According to over-excited headline writers, Washington’s current fiscal mess will cause crippling reductions in American military power. Don’t believe it. These reports are exaggerated, and often include the trimming of previously projected increases among the “cuts” to the Pentagon’s budget. In any case, all the evidence suggests the United States will continue spending massively on its military.

The Pentagon’s ostensible financial crisis needs to be put into perspective. According to US Congressional Budget Office figures, even if the biggest cuts currently being discussed were implemented, “base” defence expenditure (which understates the total by excluding combat operations and a number of other items including nuclear weapons) would still run at the 2007 level. In other words, the base military budget would be the same in real terms as it was following years of considerable growth under president George W. Bush.

To frame matters differently, most estimates put total annual US defence spending at more than twice the combined defence budgets of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. Add to that the fact that many of the world’s other biggest military spenders (Britain, France and Japan, for example) are friends of the United States, and the West’s strategic advantage becomes even more pronounced. A bit of trimming here and there won’t change that balance.

This level of spending seems paradoxical. A nation in reduced circumstances led by a Nobel Peace Prize winner is splurging mind-bending amounts on extra weapons it doesn’t seem to need. What’s going on? Three common but misleading explanations need to be dealt with before the question can be answered.

First, the war on terror hasn’t been the primary driver of the boom in military spending over the past 12 years. The major expansion was actually signposted in Bush’s 2000 election campaign, well before the September 11 attacks. Hunting al Qaeda hasn’t been especially expensive for the Pentagon, either, as it mostly involves intelligence operations, law enforcement and international cooperation. It does draw in some military assets, particularly special forces, but these represent only about 2% of defence funding.

Second, the budget isn’t driven by the challenge of rogue third world states. The list of these is shorter than it used to be, and the often ramshackle condition of these remaining regimes would make them relatively easy prey for US forces.

Third, although spending is at Cold War levels, it isn’t driven by a need to prepare for a third world war. The Soviet Union, with its contingency plans for global conflict and tens of thousands of tanks poised in Central Europe, no longer exists. In this respect, the United States is safer than it has been for decades.

So why the taxpayer generosity, running in excess of US$500 billion per year? Domestic politics is one reason. Appeals to patriotism and a sometimes self-righteous world view, together with a politically shrewd distribution of jobs, help shield the Pentagon from rigorous scrutiny. This domestic factor can give Republicans an edge in political wrangling. The party often seems to define American greatness in militarist terms that appeal to many flag waving voters. Democrats are made to look soft, and implicitly un-American, when they argue that buying extra weapons might be poor policy.

But while conservatives often desire more weapons, they also usually want less military activism. They especially want less Pentagon involvement in helping failed states; endeavours like these are typically dismissed as expensive, bound to fail, and the kind of social work that is beneath the dignity of the US military. Republicans tend to emphasise maximising strategic power rather than actually using it (except perhaps in the case of blasting Iran). So, in a reversal of the logic they apply to other sections of the public service, they effectively call for the armed forces to do less with more.

*Read the rest of this article at Inside Story