Paul Tullis's Grim Tidings

Bitter musings on politics and policy

Is Osama bin Laden the new Ronald Reagan?

with 12 comments

Conservatives like to crow about how Ronald Reagan won the Cold War by increasing military spending to such an extent that the Soviet Union couldn’t keep up, and went broke as a result. Historical shifts on the order of magnitude of the collapse of the Soviet system are usually a little more complicated than that, but for the sake of the argument let’s accept it, for a moment, as true.

Is al Qaeda doing the same thing to the US as the US did to the USSR?

Take a look at Pres. Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2011, then meet me back here in a sec.

See that giant portion of pink, in the circle on the right, labeled “defense”? Notice how spending on defense is greater than all other nondiscretionary spending combined?

From 1990-2002, the US enjoyed the “peace dividend” as a result of the end of the Cold War, with defense spending decreasing from $427bn in 1989 to $307bn in 2001 (including several years below $300bn). With inflation, that’s a decrease of 48%.

From 2002 to 2011, it’s gone from $328bn to a staggering $744bn! Even with inflation, that’s an increase of 95%.

The defense spending by this country is now greater than the next 14 countries combined, for 41.5% of the world total (based on 2008 figures). The rise began in the fiscal year following 9/11, and continues unabated today.

The military’s dominance of our budget it now such that even as sage and experienced a reporter as the New York Times‘s David Sanger is unable to contemplate the possibility of its diminution. On Tuesday, he wrote:

Unless miraculous growth, or miraculous political compromises, creates some unforeseen change over the next decade, there is virtually no room for new domestic initiatives for Mr. Obama or his successors.

For real? No room at all? How about closing several dozen of the hundreds of military bases we operate in over 100 countries? Bringing home the men and women of our armed forces–gay and straight–from a pointless war in Afghanistan? (Why is the right of Afghan girls to go to school more important than the right of American boys and girls not to die, alone, thousands of miles from home?)

I’ve seen what the drone operators see as they remotely fly UAVs over Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, and I’ve seen how much progress a ground war–which we were told six weeks after it started was over, yet continues today, 8 years later–has made. I feel confident that drones are the way to go. If the Taliban so much as pitches a tent we can see it and blow it up. Tent-pitching in Afghanistan, under this strategy, will be quickly eradicated.

Now I’m really going to generate some comments: How about we actually think about changing the policies that are pissing these people off, who send kids on airplanes to kill us?

I realize that there are many pseudo-Islamist radicals who will never be satisfied because they’re fucking psychos, but I also think that if we enforced international law in the Occupied Territories (i.e., eradicated the settlements and let the Palestinians build a functioning state, or fail trying); stopped killing civilians with abandon in Af-Pak; swore off starting illegal wars; and directed our limited resources to such things as keeping nuclear bombs out of the hands of unstable leaders and keeping college students with explosive briefs from getting visas, we would both have a lot fewer America-haters to contend with and a lot greater ability to deal with those that remained.

So this is the cost of an undeclared war against a group of a few hundred men who live in caves, whose preferred personnel carrier is the Toyota pickup truck, and who do battle with college students carrying explosives in their pants:


For this, we are bankrupting the nation? The future is laughing at us.

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12 Responses

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  1. Good post. I made this point to friends that since 9/11 we started to play right into the Osama playbook of how to bankrupt the West, both morally and financially. I hoped Obama would put an end to the senseless wars and bankrupt spending practices but he has turned into Bush II unfortunately.


    February 6, 2010 at 11:41 am

  2. It’s about time someone had the guts to say this. Americans fear terrorism far more disproportionately than the threat it actually poses us, and our overreaction has been a result of this.

    Think about it. Even the 9 / 11 attacks, as tragic and destructive as they were, only affected a few square blocks in NY. It was our fear and panic mongering by the media that made it so cataclysmic to the world.

    If Americans continue to look at the world in such a paranoid fashion, we will fight ourselves into oblivion.


    February 6, 2010 at 9:25 pm

  3. Since that is half what the bailout and stimulus is costing us….it’s a bargain


    February 6, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    • HA! Very clever on the surface, but as usual your comparison is ineffectual. If by “the bailout” you mean TARP–a Republican program–it’s being paid back; supposedly all of it will eventually be paid back. The auto-industry bailouts, which Obama instituted after Bush essentially punted (with all the bravery one should expect by a man who spent the Vietnam War in the Texas Air National Guard, protecting our nation from invasion by Mexico), were considerably less expensive. The stimulus funds–by which I assume you mean the Bush stimulus of 2008 as well as the Obama bill of 2009–are being paid out over three years. So it’s actually less than 1/2 as expensive (787+152=939/3=313 which is 42% of 744) as the Pentagon budget for F2011, and has the added bonus of keeping the economy from derailing while not financing death.

      Paul Tullis

      February 7, 2010 at 8:29 pm

  4. 1) no laughter in this future
    2) Unfortunately stopping the madness doesn’t stop the revenge. In the part of the world we have pissed off, they remember wrongs done to them for a thousand years. Our modern crusade will cost us throughout our grandchildren’s lifetimes.
    3) It shouldn’t take courage to speak the truth – something is very wrong with this country.


    February 7, 2010 at 4:57 am

  5. Don’t you mean, “Is Osama Bin Laden the new U.S.S.R?” or “Is terrorism the new Cold War?” Your Reagan/Osama analogy implies Osama is spending wildly on defense…which he likely is too.

    Aj Modahl

    March 3, 2010 at 11:25 am

    • I see what you’re saying, but look at it this way: Reagan made the USSR overspend on the military, causing the USSR to go broke. Now Osama is making the US overspend on the military, causing the US to go broke. So the analogy works. Thanks for your comment.

      Paul Tullis

      March 3, 2010 at 12:15 pm

  6. As far as I can tell the presence of the US military and our allies is the only thing keeping the current Afghan government alive. The fear that if we just leave the Taliban will retake the country is perfectly justified and something I think we want to avoid given we pissed them off pretty bad just by existing forget the whole invading and kicking them into those caves. I agree with your point that something needs to be done about military spending in this country but the drone idea becomes problematic when they stop pitching tents and move back into the towns and the missiles from the drones start killing civilians. The best solution in my opinion is to use the bat-shit crazy amount of money being spent on things that actually are useful. As bad-ass as an f-22 is more and more the military is declining requests for airstrikes and we haven’t fought a war against a forcer with a half decent air force since Vietnam. This money needs to be spent on improving the effectiveness of the individual infantry-man and small units: better equipment, vehicles, and training so we are prepared to fight conflicts like this and win. Does that make sense or am I just rambling?


    March 3, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    • No, you’re making sense. I don’t pretend to be a military expert, but I do wonder if it’s worth our blood and treasure or should we just leave Afghanistan. The pitching tents remark I meant as a reference to building terrorist training camps as they were allowing al Qaeda to do pre-9/11, which to my mind is the only direct geostrategic interest we have in the place. I don’t mean to sound callous, but things are rough all over; 4,000,000 people have died in the DRC the last 10 years and no one in Washington gives a good god-damn. Did we do anything about Zimbabwe when Mugabe was sending goon squads around killing anyone who dared vote for MDC?
      Afgh. aside, there is spending by the Pentagon that we just don’t need: Maintaining a nuclear arsenal big enough to practically blow up the planet, just for starters. The F-22. Yes, we benefit by the general state of peace that prevails with our navy & air force keeping everyone in check but there’s got to be a way to do about as much for a lot less money. Let the countries whose well-being we’re ensuring start to pony up, to begin with.

      Paul Tullis

      March 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm

      • Isn’t asking a country like Afghanistan to pony up kind of like asking a homeless guy for money? They are attempting to give us what they can in the form of manpower but they are still reliant on us to turn them into anything more than cannon fodder. I guess that the idea is that we spend the blood and treasure now shaping afghanistan into a country we can rely on to police itself so we don’t have to worry about it all in the future. You’re comment was not really callous this is callous: the African massacres (or whatever you want to call them) pose very little threat to this country and I would say we shouldn’t necessarily give a good god-damn about it, whereas a Taliban controlled Afghanistan poses a much more significant threat. While I am disregarding the value of human life I also want to point out that in terms of straight military accounting the cost of maintenance and armament for a drone strike is probably considerably higher that the cost of sending a company of infantry to take out a training camp, especially if those troops are afghan.


        March 3, 2010 at 3:42 pm

      • Sorry, I’m not being very clear. I meant that the countries which benefit in a more indirect way from US military protection –Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, etc.- – should be the ones ponying up. As to the Afgh/African nations analogy, what I’m saying is that I’m not sure that a Taliban-controlled Afgh is any more of a threat per se than a Mugabe-controlled Zimbabwe as long as we make sure they’re not harboring al Qaeda. And we can monitor whether there are terrorist training camps being set up with satellites, and attack if necessary drones. (There was a strike against bin Laden planned during the Clinton administration but they called it off when it looked like a prince of Bahrain, if memory serves, was visiting and might get hit; so now that we’ve been attacked we’re more obviously justified than we might have been then.) And the US can’t just send an infantry company in to take out a training camp: they require support and supply and means of embarkment and escape. If you mean Afgh would do it itself, well, I’m not sure the current govt of Afgh could stand w/o the US there.

        Paul Tullis

        March 3, 2010 at 5:37 pm

  7. […] point that the government is incapable of functioning except for the purposes it deems worthy, like dominating the globe.  So all they care about is wielding power, rather than governing. If you hate government, it […]

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