We must tame defense spending

Britain shows the way in the face of economic realities

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Apart from the constraints which logic and America's "bust" financial status would impose on the country's military activities, another element has now entered the picture: the decision by the British government to cut its defense expenditures by a substantial amount, as much as 20 percent.

In the recent past, in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as examples, the United States could count on its traditional British ally to contribute military forces to virtually whatever adventure Washington wanted to undertake. London came along in Iraq even though, as is becoming clearer as more memoirs appear, there was substantial skepticism on the British side as to the wisdom and quality of intelligence at the base of the U.S. project. It is generally considered that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair lost his leadership of the Labor Party and his prime ministership at least partly on that basis.

Now, apparently, under Prime Minister David Cameron, London at the very least is going to be much more limited in what it can do to put boots on the ground in support of any new U.S. ideas when it comes to wars. One thinks immediately of the martial tub-thumping in Washington about attacking -- or letting Israel attack -- Iran. One thinks also of Yemen, being put forward by the warhawks as the new center of al-Qaida activity in the Middle East, or Somalia. (The British, by the way, have been down the Yemen route before, when they tried to hold onto part of their remaining colonial empire there in the 1960s.)

As far as public media are aware, the British have also steered clear of military involvement in Pakistan, where U.S. forces have become increasingly active, presumably because of their colonial background in the Indian subcontinent from which they still bear scars.

Britain's planned cuts in defense spending are a direct result of the new Conservative-Liberal Democratic government's perception of the need for the United Kingdom to get rid of budget deficits and start reducing national debt. The current deficit is $240 billion. Washington's this year is estimated at $1.3 trillion. So far, the administration of President Barack Obama has seen fit to exclude defense from cuts.

Other problems loom

When it comes to other looming world problems, it should be perfectly obvious that America's response to them must be political and diplomatic, as opposed to military.

Although the progressive withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq -- from 50,000 now to zero by the end of next year -- and the reduction in Afghanistan from 100,000 troops, which is scheduled to begin in July, should give U.S. defense planners more flexibility, the fact of the matter is that U.S. economic circumstances suggest considerably less defense spending over the next few years.

One source of economic weakness is our having fought both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with no increase in taxes to cover their costs. It would sound nuts to anyone looking at it from outside, but that's what happened. These two wars have dragged on for seven and nine years, respectively. It is idle to speculate now, but one wonders what the length of the two wars would have been if Americans had been taxed to pay for them, or, worse, asked to agree to a restoration of the draft to provide the manpower for them?

Among the things coming up that are of relevance to the United States and its position in the world are:

Egypt is approaching elections and the choice of a possible successor to President Hosni Mubarak, 82, who has been in power for 19 years. Unlike sometimes in the past, there is a credible replacement in view, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the only other Egyptian most foreigners have heard of. Word has it that the president wants his son, Gamal, to succeed him. There is less than total enthusiasm for this choice among the Egyptian people, and, more notably, among the Egyptian military.

The United States needs a stable, responsible government in Egypt to sustain any agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians that might bring an end to their 62-year-old conflict. Serious unrest in Egypt might be more than the traffic would bear in that troubled neighborhood.

Bahrain is another problem rearing its ugly head in the Middle East. A Sunni Muslim monarchy rules uneasily over a Shiite Muslim majority there, with elections coming up Oct. 23.

The population of Bahrain is only 776,000, but the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet is located there and Shiite Iran is just across the Persian Gulf. Did the people who chose to expose us to such an extent in Bahrain understand these facts? Or did they just steam ahead, imagining that we would never have to pay the piper?

Sudan will face a crisis in January, when its south, where most of its oil is found, will almost certainly vote for independence in a referendum the United States helped set up. There can be no question of U.S. military involvement in Sudan.

By the way, the British, busy righting their economy, were present at the creation of today's problems in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Sudan. It is hard to imagine now that they would be available to help Washington in any effort to become more deeply involved in those countries -- making the point that it is absolutely necessary for the United States to retract and put its own financial house in order again promptly if it hopes to remain other than a historical footnote in coming world events.


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


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