: In a broad sense, how would you describe the foreign policy of the US?
: Well, in two words: Empire First. I contrast that with what Donald Trump thought he wanted to seek as a candidate, America First.
Now these are obviously simplifications and slogans, but there is an underlying substance that’s really important.
I think the basic idea behind “America First” is reaching way back to Robert Taft in the 1950s. He said that we cannot have a permanent warfare state in America, because our foreign policy doesn’t require it and our fiscal capacities can’t afford it.
What Taft basically said is the US sits between these two great ocean moats in a nuclear age, where the number-one threat is a nuclear threat, not an invasion of conventional forces. The way you deal with that is to have overwhelming retaliatory capacity, to keep the other side at bay.
As a matter of fact, he was totally right. It worked for 40 years. The Soviet Union finally crumbled under its own weight in 1991, and therefore the case was proved. There was no industrial society, high-tech conventional military threat left in the world. The opportunity arose in the early 1990s to go really full out America First.
Why did we keep all of these aircraft carriers, battleships, all this forward power projection capability, air refueling capabilities, 100 bases or more all over the world? None of that was needed throughout the entire Cold War, but most especially after 1991. That’s the direction we should have gone.
Where we ended up was in the opposite direction of what I call “America First.” Instead of dismantling NATO, we expanded it from 15 to 29 countries.
Instead of keeping faith with the promise that was made to Gorbachev by Secretary of State Jim Baker and George Bush the elder—that NATO would not expand a single inch to the east—instead, we basically encircled the entire rump state of Russia that was left after the Soviet Union fell apart. That has then led to the case for a military budget this year of $750 billion, when the truth is a homeland defense would cost less than $250 billion.
: What are your thoughts on the amount of money the US spends on foreign aid, wars, the so-called intelligence community, the State Department, and other aspects of foreign policy?
: The excess over what we need for homeland defense is more than a half trillion dollars per year—money we are wasting that we don’t have, that we’re borrowing and passing on to future generations.
We’re really at a point where there is a stark contrast between what homeland security and the safety of people in Lincoln, Nebraska, or Spokane, Washington, require—and what they continually produce in the imperial city in Washington, DC, with this massive warfare-state budget.
Now, unfortunately the lesson that we’ve learned in the first three years of the Trump administration is that good intentions, even vague ones—and Trump surely had no articulated or well-developed content to his notion of America First—they don’t stand a chance against this massive machine that is self-perpetuating.
In other words, Empire First dominates our foreign policy, because there’s so much money flowing into the Pentagon, the 17 intelligence agencies, and the rest.
That money is also going to the tens of thousands of people who are getting paid big salaries to work as contractors for the NSA and other agencies. They form a built-in lobbying force of tremendous effectiveness to keep the funds flowing.
When you add to that all of the think tanks that get money from the State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy, and various pockets and crevices in the Pentagon that no one can even keep up with, essentially you have what I call the equivalent of a self-licking ice cream cone.
The thing just keeps going because it’s so big it feeds itself—the $750 billion defense budget is just the beginning. That’s the Department of Defense budget per se, but if you add in another $25 billion for nuclear energy programs at the Department of Energy, $50 billion for security assistance and foreign aid, international relations, another $60–70 billion for Homeland Security, and then the veterans’ budget, which is $200 billion, it’s just massive. It represents the deferred cost of all these stupid wars that we’ve had and didn’t need.
Altogether we’re talking about a $1.1 trillion budgetary monster that creates these enormous flows of dollars that want to perpetuate themselves. Therefore, the kind of America First rationality that the world situation clearly would permit and support is completely lost.
I don’t know what these people think they’re fighting. Do they think that China is going to get up and bomb 4,000 Walmart stores in America? That’s not going to happen. Their economy would collapse in six months if they began serious military activities or threats against the United States or Western Europe.
Russia has a GDP of $1.6 trillion, which is less than the GDP of the New York metropolitan area. It’s a little rump state that has a lot of hydrocarbons, some wheat fields, and a workforce that is shrinking because of a fondness for vodka.
These are obvious facts and the fundamentals. Let’s call it the structure of the global national security environment. It’s so obvious that this massive warfare state machine that we have is not needed. We could go the route of America First—homeland defense, the Taftian posture—and yet there’s not a snowball’s chance in the hot place that it gets any kind of airtime, exposure, or debate in Washington, DC.
Donald Trump even tried to get the last 2,000 or 3,000 troops out of Syria, where we have no reason to be whatsoever. None, zero, zip. He can’t do that because he is undermined by his own advisors and the embedded Deep State that has never seen a war that it wanted to end and never an occupation that it didn’t want to perpetuate.
: It seems the one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on is a more aggressive foreign policy. Why does US foreign policy never seem to change, regardless of who is in power?
: That’s really a good question, and I think there are two dimensions to it.
One, just in terms of the structure, when you have $1.1 trillion dollars pouring into the system every year, it creates an overwhelming lobbying force for self-perpetuation. To perpetuate this massive budget, it needs to have threats, dangers, enemies, and all the rest. The whole system is in the business of threat inflation—even threat manufacture.
It’s not just the defense contractors, as I said before. It’s all the chattering classes that inhabit these NGOs, think tanks, and all the rest of it.
Ukraine would be a great example of this now, or why we are stumbling around in Syria. Why did we walk away from the Iranian nuclear deal and impose this vicious economic blockage and sanction war? That’s inviting some kind of hostile response at some point.
The second thing is this whole Russia-gate issue from 2016. It has essentially neutered the Democratic Party as a rational voice in foreign affairs and the restraint that it historically had on the warfare state.
I started back in the ’60s, protesting the Vietnam War. I went to all the marches on the Pentagon and all the rest of it.
The reason I bring this up is, at that point in time, the Democratic Party was loaded with doves and antiwar people and people who were skeptical of anything you would hear from the CIA. We knew what the CIA was.
The Democratic Party produced a lot of statesmen in the 1970s: McGovern, Fullbright, the Church Committee, and all these guys who investigated the abuses of the warfare state and the CIA—the lies that got us into the quagmire of Vietnam, which ended up being a stain on America’s history. It really was a genocide perpetuated against a defenseless people who weren’t a threat to us at all. That’s what it was.
We came out of the 1970s with a pretty healthy debate—and a lot of checks and balances politically against this warfare-state machine.
Now what happened to the Democratic Party? They’re basically AWOL on the issue of war and peace—and on the need for a restrained foreign policy. They’ve got it into their heads that they lost the election not because their policies were failing and not because they had the worst candidate the Democrats had fielded in decades, but because allegedly the Russkies infiltrated our political system in the Trump campaign and stole the election.
Now, we can make fun of that, but what it’s done is basically put the Democrats in a posture where every night if you watch the war channel, CNN, they have half a dozen of them saying Trump is jeopardizing national security. He’s not listening to his intelligence community. He’s leaving the Ukrainians high and dry—and Putin’s going to be occupying Kiev within hours.
This is all complete nonsense. They’ve lost their minds. There’s a couple antiwar Democrats left, and that’s it. That changes the equation fundamentally.
Here’s why. One way or another, the Republican Party was hijacked by the neocons back in the 1980s and 1990s, and it’s just gone from bad to worse.
So, you can’t expect the Republican Party to be any kind of vehicle for common sense and a peaceful foreign policy. The Democratic Party was supposed to be the check, and it is now AWOL. So, now there is no debate. It’s a pretty dangerous thing, because we’re doing stupid stuff all over the world.
The latest example, which is red hot of course, is Ukraine-gate.
Let’s just roll back the picture a couple years. Why is this thing even happening? The answer is because, in 2014, Washington supported, financed, and encouraged a coup on the streets of Kiev that threw out a legitimately elected government. It put in a lot of right wing neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists that scared the hell out of the Russians living in the eastern part of Ukraine and in Crimea—where there are few Ukrainians by the way; only 15% of the population of Crimea is Ukrainian. The rest is basically Russian and Tatars.
That’s where the whole damn thing started. We never should have been there. That’s right on Russia’s doorstep. It’s not our business to sort out the history there. Crimea was a Russian territory for 200 years anyway.
Once we got into the middle of that, that’s why we had to send our vice president, Joe Biden, to Ukraine to be the policy coordinator. Now let’s think about it.
There are 190 countries or so in the world, and Ukraine has a GDP of $130 billion. Ukraine is an absolute nothing, irrelevant piece of global real estate. We didn’t need to send the vice president of the United States to coordinate policy. In a good policy environment, you wouldn’t need to send the vice president there to coordinate anything.
What did that lead to? Well, once the vice president was there, all of a sudden everything changed, including this Burisma energy company. It was basically run by a guy—which never comes out on CNN—but he was allied with the president who was overthrown. And what did they do? They called Washington. They looked for the sleaziest lobbyist they could find. What they came up with was Hunter Biden and his buddy, Devon Archer, who was equally a sleaze bag, his roommate in college apparently or something like that. He was a campaign finance bundler for John Kerry all the time he was in the Senate.
This is how the whole damn thing got started. The debate today focuses on what Trump was doing during a very brief phone call in July 2019 and not about the history—how we got there and why the thing is off base to begin with. They pretend history only started with a phone call on July 25, 2019.
That’s the way the empire rolls. It demands that anybody who is paying attention should have amnesia and that the only thing that you’re supposed to focus on is what happened yesterday, as it’s spun by the machinery of the warfare state.
That’s why we have the irony of the Democratic majority in the House. I don’t think that they’re necessarily conscious tools of the military-industrial-intelligence complex. They’re just stupid. They’re uninformed, and they’re caught up in this imperial city groupthink.
Now they’re out to impeach a president who casually wanted to look into what was clearly a blatant case of influence peddling on the part of the prior vice president and his son.
Biden says he didn’t know what Hunter was doing. Who believes that? But the point is, why in the world would this big energy company based in Ukraine be hiring a guy, a lobbyist from Washington, DC, unless his name was Biden? Biden knew nothing about natural gas, energy, Eastern Europe, or Ukraine.
Once the empire gets as massive as it is, it behooves everybody around the world to have all of the influence operations that they can afford or can mobilize in Washington to weigh into the policy debate.
It really is like an imperial city. There are tens of millions—hundreds of millions—and billions of dollars every year being paid by foreign countries to Washington, because they think they have to defend their self-interest in the day-to-day operation of the US warfare state.
Again, it’s another example of how Empire First perpetuates itself. Not only do you have all of the domestic lobbies, the defense contractors, intelligence contractors, and think tanks that get all their money from government agencies, but then you have all of the foreign outposts. The two are actually pretty melded together.
The Atlantic Council is one of the most odious of these so-called think tanks that dominates the debate. They confuse these wet-behind-the-ears young people who get elected to Congress. I can appreciate that. I was elected when I was pretty wet behind the ears.
They send people to Washington to influence in a very subtle way, because the money goes through the back door. Much of the money for the Atlantic Council comes from Ukrainian oligarchs who are anti-Russian for whatever reason, and a lot more comes from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the rest of the oil states.
It’s all on behalf of a big, slick lobbying operation that’s created this pro-empire mentality. It got us in the middle of all of these conflicts in the Middle East, but also Ukraine.
It is really bad. The Atlantic Council’s role in pushing the Russia-gate hoax and getting us involved in Ukraine—essentially threatening Russia on its very border—is pretty nasty stuff.
Don’t forget that Russia bought Crimea in 1783 with good gold money from the Turks, who were perennially short on cash. It was populated by Russian speakers all that time. It became the base for the home port of the great Black Sea Fleet, which is what Russia has seen as its defense under czars and commissars alike. For 170 years, it was an integral part of the Old Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.
Crimea got added to Ukraine when there were few Ukrainians living there, only because Khrushchev won the violent struggle for succession after Stalin died. Khrushchev was Ukrainian, and so in a drunken celebration one night, he basically said, I hereby will Crimea to my buddies in Ukraine for all the good work that they did in helping kill off my two rivals to power.
Then a couple days later, the Presidium officially passed a law that added Crimea to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.
So, what these Washington idiots are doing—led by think tanks like the Atlantic Council and all the rest of those who got us into this conflict in Ukraine—is basically trying to enforce the dead hand of the Soviet Presidium from 65 years ago.
Crimea wasn’t the site of a Russian occupation. After the Ukrainian nationalists and neo-Nazis took control of the Ukraine government in the coup, the people in the Russian-speaking regions were scared to death.
There’s a whole bloody history behind this. Hitler marched through on the way to Stalingrad, and the Nationalist Ukrainians were with him. Then the Red Army marched back through after Stalingrad and liquidated all their Ukrainian enemies. Yet decades and decades later, Washington gets itself into the middle of this, trying to enforce the dead hand of the Soviet Union.
Crimea got partitioned. There was a vote. No one can say that 90% of the people didn’t vote to rejoin Mother Russia, because they did. So what is the big deal? And yet the warfare state found it convenient to bulk up the Russian threat as one reason for continuing to have all the defense money and the imperial footprint around the world. The next thing you know, it becomes policy, because the Democrats really embrace it—after they decided that Putin cost them the election.
Former Congressman David A. Stockman was Reagan's OMB director, which he wrote about in his best-selling book, The Triumph of Politics. His latest books are The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America and Peak Trump: The Undrainable Swamp And The Fantasy Of MAGA. He's the editor and publisher of the new David Stockman's Contra Corner. He was an original partner in the Blackstone Group, and reads LRC the first thing every morning.
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