Nicholas Kristof: America must cut military budget to ensure its security

America must cut military budget to ensure its security

America faces wrenching budget cutting in the years ahead, but there's one huge area of government spending that Democrats and Republicans alike have so far treated as sacrosanct.

It's the military-security world, and it's time to break that taboo. A few facts:

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• The United States spends nearly as much on military power as every other country in the world combined, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

• The US maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago.

• The US intelligence community is so vast that more people have "top secret" clearance than live in Washington, DC.

• The US will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusting for inflation, than spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War combined.

This is the one area where elections scarcely matter. President Barack Obama, a Democrat who symbolised new directions, requested about 6 per cent more for the military this year than at the peak of the Bush administration.

"Republicans think banging the war drums wins them votes, and Democrats think if they don't chime in, they'll lose votes," said Andrew Bacevich, a former military officer, now a historian at Boston University.

I'm a believer in a robust US military, which is essential for backing up diplomacy. But the implication is that we need a balanced chest of diplomatic and military tools alike. Instead, we have a billionaire military and a pauper diplomacy. The US military now has more people in its marching bands than the State Department has in its foreign service.

What's more, if you're carrying an armload of hammers, every problem looks like a nail. The truth is that military power often isn't very effective at solving modern problems, like a nuclear North Korea or an Iran on the nuclear path. Indeed, in an age of nationalism, our military force is often counterproductive.

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After the first gulf war, the US retained bases in Saudi Arabia on the assumption they would enhance US security. Instead, they appear to have provoked fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden into attacking the US. In other words, hugely expensive bases undermined US security.

Paradoxically, it's often people with experience in the military who lead the way in warning against over investment in arms. It was President Dwight Eisenhower who gave the strongest warning: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

And in the Obama administration, it is Defence Secretary Robert Gates who has argued military spending should expect closer, harsher scrutiny and has argued for more investment in diplomacy and development aid.

US troops in Afghanistan are among the strongest advocates of investing more in schools there because they see first hand that education fights extremism far more effectively than bombs. And here's the trade-off: for the cost of one US soldier in Afghanistan for one year, you could build about 20 schools.

There are a few signs of hope in the air. The deficit commission appointed by Mr Obama proposes cutting cash for armaments, along with other spending. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled a signature project, the quadrennial diplomacy and development review, which calls for more emphasis on aid and diplomacy.

"Leading through civilian power saves lives and money," Mrs Clinton noted, and she's exactly right. The review is a great document, but we'll see if it can be implemented -especially as House Republicans want cuts in the State Department budget.

They should remind themselves that, in the 21st century, the US government can protect its citizens in many ways: financing research against disease, providing early childhood programmes that reduce crime later, boosting support for community colleges, investing in diplomacy that prevents costly wars.

As we cut budgets, let's remember that these steps would, on balance, do far more for US security than a military base in Germany.

• Nicholas Kristof writes for The New York Times.