There is a United States special forces dog-handler who meets journalists, diplomats and aid workers off the UN flight to Kabul. His job is to search luggage and ensure the security of US troops in Afghanistan. He is short, gingery and aggressive. His skills at persuasion are limited to shouting at the milling crowd: ‘Stand back! Stand back! My dog will bite!’
Last week that phrase had become the defining motto and operating credo for the military and foreign policy of the Bush administration. Already President George W. Bush has put Iran, Iraq and North Korea on notice as terrorist-sponsoring nations at the centre of an international ‘axis of evil’, despite the CIA’s recent evidence that none of them was in the business of threatening the United States at present.
Last Monday, to back that explicit threat, he announced an increase in US military spending of 15 per cent, the biggest in 20 years, more than double the military spending in all of the European Union. The rise will be $36 billion (£26.5bn) this year, $48 billion next year and $120 billion over the next five years, rising to a staggering two trillion over the next five years.
Even this is not enough for General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They want the US defence budget to increase at an even faster rate.
What all this means is clear. Troubled by the 11 September attacks and buoyed by the ease of the war against Afghanistan, Bush’s message to the ‘evil doers’ of the world is that he has a dog; that it is very big, getting bigger, and certainly it will bite.
The puzzle about the latest rise in defence spending is that America at the beginning of the 21st century is already not so much a superpower as a behemoth on the world stage. Economically dominant, it enjoys military and cultural power unrivalled since the days of the Roman emperors, as the American author Robert D. Kaplan reminds us in his new book, Warrior Politics.
Typically, it has been left to the French, traditionally suspicious of US global hegemony, to find the best words to describe it. Gigantisme militaire they call it, in a phrase that describes both the scale of America’s ambitions and also a pathological condition: an organism grown so large it is sick.
The question the rest of the world is asking itself is: Who is the enemy America is arming itself so against? And why?
‘Ostensibly,’ says one European diplomat, ‘this is about security. But quite how a massive increase in defence spending is supposed to prevent another terrorist attack remains unclear. Instead this seems to be about repairing the bruised American psyche after 11 September. America’s powerlessness in the face of this attack requires big gestures and reassurances, even if they are counter-productive and meaningless.’
Indeed, some analysts say, if it is security that America seeks it is better sought in dialogue with potentially threatening states, rather than in reinforcing the idea already held by many anti-US groups that it is an evil empire bent on world domination.
Cynics have identified more overtly self-serving strands in the Republican obsession with America’s defence. The ‘war’ rhetoric, as some US liberal commentators have pointed out, serves a purely domestic Republican agenda in the post-11 September mood of national paranoia: to win Bush a second presidential term and, in the shorter term, regain Congress.
The reality – even before the latest proposed increases in military spending – is that America could beat the rest of the world at war with one hand tied behind its back. The requirement that US armed forces be able to fight two fully fledged wars with two separate adversaries simultaneously may recently have been dropped, but only because it would be hard pushed to find two such equal foes to fight.
A single US nuclear-powered carrier group – which forms around the USS Enterprise, for example, with a flight deck almost a mile in length and a superstructure 20 storeys high – concentrates more military power in one naval group than most states can manage with all their armed forces. America has seven of these battle groups.
It is not just the scale and power of these weapons systems. The reach of US arms, too, is awesome. When the USS Kitty Hawk was sent with its accompanying warships from Yokohama to the Gulf for the war against Afghanistan, it covered 6,000 miles in just 12 days to be transformed into a vast floating forward attack station for thousands of US special forces.
Its B-52 bombers can fly and refuel across the world armed with cruise missiles that can be fired hundreds of miles away from hostile skies, the missiles themselves directed to their targets by satellites in orbit.
And America’s supremacy in bombs, planes, satellites, tanks and real-time intelligence have made the prospect of US casualties remote, except in the event of cock-up or disaster. And, significantly, as the world’s only economic hyper-power, it can afford this level of militarisation.
But against all this even the manufacturers of America’s arms – like the aviation giant Lockheed-Martin – have been struggling for a decade or so to define the threat its top-shelf jets will be battling in the skies, being forced in one memorable presentation to show the European Eurofighter as a potential adversary.
So why the need for more and better military power? Even military analysts are baffled. ‘The rise in US military spending,’ says Dan Plesch, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, ‘ought to be compared to the decision in the First World War to order up more cavalry when the first wave had been mown down by machine-guns.
‘The US has no competitor in high-tech military equipment. And what it is spending its money on is mostly irrelevant against the knives used to carry out 11 September. The bombing of Afghanistan has created the illusion of victory.’
Professor Paul Kennedy at Yale University calculates that the US now spends more each year than the next nine largest national defence budgets combined. Indeed America is responsible for about 40 per cent of the world’s military spending.
The new defence expenditure will be paid for by a freshly dug deficit and cuts to every other federal spending programme – including social security, Medicare and urban renewal – apart from tax breaks loaded heavily in favour of the upper-income brackets. Amid all this, military might has emerged as the central tenet of America’s new power, the defining feature of the Bush administration.
Already it is causing alarm, even among America’s closest allies in Nato, where Lord Robertson, the usually unflappable secretary-general, has been moved to warn some members that unless the declining European defence expenditure is reversed then Europe – and the Europeans in Nato – are in danger of becoming military pygmies.
It is not a prospect likely to worry the military hawks in the Bush administration, who favour unilateralism over alliance. Indeed the Nato alliance, built to counter the rival superpower conflict of the Cold War, is already almost redundant, some diplomats claim.
‘Will the Americans ever fight a war through Nato again?’ asks Carl Bildt, former Swedish Prime Minister. ‘It’s doubtful. The United States reserves the right to itself to wage war, and dumps on others the messy, expensive business of nation-building and peace keeping’. And the Afghan war has not only put the US in sole command of the world, but fundamentally reshaped the architecture of international alliances. Central Asia is splattered with new American fortresses; the Pacific and Indian oceans are patrolled by aircraft carriers and accompanying fleets of awesome size.
As a consequence, a new matrix of alliances exists of states beholden to the US in exchange for a blank cheque as regards their own internal human rights abuses – China, Pakistan, India and Russia and the former Soviet states. And even among them are flashpoints in Kashmir, Chechnya and Tibet.
The writer and academic David Rieff, recently returned from central Asia, said at a seminar in New York on Thursday night: ‘Even for someone who’s not against the use of American power, it’s hard to believe that the people running the country can limit their ambitions for an empire at its high water mark.
‘They’re not doing the intelligent thing, which would be to forge multilateral institutions that are favourable to us. What’s the point of attacking Saddam, which will only entrench the root causes of the problems we’re facing? Or Iran just when they’re ready to deal?’
Crucially, the new culture of US military hegemony is not a continuation of the might the US enjoyed under Bill Clinton or any other administration. It is new, and in military terms it began the day that the man at the apex of this awesome edifice took office, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. With him, Rumsfeld brought a tight group of political appointees who did not inherit the Pentagon in order to pursue business as usual.
One of them, a deputy under-secretary, describes the group to The Observer as ‘a coherent team of firm believers in unilateral, American military power’.
And the aim of this power?
‘The war on terrorism,’ says Professor Paul Rogers, of Bradford University’s Department of Peace Studies, ‘is simply a euphemism for extending US control in the world, whether it is by projecting force through its carriers or building new military bases in central Asia.’