“We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world.”
Those words were spoken by President Trump on April 6, in his closing remarks about the targeted military strike he ordered on Shayrat air base in western Syria. Yes, our world today is very troubled indeed. And the United States, for one, faces international challenges against which its traditional wisdom seems to stand increasingly enfeebled. So it is good that the President prayed for God’s wisdom to meet the challenge.
With all due respect to the President, however, I can’t agree that deep cuts to the State Department and a large increase to the Defense Department is a way to wisdom. Yet that is the President’s policy.
Question. Will it make the world less troubled if the Pentagon’s already Goliath-sized war machine strides the world on even more steroids while the U.S. diplomacy and international negotiations that is the purview of the State Department gets pared down from its already lean weight?
Even the inimitable Mikhail Gorbachev has weighed in: “The world today is overwhelmed with problems,” Gorbachev wrote in a recent editorial published by Time. “Policymakers seem to be confused and at a loss. But no problem is more urgent than the militarization of politics and the new arms race. Stopping and reversing this ruinous race must be our top priority… Politicians and military leaders sound increasingly belligerent and defense doctrines more dangerous. Commentators and TV personalities are joining the bellicose chorus. It all looks as if the world is preparing for war.”
It is the U.S. State Department, not the Defense Department, that is tasked to work with other nations to ease adversarial relations and prevent conflicts and wars, and, better still, to seek to prevent adversarial relations from arising. In this article I will try to explain why wisdom to move in that direction must emerge in Washington if the U.S. is to help the world become a safer place, and why increased State Department funding is essential for moving on that path.
I’ll begin with a conclusion I’ve come to: the greatest challenge for the United States is not overseas; it’s not Vladimir Putin or Bashar Assad or Russia or Syria or China or North Korea or Iran or ISIS. The greatest challenge is here at home: to reverse the ever-deepening militarization of U.S. foreign policy.
This political orientation did not materialize overnight or with any one President. It is a result of a long-standing policy emphasis in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, to steadily increase American military superiority. The build-up of the U.S. military, including its nuclear capacities, did not ease up, as some expected it would, with the end World War Two (1945). Instead, by the end of his tenure as President (1960), Eisenhower warned in an historic speech of the dangers to liberty and democratic processes that hid latently in what he dubbed the “military-industrial complex,” the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.”
This was something new in the American experience, having arisen as a result of World War Two and expanding with Korean War and the ongoing Cold War. Eisenhower predicted that the dependence of the U.S. military and the arms industry on each other would get out-of-control if it were not resisted by “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” (This, from a retired 5-star general and former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during WW2.)
Commenting in 1970 on the 1960s, Hans Morgenthau (a leading American realist political thinker) had seen Eisenhower’s admonition going unheeded, both by Washington and by the citizenry, and he wrote an essay critical of what he called “the militarization of American life.” (Truth and Power: Essays of a Decade, 1960-1970, Hans Morgenthau; Praeger, 1970; see the Prologue.) (More recent political analysts and historians could also be cited who document the obvious as well as the hidden perils of an out-of-control military-industrial complex and a public disinterested in knowing them. See, for instance, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, an important book by historian and retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich.)
By the start of the new millennial, the centrifugal force of the military establishment and the arms industry had by then pulled the deliberations of Congress solidly into their orbit and a military-industrial-legislative complex was born. One effect of this three-way conjunction has been presidential end-runs around Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. Article 1 makes Congress, not a President, the authority to declare war. But that no longer seems to concern our elected officials or to the citizenry that elected them, Democrats and Republicans alike. A President just goes to Congress seeking a “joint resolution” authorizing the use of military force. Of all the “wars” the United States has fought since the end of WW2 (1945), Congress has not issued a single declaration of war since WW2.
The Mythology of the Military Solution
By the time of the unprecedented terrorist attack on America (September 11, 2001), much of Washington had become a faithful believer in the mythology of the military solution. Bolstered by the military-industrial-legislative complex, this mythology arose around a body of beliefs, values, and ideas that promote and fund policies, supported by both liberals and conservatives alike, to do whatever it takes to ensure U.S. military supremacy.
The cost of the mythology’s power over the faithful on both sides of the aisle and among a majority of the citizenry was evidenced when the U.S. war to dismantle al Qaeda and oust the Taliban from Afghanistan (late 2001) shifted in 2002 to extensive military preparations for the invasion of Iraq (launched in March 2003). Then when the war about Iraq did not end after the ouster of Saddam Hussein from power, but instead worsened and lengthened, Washington faced a serious economic challenge.
As the “war” quickly surged far beyond the $50-$60 billion that the George W. Bush administration had initially estimated as its cost, what to do? Because the U.S. government runs on budget deficits, there was no ready cash in the U.S. budget to pay for what was becoming a hugely expensive war. Trying to raise taxes – a traditional U.S. method of paying for a war – would be political suicide, out of the question. In fact, taxes were cut in 2003.
This posed a serious and unexpected problem for the Bush White House, and afterward for the Obama administration. When the Bush administration invaded Iraq, Afghanistan festered and bled. The country became a haven in which terrorist groups regenerated themselves and the Taliban regained footings. As James Fallows has written, Afghanistan “never had the chance, because America’s premature withdrawal soon fractured the alliance and curtailed postwar reconstruction. Indeed, the campaign in Afghanistan was warped and limited from the start, by a pre-existing desire to save troops for Iraq.”
As conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan grew increasingly more violent, Congress needed to find hundreds of billions of dollars a year of additional funds for the Pentagon to sustain a U.S. fighting presence in situ. But there were no increased tax monies to draw from. By the end of 2010, the cost of the war about Iraq alone had risen to just short of $1 trillion. In September of 2016, the Military Times reported that the financial cost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fighting ISIS, had cost the U.S. nearly $5 trillion to date, including costs such as for Homeland Security and expanded Veterans Affairs monies for returning troops.
With no new taxes to help pay for these ongoing military interventions, how then? The Bush administration kept the surging costs off the books, so to speak, by not asking Congress to include them in the U.S. budget with each passing year. Instead, the Pentagon received “supplemental appropriations” from Congress. This was one way to keep funding both fronts of what was originally deemed the war on terrorism. And by keeping the mounting hundreds of billions out of the annual U.S. budget debate, both the Bush and the Obama administrations benefitted by keeping the enormous costs out of the public’s mind.
But supplemental appropriations were not enough to pay for the ongoing wars, which seemed to have no end in sight, and for reconstruction, which never seemed to get completed. So Congress also began using billions of dollars that it borrows from other nations, including Japan and China. It works this way. The United States issues (sells) U.S. Treasury securities (bonds) to foreign countries (American citizens buy them, too), which come with a guarantee to buy them back with interest. These securities are not sold as program-specific. Congress does not say to China: buy such-and-such specific securities to help us pay for our war. Instead, the money that comes in from issuing securities to China and other nations goes into a pot that the government draws from to cover the cost of any number of government expenses. Congress began taking billions a year from that pot to help pay for the increasingly expensive wars.
Of course we’re just talking columns on a ledger here. The economic figures merely hint at what a full accounting of the “costs” of the long war, as some call it, or the endless war, as others call it, would be. The deaths and woundings of soldiers and civilians, including children, and the effect on families. The millions of refugees. The vacated battlefields left full of landmines. These and many other human dimensions of war’s tragedy must be included in any attempt at a true cost. And there is also this consequence to the next generation. Trillions of dollars have been added to the U.S. deficit as a result of going for “military solutions.” Debt that the American people did not sign off on, and which many are still unaware of, has been dump-trucked on to the backs of their children’s children. Will they be able to shovel themselves out from under this mountain?
The Decline of Diplomacy
If our elected officials in Washington, their advisors, and the American citizenry allow allegiance to the mythology of the military solution to influence their looks abroad, a crusading spirit will more easily instruct U.S. foreign policy at the expense of diplomacy and negotiations. A case in point is President Trump’s proposal to Congress to pass a 2018 U.S. budget that includes deep cuts to the State Department and increasing funding to the Defense Department.
The State Department’s budget for the fiscal year 2017 was roughly $50 billion. Military spending in the United States for the fiscal year 2017 ran to roughly $582 billion. President Trump’s budget proposal for 2018 will not be finalized until probably sometime in the autumn, but recent figures from the White House revealed the administration asking Congress to increase defense spending by 9% and to slash funding to the State Department by a whopping 29%. This would add roughly $52 billion to military spending and subtract roughly $14.5 billion from an array of State Department operations and programs, including diplomatic initiatives.
United States military spending already exceeds the combined military spending of the next seven countries: China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan. Where does Congress spend all that money? Here’s just one way. The United States has nearly 800 military bases around the world, in more the 130 countries, of various sizes and functions, manned by half a million troops, spies, contractors, and others (see the Pentagon’s Base Structure Report). Yet despite the hegemony of U.S. military bases circling the globe – not to mention U.S. nuclear superiority and the fact that America faces no existential threat – President Trump nevertheless seeks an additional $52 billion for the Pentagon.
With regard to decreasing State Department funding, the Trump administration’s official “America First Budget Blueprint” for 2018, released by the White House in March, states that the proposed budget seeks to “reduce or end direct funding for” programs that “are duplicative, or are not well-managed.” Fair enough. But next comes this: “Additional steps will be taken to make the Department and USAID leaner, more efficient, and more effective. These steps to reduce foreign assistance free up funding for critical priorities here at home and put America first.”
Slashing the State Department while making military solutions, so called, easier for the White House to reach for seems an incredibly naive rationale for keeping Americans safe in very troubled times. For it is not the arms of the Pentagon but the diplomatic teams of the State Department that are tasked to reach equitable agreements with other nations. Such negotiations seek, for instance, to keep international relations on an even keel, or turn adversarial relations around, or start to repair broken relations rather than resort to war.
As far as the President’s rationale for cutting the State Department’s budget, could not the same rationale have the Pentagon in its sights? Why does the President want to cut waste, curb duplications, and end any possible misuse of funds at the State Department but not at the Defense Department? Has there been none there? Further, does the President really believe that nearly one-third of the State Department’s funding ends up duplicated, wasted, and mis-managed? Is there less of that at the Pentagon? Even if the Defense figure turned out only to be five percent, that would still be approximately $29 billion. That figure doesn’t seem unreasonable. In December 2016, a story in The Washington Post explained a detailed investigation that uncovered $125 billion in bureaucratic waste at the Pentagon.
Be that as it may, rather than proposing draconian cuts to the State Department, wouldn’t it be wiser to leave that funding alone but shift whatever funding may be found to be amiss there into credibly existing well-run areas or to create needed programs and initiatives? If Congress is unwilling to cut waste at the Pentagon, wouldn’t it be better to leave the Defense budget alone (let it increase automatically, as it does, following adjustments for inflation) and instead seek Congress for $52 billion for, say, fixing infrastructure problems? That seems a good way to address “critical priorities” here at home. Why offer the White House a $52 billion temptation to make it easier to reach for another military solution* to make the world a safer place?
Diplomatic initiatives do not sound as sexy as launching Tomahawk missiles, flying off aircraft carriers, or hearing about SEAL Team Six raids. But diplomacy and negotiations are fundamental to keeping good international relations going and to easing adversarial relations, preventing conflicts, and ending wars. The faceless employees of State Department – nearly 70,000 of them at home and overseas – are tasked with making our troubled world less troubling. Diplomats, negotiators, and their teams keep nations talking to one another. Without their tireless, out-of-the news efforts, foreign relations deteriorate. If you stop talking to your spouse or your business partner, that relationship will go south.
The State Department, in part, runs 300+ embassies, consulates, and foreign missions around the world. The work of these venues includes, among many other things: running consular programs; helping people displaced by war; providing economic aid to help stabilize countries; supporting international peacekeeping efforts, disaster relief, and health programs; participating in cultural, educational, and feeding programs; and raising the profile of religious-freedom, which has become a priority in recent years for the State Department.
Besides that broad diplomatic array are international negotiations, such as talks between Washington, Moscow, Ankara, and other capitals to end the Syrian war and find a political solution. Keeping tensions in the South China Sea from boiling over; trying to reach out to North Korea; managing differences between Israel and Arab states; working with UN peacekeeping operations. Such international negotiations are indispensable in our very troubled world, and State Department teams are engaged in all of them, and many more besides, in their efforts with their counterparts in other nations to find equitable solutions and peaceable ways ahead. (Negotiating with those whom I call the “submit or die ideologues” is of course not possible.)
Unfortunately, diplomats often get a bad rap. But without diplomatic activities and international negotiations the world would be anarchic. Uninformed citizens, however, may get frustrated because negotiations seem to them to be “going nowhere,” or “going too slow,” or “getting us nothing,” or “hurting us,” or “pointless.” Yet it is the diplomats, especially in times of great international distress, not the generals, who can string along negotiations to allow tempers to cool. They can find ways to give facts on the ground opportunities to change for the better and so avoid a worsening of relations. They can open up space for creatively equitable agreements to be reached in order to avoid conflict or war. This was the wisdom of the arduous, P5+1 negotiations with Iran that took years but brought about the nuclear agreement in July, 2015.
The secret to successful diplomacy of this kind is what some call sweat equity. I once heard it put this way: I would rather engage in dialogue that produced 500 liters of sweat than spill one pint of blood. This must be the attitude among all negotiating parties who seek to ease their adversarial relations with each other. In order for that to occur, the parties must be honestly open with each other around the table, willing to set aside any comfortable myths they may hold about the other, and struggle for as long as it takes to reach an equitable agreement between their nations. Skilled diplomats, negotiators, and mediators get this. In our troubled days, more funding of State seems a wise way to increase more of this.
If Washington, the Trump administration, and the citizenry do not recognize anything else, they ought to understand that an underfunded State Department makes it that much harder to sustain U.S. security and promote U.S. values and interests. This was acknowledged by the 100+ generals, admirals, and other high-raking military officers who, on February 27, 2017, signed a letter and sent it to the four top Congressional leaders and cc’d it to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Advisor. They began their letter by saying that they were united in the view that “elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development … are critical to keeping American safe.” Signatories included notable such as Generals Casey, Hayden, Petraeus, and Zinni.
By decreasing the number of U.S. diplomats and their teams, “America would be under-represented, facilities would be closed, and the facilities that remain open would be undermanned,” said Douglas Lute, a retired three-star general. Karl Eikenberry, also a retired three-star general, agrees that scaling back the State Department is unwise. It sends the wrong message, he said. Our friends around the world “want to see a strong America, but one that leads by example and diplomacy, not with bayonets.”
In an editorial for Time, Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, documents ways in which the State Department should be strengthened, and why. His reason? “I cannot think of a higher risk for the U.S. than to have widely perceived weakness emanating for the State Department…. an effective State Department is essential…. budget cuts to State must be avoided, even if the Department of Defense has to bear them.”
Of Chariots and Horses
Eisenhower experienced the horrors, evils, and desperate limitations of war. Perhaps this is why he regularly lobbied Congress to reduce the Pentagon’s budget during the two terms he served as President. He of course favored a strong U.S. military. Yet, of the military-industrial complex, he said in his historic speech that we “must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society…. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.”
“In the councils of government,” he warned, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist… We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”
The councils of government, however, have not guarded against the danger. The mythology of the military solution appears to be winning the day and the decline of diplomacy is a result. It’s not that American diplomacy is a magic bullet. But that’s just the point. More bullets are not the answer. As General James Mattis quipped to a Congressional panel in 2013: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”
It’s not even that American diplomacy is unbiased when its ambassadors sit across the table with their counterparts from other nations. But without diplomacy and negotiations the state system has no means for easing adversarial relations, preventing conflict, and ending wars. Or for ensuring the stability of existing peace.
Let us, then, ask God for wisdom to make “our very troubled world” less troubled. And while we’re doing that, let us consider that in the wisdom of the Book “chariots and horses” is an image representing military power and also, often, the human arrogance that trusts in military might (Psalm 20:7-8).
The greatest challenge facing the United States today is here at home: to reverse the ever-deepening militarization of its foreign policy. We need a foreign policy repentance in that direction.
If you have read this far, thank you. This serious topic has been a difficult one for me to write about. Although it’s longer than most one-off articles on this blog, and although I did as much due diligence as I could before writing it, it’s not nearly long enough to escape facing appropriate questions and criticisms by military professionals. Several years ago I had a enlightening give-and-take with one such person, who disabused me of a lot of silliness about the thesis but who generally agreed with it. And while writing this article over the past few weeks, I sent a draft to two military pros, who provided challenging feedback, for which I am most grateful. Nevertheless, much remains to be said by people who are a lot smarter than me. I have merely tried to introduce a way of thinking about the U.S. military-industrial-legislative complex and diplomacy and negotiations that does not appear on the radar of most Americas but should.
If you are a military person or if this issue is new to you, at the very least I hope you will take to heart this dead honest reply to me from one of the recent military persons who read a draft of the article: “This is truly very very far from where I live intellectually and that is such a limiting factor that I tried to do some background, then re-read and re-read the article. Even from my hawkish viewpoint (experience, background, cultural, and other excuses/reasons) the piece resonates with me. Why? Because I want it to work without military intervention.”
* “Military solutions” is this article is being used ironically. Contrary to Clausewitz’s famous dictum that “war is politics by other means,” wars do not resolve the underlying social, economic, and political injustices that lead to them.
©2017 by Charles Strohmer
Images: The Pentagon, David B. Gleason; The White House, Glyn Lowe; USS Theodore Roosevelt; all permissions via Creative Commons.
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