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America’s Empire Run By Defense Dept., Says Author

Aired 8/16/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

A new book points budget-cutting lawmakers right to the US Defense Department. Author Stephen Glain, who has traveled the world as a journalist, gives the Department of Defense failing grades for the way it's been spending a trillion of our dollars every year.

A so-called super committee of 12 in Congress will soon be at work, trying to trim about one-and-one- half trillion dollars from the nation's deficit. Everything, they say, is on the table. But if the committee wanted to make quick work of it's job, a new book points in one very promising direction for budget-cutting lawmakers: the US Defense Department. Author Stephen Glain, who was raised in Fallbrook, has traveled the world as a journalist. He gives the Department of Defense failing grades for the way it's been spending a trillion of our dollars every year.

Guest: Stephen Glain, aurhor of "State vs. Devense: The Battle to Define America's Empire.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. A so called super committee of 12 in Congress will soon be at work trying to trim about one and a half trillion dollars from the nation's deficit. Everything, they say, is on the table. If the committee wanted to make quick work of their job, a new book points in one very promising direction for budget come cutting lawmakers. The U.S. defense department. Stephen Glain, raised in Fallbrook has travelled the world as a journalist, and gives the Department of Defense failing grades for the way it's been spending a trillion of our dollars ever year his new book is called state -- defense: The battle to define America's empire. Welcome to the show.

GLAIN: Thank you for having me on.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I think that it's still a controversial assertion that America has an empire. Why do you say that in your title, and what does this empire consistent of?

GLAIN: Well, it may be a controversial in some parts of the United States , but it's certainly not controversial over where I've listened and work in the last 20 years. As you may have noticed, if you looked at the book, I've worked in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, I've lived in those places as well and the Middle East. And one of the reasons why I wrote the book is because I was just so struck at the extent to which America was represented abroad by people in military uniform, which very much struck me as being more consistent with an empire than a republic.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Stephen, when you were a kid growing up here in San Diego County, how did you think America was presenting itself to the world?

GLAIN: That's a good question. I grew upright adjacent Camp Pendleton. And a lot of my friends growing up until I graduated from Fallbrook high were marine brats. And I spent a lot of time in their homes for Sunday night dinners, and I was thrilled to listen to their stories, talking about where they'd been all over the world. And so I knew that we had a very large military presence over seas. This was at the height of the cold war. It wasn't until I went abroad, which during my tenure, coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the staying power of this military footprint struck me as increasingly anachronistic, especially considering so many of the host countries U.S. bases were becoming so economically successful, and did not need such a preponderance of assistance from the U.S. military.

CAVANAUGH: In the preface of your book, you say that you found that America was most often represented abroad not by teachers and doctors or diplomats but by people in uniform. Why did this concern you?

GLAIN: Because it sends signal to the world that the U.S. is about enforcing things, and imposing its will on other countries. Even if that is not necessarily the case. In many ways, it's not. But I think there's a big difference between the United States , which hasn't been invaded since the early nineteenth century and knows nothing of war in its front yard or in its living room, and the rest of the world like Korea, for example, which is a war torn country for many years. Japan, of course, which was devastated during the war in Europe as well. So they look at things different he than we do. We're very blessed in this country to have a military and civilian led government, the highest best trained and best educated military in history, really. And we take that for granted. But that's not necessarily the way our friends and allies look thea it over seas.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with journalist and author Stephen Glain, his book is called state versus defense am give us an idea, how many troops and civilians employed by the military are actually deployed around the world right now, and what does that cost us?

GLAIN: There's approximately 100 and 90,000, I believe troops and civilian employees of the Department of Defense. Now, when you ask about the cost, there's the baseline defense budget, which is about $650 billion. That's reason, I think on average about 6% a year for the last ten years. But then you have to factor in the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, then you have to factor in the cost of our security, our intelligence budgets, our nuclear stock pile. These are all on the books of other departments and agencies. By the time you add all that up, it's over a trillion dollars. And it's about 20, 25% of our federal budget. Of when you factor in the amount of our entitlement systems, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, that's pretty much the entire budget. So this is why I think the defense budget is now on the table for cutting spending, because as hard as it is for some congressmen to do this, it's not as difficult as going after Social Security. If I could just say one thing, one reason why I wrote the book is because not so much because I thought the military was failing in its job. It's obviously doing its job very well. With the end of the cold war, it's clear to me and increasingly clear to others that our foreign deployments of troops are out of synch with the nature of the threats that we face today.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

GLAIN: And if we are going to achieve any substantial levels of savings and restore our fiscal house, we are going to have to start taking a critical look at these legacies of the cold war, with an aim toward dissolving them.

CAVANAUGH: Right. In fact, the major thrust of your book, state versus defense is how the defense department seemed to win in priority over state, that is, diplomacy, and addressing the world in a nonmilitaristic fashion. And after the cold war ends, as you state, you might think the balance of power between state and defense might equalize. Why didn't that happen?

GLAIN: That's a very good question. There's a lot going on here. For one thing, we all know about the military industrial complex. It may be surprising to know, as it was surprising for me to find out as I finished the book, that the true agents of militarization are not people in the military. We still have a civilian run government in the country.

CAVANAUGH: Can I stop you for a second there Stephen? There sounds like this is something going on your line. Is that something on your end?

GLAIN: It must be.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

GLAIN: Maybe I'll find a neutral spot in the room.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Sounds good.

GLAIN: So as I was saying, it's usually civilians that embrace a militaristic response too to a foreign policy challenge. It's not the people in uniform. It's also -- it often comes from Capitol Hill. Our lawmakers have a history of politicizing foreign policy for their own domestic political imperatives. It's also a function of this vast industrial complex where we're developing these enormously expensive weapons, and we're -- the Pentagon is very good on making sure the components of these weapons are manufactured in other states of the union. So that the political, the politicians have a buy in to keep those factories going. And there's just the sense that the collapse of the cold war, there were individuals in positions of authority and the bush administration, the first Bush administration that believed the United States should perpetuate -- expand and perpetuate its hegemony around the world.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And one of the points you make in the book, beyond the cost, beyond the politics involved is actually the effectiveness of the various policies that we pursue. For instance, what would be the difference in how a militarist would look at, say, the situation now in Somalia? This lawless and starving country of Somalia? And how a trained diplomat might look at that situation?

GLAIN: That's true. And that gets us to this whole phenomenon of supply driven resolutions. If you're a junior officer, say a lieutenant colonel, and your job is to pacify Somalia or a similarly lawless place, you're obviously going to bring to the table your tools. And your tools are going to be probably a combination of military might and persuasion situation. On the country or the tribal level. If you're a diplomat, you don't -- you have a different set of tools. In general, what I found in researching the book is that whoever has the biggest tool set is probably going to prevail. And when you're spending $12 on security for every $1 you're spending on diplomacy, chances are that those $12 are going to prevail.

CAVANAUGH: You see a lot of the problems that you've been talking about come to the fore in the U.S. response to 911. What was your concern about that?

GLAIN: Well, every -- one thing I learned is that pretty much every inflection point throughout the cold war, when the United States decided it had to go to war, it misinterpreted the nature and the motive of our adversary, whether it was frankly going back to the Russian revolution, but also Korea and Vietnam. And we certainly did that after 911 when we invested in al Qaeda a capability and a motivation that it did not have. We were told that the attacks were about our ideals, our democracy, our way of life, when in fact anyone who would have Googled Bin Laden and read his 1996 declaration of war against the United States , it's quite clear it was about largely secular things, secular causes, which are our policies in the Middle East. And Bin Laden had been saying that for a long time. By inflating al Qaeda's capabilities, it was a slippery slope to this -- to an enormously militarized response to what was really a parochial or a problem that could have been managed with a much more surgical approach.

CAVANAUGH: You spend -- you have spent much of your time abroad in Asia, and it might come as a surprise to people reading this book that some of the most provocative statements in your book are about what you see as a potential U.S. war with China. Why do you think that's coming?

GLAIN: The United States and China are talking past one another. The U.S. says that it welcomes the peaceful rise of China. At the same time it is not prepared to concede to China any control whatsoever of the Asia Pacific region, especially as it relates to waters that China claims contrary to the claims of many of its neighbors. And these are vital water ways that are important to the health of global commerce. China's response, which is getting increasingly candid as it gets increasingly rich, is that you Americans had your man row doctrine and your manifest destiny, and for most of the last 3,000 years, Asia has been a sign of censured block. And we simply want to restore that balance of power or prerogative as a regional power. Until the two sides, until these two competing or these two competing positions can be reconciled diplomatically, I fear that some kind of conflict between the two sides is likely, especially when you look at what is already under way, a considerable arms race between the two parties.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I started this by saying that budget cutters in Washington might have an easy job on their hands if they focused on defense spending, but in about the 30 seconds we have left, Stephen, how politically feasible is a big cut in defense?

GLAIN: Well, I'm concerned that they're going to do it in a cavalier manner. They seem to be going after the benefit it is side, the human resources side, the pension funds and the medical plans of the employees of the Department of Defense, both civilian and military. Which might have a deleterious impact on our ability to recruit good people and or to get good people to reenlist. And I hope they'll be more that you feel as they go about it. Having said that, they seem to be looking at a sizeable cut. My advice would be to look at what's going on over seas where we've got these outdated, anachronistic cold war legacy deployments, which aren't doing anyone any good, and we're doing it on behalf of our allies that are some of the richest countries on earth, and they can more than take care of themselves with the resources they have.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with journalist and author Stephen Glain about his new book, state versus defense, the battle to define America's empire. Stephen, thank you.

GLAIN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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