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America’s war addiction drives US debt crisis

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Picture: Rolex dela Pena/EPA-EFE – United States Army soldiers practice fire-support drills during exercises with the Philippine Army at Fort Magsaysay military camp in Nueva Ecija province, north of Manila, last month. The US military budget could be cut if America replaced its wars of choice and arms races with real diplomacy and arms agreements, says the writer.

By Jeffrey D Sachs

In 2000, the US government debt was $3.5trillion, equal to 35 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). By last year, the debt was $24trillion, equal to 95 percent of GDP. The country’s debt is soaring, hence America’s current debt crisis.

Yet both the Republicans and Democrats are missing the solution: stopping America’s wars of choice and slashing military outlays. Suppose the government’s debt had remained at a modest 35 percent of GDP, as in 2000, today’s debt would be $9trillion, as opposed to $24trillion.

Why did the US government incur the excess $15trillion in debt? The single biggest answer is the US government’s addiction to war and military spending. According to the Watson Institute at Brown University, the cost of US wars from fiscal year 2001 to fiscal year 2022 amounted to a whopping $8 trillion, more than half of the extra $15trillion in debt.

The other $7 trillion arose roughly equally from budget deficits caused by the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. Facing down the military-industrial lobby is the vital first step to putting America’s fiscal house in order. To surmount the debt crisis, America needs to stop feeding the Military-Industrial Complex, the most powerful lobby in Washington.

As US President Dwight D Eisenhower famously warned on January 17, 1961: “In the councils of government, 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.”

Since 2000, the Military-Industrial Complex has led the US into disastrous wars of choice in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Ukraine. The Military-Industrial Complex long ago adopted a winning political strategy by ensuring that the military budget reaches into every Congressional district. The Congressional Research Service recently reminded the US Congress that, “defence spending touches every member of Congress’s district through pay and benefits for military service members and retirees, economic and environmental impact of installations, and procurement of weapons systems and parts from local industry, among other activities”.

Only a brave member of Congress would vote against the military-industrial lobby, yet bravery is certainly no hallmark of Congress.

America’s annual military spending is now around $900billion, roughly 40 percent of the world’s total, and greater than the next 10 countries combined. The country’s military spending last year was triple that of China.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the military outlays for 2024-2033 will be a staggering $10.3trillion on the current baseline. A quarter or more of that could be avoided by ending America’s wars of choice, closing down many of America’s 800 or so military bases around the world, and negotiating new arms control agreements with China and Russia.

Yet instead of peace through diplomacy, and fiscal responsibility, the Military-Industrial Complex regularly scares the American people with a comic-book style depiction of villains whom the US must stop at all costs. The post-2000 list has included Afghanistan’s Taliban, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and recently China’s Xi Jinping. War, we are repeatedly told, is necessary for America’s survival.

A peace-oriented foreign policy would be opposed strenuously by the military-industrial lobby but not by the public. Significant public pluralities already want less, not more, US involvement in other countries’ affairs, and less, not more, US troop deployments overseas. Regarding Ukraine, Americans overwhelmingly want a “minor role” (52 percent) rather than a “major role” (26 percent) in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This is why neither President Joe Biden nor any recent president has dared to ask Congress for any tax increase to pay for America’s wars. The public’s response would be a resounding “No!”

While America’s wars of choice have been awful for the country, they have been far greater disasters for countries that America purports to be saving. As Henry Kissinger famously quipped: “To be an enemy of the United States can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal.” Afghanistan was America’s cause from 2001 to 2021, until the US left it broken, bankrupt and hungry. Ukraine is now in America’s embrace, with the same likely results: ongoing war, death and destruction.

The military budget could be cut prudently and deeply if the US replaced its wars of choice and arms races with real diplomacy and arms agreements. If presidents and members of Congress had only heeded the warnings of top American diplomats such as William Burns, the US ambassador to Russia in 2008, and now CIA director, the US would have protected Ukraine’s security through diplomacy, agreeing with Russia that the US would not expand Nato into Ukraine if Russia also kept its military out of Ukraine. Yet relentless Nato expansion is a favourite cause of the Military-Industrial Complex; new Nato members are major customers of US armaments.

The US has also unilaterally abandoned key arms control agreements. In 2002, it unilaterally walked out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. And rather than promote nuclear disarmament – as the US and other nuclear powers are required to do under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – the Military-Industrial Complex has sold Congress on plans to spend more than $600bn by 2030 to “modernise” the US nuclear arsenal.

Now the Military-Industrial Complex is talking up the prospect of war with China over Taiwan. The drumbeats of war with China are stoking the military budget, yet a war with China is easily avoidable if the US adheres to the One-China policy that properly underpins US-China relations. Such a war should be unthinkable. More than bankrupting the US, it could end the world.

Military spending is not the only budget challenge. Ageing and rising healthcare costs add to the fiscal woes. According to the Congressional Budget Office, debt will reach 185 percent of GDP by 2052 if current policies remain unchanged. Healthcare costs should be capped, while taxes on the rich should be raised. Yet facing down the military-industrial lobby is the vital first step to putting America’s fiscal house in order, needed to save the US, and possibly the world, from America’s perverse lobby-driven politics.

Sachs is an American economist. This article was first published on Common Dreams