communist influence and supported by national sentiment, would probably proceed to exert increasing pressure against other U.S. interests in Guatemala, notably the Railway.”
Note the use of quote marks around “colonialism,” as if such a concept did not exist, and a privately owned railroad is a “U.S. interest.” Class interests are also revealed by the ritual reference to “Communist influence” — a phrase implying that Guatemalans, or anybody else subject to the formulation, are intellectually incapable of analyzing their own lives and experiences.
In the following decade, the United States backed a military coup overthrowing a democratically elected government in Brazil in 1965. The U.S. ambassador to Brazil, who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, said the coup, which installed a right-wing dictatorship that tortured opponents, would “create a greatly improved climate for private investment.” In more recent times, the Bush II/Cheney administration sought to sweep away all constraints limiting the plundering of Iraq by U.S. multi-national corporations following the invasion, establishing a foothold intended to be replicated elsewhere. That it didn’t succeed doesn’t ameliorate that the attempt was made nor the enormous damage done.
That isn’t only in the history books
And as the failed U.S.-backed coup in Venezuela in 2002, and the current destabilization attempt there, demonstrate, any country that doesn’t orient government policy to the enrichment of foreign capital above all other considerations quickly becomes a target. As a 2006 secret memo revealed by WikiLeaks discusses, the U.S. government spends considerable money destabilizing countries it does not like. This memo, circulated to the Army command for South America in addition to various U.S. embassies, outlines a five-point program to topple then president Hugo Chávez that included tens of millions of dollars funneled through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the creation of opposition groups.
Typical of the warped prism through which U.S. elites view the world, the memo’s first sentence is: “During his 8 years in power, President Chavez has systematically dismantled the institutions of democracy and governance.” That was said of a president whose movement won 16 of 17 national elections, almost all by at least 10 percentage points. (Sixteen more legitimate national electoral victories than achieved by George W. Bush for those keeping score.)
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, an observer, characterized the Venezuelan election process as “the best in the world.” Voters in Venezuela make their selections on computers in which party and independent observers participated in 16 pre-election audits, election-machine software has built-in systems to prevent tampering, and a paper receipt is printed out for every vote. A system of community councils is building up participatory democracy, and processes intended to build economic democracy are ongoing.
Venezuela is attempting to create an economy geared toward the betterment of its population, rather than the maximization of corporate profits. The majority of Venezuelans, previously shut out of political participation by the country’s capitalists, are now involved in creating popular institutions.
That is what as seen as a threat by the U.S. government, acting on behalf of its industrialists and financiers, as it has done since the 19th century. Although nowadays financial pressure is the preferred methodology thanks to the development of a global web of banks and multilateral institutions, force underlies the enforcement of these interests around the world. Violence has always been the handmaiden of capitalism.