What Would an ‘America First!’ Security Policy Look Like?

by | Feb 24, 2018


Republicans love to caricature Democrats as big spenders whose only approach to any problem is to throw money at it. As with most caricatures, it is made easy by the fact that it is mostly true. At least when it comes to domestic entitlement programs, nobody can top the party of FDR and JFK when it comes to doling out goodies to favored constituencies paid for by picking someone else’s pocket.

However, Republicans are hardly the zealous guardians of the public purse they would have us believe. While quick to trash their partisan opponents for making free with taxpayers’ money, they are no less happy to do the same – at least when it’s called “national defense.”

Over the next five years, the Trump administration will spend $3.6 trillion on the military. The GOP-controlled Congress’s approved, with Republicans voting overwhelmingly in the affirmative, the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018” (HR 1892) and the “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018” (HR 2810). With respect to the former, the watchdog National Taxpayers Union urged a No vote:

An initial estimate of approximately $300 billion in new spending above the law’s caps barely scratches the surface in terms of total spending. The two-year deal also includes $155 billion in defense and non-defense Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) spending, $5 billion in emergency spending for defense, and more than $80 billion in disaster funding. $100 billion in proposed offsets are comprised of the same budget gimmicks taxpayers have seen used as pay-fors over and over and are unlikely to generate much of a down-payment on this new spending.

Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) poses the question that few in Washington – and certainly few Republicans – are willing to ask: “Is our military budget too small, or is our mission too large?” He notes:

Since 2001, the U.S. military budget has more than doubled in nominal terms and grown over 37 percent accounting for inflation. The U.S. spends more than the next eight countries combined.

It’s really hard to argue that our military is underfunded, so perhaps our mission has grown too large. That mission includes being currently involved in combat operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Niger, Libya, and Yemen. We have troops in over 50 of 54 African countries. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost over a trillion dollars and lasted for over 15 years.

Defense spending is about survival, right? If you need to spend it, you spend it. But realistically, how does one assess whether spending is too much or too little without looking at the strategy the military is tasked with carrying out, and whether it makes any sense?

Proponents of increased – always increased – spending, like Defense Secretary James Mattis, point to real problems with increased accident rates due to poor training or equipment maintenance or the fact that most army brigades and navy planes are not ready for combat. But is that a symptom of too little money or of a force stretched beyond its limits by conducting operations anywhere and everywhere with little regard for actual U.S. interests?

That doesn’t matter politically, though. The message is, if you don’t support giving more money, you are guilty of neglecting the nation’s security and of killing service personnel. No wonder only a brave handful of Republican legislators consistently are willing to say “No” like Senator Paul and a few House members: Justin Amash (Michigan), John Duncan (Tennessee), Walter Jones (North Carolina), Raul Labrador (Idaho), and Thomas Massie (Kentucky).

Here’s a crazy idea. What if instead of taking for granted a national security policy that seeks to maintain US supremacy over every square inch of the globe we figure out what our real defense needs are – protecting our own country, not mucking about in the rest of the world – and then structure and fund the forces we need? What would that look like?

To start with, we know what it doesn’t look like: the policies followed by Presidents and Congresses of both parties for the past three decades since the Berlin Wall came down. While the Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) takes a commendable but befuddled nod toward genuine American interests – Pillar I (defense of American borders and tightening immigration controls to keep dangerous people out) and Pillar II (ending unfair trade practices and restoring America’s industrial base) – the real meat and potatoes is in Pillar III (“Preserve Peace Through Strength”), which could have been drafted by any gaggle of George W. Bush retreads – and no doubt was – or for that matter by Obama holdovers.

The NSS’s Pillar III is little more than a rehash of the usual litany of “threats” from China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, etc. It’s symptomatic that these are clustered under “Strategy in a Regional Context” as Indo-Pacific (a perfectly ridiculous concept that could best be summed up as “China – bad!”), Europe (“Russia – bad!”), Middle East (“Iran – bad!”), and South and Central Asia. Next comes the region that should be our first concern, but isn’t: the Western Hemisphere (“Cuba and Venezuela – bad!”). Last comes Africa (well, at least we can agree on something), but we still need a dedicated Africa Command (which for some reason is located not in Africa but in Stuttgart, Germany).

Still, just suppose that by some wild unpredictable accident we ended up with a strategy that in some way resembled the “America First!” prioritization Donald Trump promised us? Here’s a possible broad sketch:

Western Hemisphere comes first, not last. As they say in New England, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Presumably good walls make even better neighbors. Whatever happened to controlling our own border with Mexico, which was the cornerstone of President Donald Trump’s campaign? That remains hostage to political horse-trading and a budgetary game of chicken in the Washington Swamp. As far as the political class is concerned, the Wall can wait until mañana.

At the same time, the US is all too happy to meddle in our neighbors’ internal affairs under the justification of “democracy promotion.” Recently Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed such meddling was an expression of the Monroe Doctrine, which he said “clearly has been a success, because… what binds us together in this hemisphere are shared democratic values.” Really? That would have been big news to President James Monroe, who promulgated the Doctrine back in 1823 when no other country in the Americas could be described as a democracy and when even most of the US Founding Fathers would have disputed that label for the Republic they sought to create. Monroe’s declaration had nothing to do with democracy. Rather, its core was a warning to other powers not to establish colonies in our hemisphere, an exclusion which we have considered essential to our security for almost two centuries. Even as a relative infant on the international scene, long before our young nation had emerged as a power on a par with those of Europe, the United States considered it reasonable to ask other powers not to step on our toes in our own neighborhood.

– Respecting the “Monroe Doctrines” of other powers: The regional deference the United States has demanded in our own area for nearly 200 years is precisely the one we today refuse to accord to other respectable powers, namely China and Russia, by conceding the primacy of their security interests in, respectively, the former Soviet space and in the western Pacific. Instead – as under Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush – the Trump administration still rejects the principle of “spheres of influence,” which in practice means not only asserting mastery in the Western Hemisphere but over every square inch of the globe. Today not a single sparrow falls to the ground anywhere but that a divinely omniscient and omnipotent Washington must have the last word about it – generously lubricated with rhetoric about democracy, human rights, rule of law, and other invocations of “universal principles.”

Despite suggestions from the foreign policy establishment, neither China nor anyone else is threatening the sea lanes in the South China Sea. Even America’s closest regional partners do not want to be pushed into a military confrontation with China to suit the agenda of “indispensables” in Washington. American concerns about North Korea can only be solved with Beijing’s security respected – and without the presence on the peninsula of almost 30,000 American “tripwire” troops and tens of thousands more in Japan.

In Europe, NATO forces should stand back from Russia’s borders and territorial waters. NATO expansion should be ended – even after the Trump administration’s ill-advised decision to induct tiny and corrupt Montenegro – while a new security architecture in Europe takes shape. The Alliance’s 2008 pledge to bring in Georgia and Ukraine should be withdrawn. Better yet, get us out of NATO entirely! We and our European friends should be finding a way to cooperate with Russia on pulling Ukraine out of its political and economic crisis as a united, neutral state, not pumping in lethal weapons so touch off renewed large-scale fighting.

An American accord with Russia and China is the stable tripod of any rational global peace, and no one else really matters at the moment. Russia boasts the world’s greatest landmass and natural resources unrivalled by any other country. She also has the only nuclear arsenal comparable to America’s. China is the most populous country in the world, with an economy achieving a par with ours and a burgeoning military sector. If American policy had been designed to alienate both of these giants and drive them to cooperate against us – and maybe it was designed to do that – it could not have been more successful.

– Get the hell out of the Middle East and Central Asia. The NSS risibly refers to the undesirability of America’s earlier “disengagement” from the region, evidently a reference to the Obama administration’s not being quite as bellicose as its authors might prefer (for example, only supporting terrorists in Syria, not invading the place outright), Of dubious value even in its time, President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 declaration that the Persian Gulf region lies within the vital interests of the United States is only a dangerous absurdity now. The entire region designated under the goofy moniker “Greater Middle East” is a welter of ethnic and religious antagonisms and unstable states that for America have only two things in common: (1) they ain’t us, and (2) they ain’t nowhere near us. It’s not America’s job to sort the place out, via such fool’s errands as nation-wrecking in Libya and Syria, nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq (after wrecking them), and “mediating” to “solve the problem” of the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The sole interest the U.S. and the American people have in the region is to ensure that jihad terrorism doesn’t achieve a sufficient foothold as to present a threat to us here. However, our regional efforts have instead served to increase and import that threat, not diminish it. American policy toward the region should rest on two pillars: (1) limiting our contact with it, above all drastically cutting down immigration from the area and, hence, the prospect of importing more terrorists; and (2) instead of favoring terrorism-supporting regimes like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, defer to countries with more direct interests in the region but who also have a fundamentally anti-jihad outlook, principally Russia, China, and India. Let them babysit Afghanistan.

Other than that – include us out.

Granted, this is only an outline, but it’s a start. Back to the matter of Republicans’ penchant for overspending on the military, the force needed for this concept of “America First!” – one that focuses first of all on defending our territory and people – could only be a fraction of what we spend now. Wouldn’t it be great to finally get that “Peace Dividend” we were promised until George H.W. Bush decided he’d rather build a New World Order starting in Kuwait?

Reprinted with permission from Strategic Culture Foundation.