The United States of America had a higher expenditure in defense spending in 2010, $687.1 billion, than it had in 1988, when military outlays reached $531.6 billion (both numbers in constant 2009 USD. Figures obtained via The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.). This means that the United States is spending more of its treasure in combatting stateless terrorist organizations consisting of no more than a few thousand extremists, and that pose zero existential threat, than it spent at the end of the 1980s staring down the Soviets in the Cold War, a state of undeclared animosity that threatened not only the existence of the United States, but the continued survival of civilization itself.
Of course, not all of the military budget has been shifted to counter-terrorism operations or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A good portion of it is still allocated to maintaining the areas of the armed forces that were meant to take on the Soviets and its satellite states. We’re hanging onto these assets (a vast nuclear arsenal, the obsolete submarine force, more carrier groups than we could ever possibly need, expensive high-tech weaponry made for wars with comparably equipped militaries that are far away over the horizon, at best) just in case they are needed. But we clearly live in a world where such products of largess are not. The bugaboo that is a rising China is hardly an excuse to pour billions into the most fancy toys in the world, to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on readiness.
After the end of the Cold War, the American people were promised a peace dividend, which we saw only too briefly in the form of modest cuts to the Pentagon budget during the Clinton administration. But, since the beginning of the Global War on Terror, the flood gates of money have been opened once again, and we are paying for far more military might than we need, and using what we have in ways it was not designed to operate.
Maybe President Obama recognizes this, and that is why he announced the slow, torturous end to the war in Afghanistan last week. He looked at the blood and treasure lost in the conflict, and decided enough was enough, especially since Al Qaeda seems to be on its knees. This opens up another line of speculation. Just what are we fighting for in Afghanistan? Are we fighting terrorists? That seems to be working. Are we fighting the Taliban? What crime did they commit other than association with our enemies? If that’s all the justification we need to topple a regime, why not cross the border into Pakistan by force and end the farce that they are our allies once and for all? And if the Taliban are such demons, such kin to our Al Qaeda enemies, then why are we negotiating a peace deal with them as I write this, and Al Qaeda’s new head honcho, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is not invited to the party? Are we fighting for freedom, so that ours is defended here at home, and theirs is able to grow from the ground up like a freshly germinated and cared for seedling?
Americans have less personal freedoms since the attacks on 9/11. We are watched, spied upon, patted down, forced to peel down layers of clothing, etc. Thousands are humiliated everyday, forced to prove their innocence in a country whose due process laws are among the standard-bearers for the rights of the accused throughout the world. But now, all of us, some on a daily basis, but at least all during the course of a year, are forced to show they harbor no ill will towards the building/plane/sporting event they are about to enter, by showing that there are no malicious materials on their person or in their possession. We are a nation of the accused, pouring more than half a trillion of our dollars every year into a system that uses that cash to blow things up overseas and overreact to the threat of terrorism at home.
It’s well past time to start turning this around. It’s time to wrest our country back from the war machine.