Dare to cut defense

The United States needs to end wars abroad and spend the savings on job creation at home

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The most enraging aspect of the campaign under way by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey to defend their bloated budget is the implicit "You wouldn't dare cut our money" piece of it.

That is to pretend that every nickel of what they are demanding is needed and that what they want takes precedence over every other call on the taxpayer's dollar. That is, of course, pure nonsense. It reflects on their part that they have fully integrated into their core being the "national security state" approach to governing America.

The fact of the matter is that the healthiest, safest and most secure America is dependent on the strength of the economy, not on how many troops it has overseas (369,000), in how many countries (150), costing the American people how much per year ($700 billion), or, in Afghanistan, for example, how much per week ($2.3 billion).

In terms of how much of the strength of its economy America throws away on wars, a look at history tells us that Americans enjoyed peace dividends (lessened defense expenditures) and relative prosperity to some extent after World War I, World War II, the Cold War and the first Gulf War. The Roaring Twenties followed WWI. The Fifties followed WWII. The Clinton years followed the Cold War and the first Gulf War.

It is not wild optimism or even the thought that Barack Obama's and Sarah Palin's "hopey, changey thing" might actually still be ahead of us to imagine that, if the Pentagon, even unchallenged by Mr. Obama, can somehow be persuaded to end the Iraq war on schedule Dec. 31, accelerate U.S. withdrawal from the Afghanistan death house, and give up on nation-rearranging in Libya, Somalia and Yemen, more of the taxpayer's gold can be devoted to making America stronger at home.

Another simple fact that seems not to be being perceived as the rival non-savants in the White House, the Congress and the two (or three) political parties splash around in the Washington folly fountains, is that employed people are the very people whose consumption the U.S. economy depends on for its health.

The U.S. government currently has budget gaps rendered unbridgeable by dysfunctional politics, a growing mountain of unpayable debt, high unemployment and no strategic plan for dealing with the need for growth and other fundamental problems of the economy and society. Without these problems on the way to solution, it is impossible to imagine when the United States will ever be strong again, or respected in the world, or even able to provide for its population.

America is really messed up. Mr. Obama's statement that the United States will always be a triple-A country is dopey and encourages Americans not to face up to our problems. Childhood obesity is a problem, 15 percent of Americans live below the poverty line, one in five of the poor are children and 46 million Americans are on food stamps.

It really isn't possible to argue that a wise step in trying to deal with the country's economic, political and social problems is to fire drone missiles at $100,000 each at tribal leaders in the mountains of Pakistan and to see 30 of our best and bravest people killed because the Taliban know how to knock down an American helicopter.

Our civilian and military leaders get away with the slaughter of our people in places like Afghanistan, where Alexander the Great, the British and the Soviets gave up fighting as not worth the candle, with the tacit acceptance by Americans that our soldiers are volunteers. If it were the sons and daughters of lawmakers and senior government personnel being drafted to fight the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Yemen it is doubtful if any of those conflicts would be ongoing in 2011.

The money is bad enough, but it is the loss of our people's lives that is really criminal. Watch sometime on television one of these lists of our forces killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with ages, hometowns and pictures. Even the most solemn TV rarely states how many wives, parents and children the dead soldier left behind.

What needs to be done with our money at this point is pour it into the economy somehow, not into the hands of the banks, Wall Street investors, business executives or the rich in the form of tax breaks. The idea that if the rich get it, it will trickle back into the economy in the form of jobs has been proved to be fool's gold by the performance of the economy in the past decade. Those people are not job creators. They have just soaked up the government money, paid themselves and their shareholders more and reduced their costs -- increasing the money they can pocket -- by getting rid of employees, including by outsourcing work overseas.

If more people are employed, putting some of the 14 million unemployed to work, the money that is put into their hands will end up in American cash registers, consumed, and we will stop hearing of low levels of consumer confidence. How can a consumer conceivably be confident knowing that at any moment his job may be an inch away from being eliminated, that the job market is absolutely terrible, and that the people he works for are constantly looking for ways to cut costs by getting rid of him. In the face of that situation, he would have to have some sort of death wish to take chances on the future.

Back a few years ago when we were talking about economic stimulus packages, there was the visionary thought that America should do something big, first, to relaunch the economy, but, second, to have something to show at the end of the day for the close shave economically we were having. Build interstate railroads. Put our electric and telephone wires underground. Move to green energy. Fix all the bridges and roads.

Not continue to fight stupid wars and start new ones. Not try to raise further the already more-than-the-rest-of-the-world-combined that we spend on "defense" now. Could we not take a "what do we really need?" approach to defense spending? America needs to find money for job creation, now, not kill more of our young men and women.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor ( dsimpson@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1976).


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