War over there vs. food over here

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Unless I am missing some key truth, the fact that the U.S. military insists that U.S. forces stay in Afghanistan past 2014 while the Republican majority in the House of Representatives pushes to cut 5.1 million Americans from the food stamp program simply does not compute in terms of what I think most Americans consider the core principles of our country.

I understand that the scrap is basically about money -- which of America's needs get top priority at a time when it is necessary to cut expenditures or raise taxes -- but this is ridiculous and raises the question of whether or not we still have a heart as a people.

Food stamps -- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- has always been subject to abuse and attack. There are people who receive food stamps who shouldn't, and there is the question of what the stamps are used to buy, legally or illegally. But these problems can be dealt with through oversight.

This is a time -- hopefully a brief period -- when the need for food stamps is especially great. Unemployment stands at 7.4 percent. Much of it is chronic -- many people have been unable to find jobs for long periods of time.

The poverty rate in the United States has been increasing -- it's now at about 15 percent of the population -- and a high percentage of the poor, maybe as high as 22 percent, are children. It is utterly insane for children in a country as rich as the United States to go hungry.

These data do not come from crazed American liberals. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a hard-eyed international organization of numbers-crunchers, measured the United States against 19 other relatively prosperous countries in terms of wealth and social factors. In child poverty, we were forth worst, ahead of only Turkey, Mexico and Slovakia. In infant mortality, we also were forth worst, ahead of the same three. In terms of income inequality, the ratio of disposable income of the top 10 percent of the population to the bottom 10 percent, we were fifth worst, after Mexico, Chile, Israel and Turkey, with America's top 10 percent receiving six times as much as the bottom 10 percent.

In the meantime, it is virtually unbelievable that the Pentagon can argue that America should continue to pour money into Afghanistan after its scheduled withdrawal in 2014. Just consider President Hamid Karzai and the breathtaking level of corruption over which he presides.

Nonetheless, that is exactly what Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, is doing. Gen. Dunford says that, even though the Afghans are picking up more of the combat role as U.S. and allied forces prepare to withdraw, American forces will still be needed for at least another three or four years -- until 2017 or 2018.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that only 28 percent of Americans think the Afghan war is still worth fighting. But the Pentagon wants to keep fighting no matter what the American people want. It wants to continue to tap into the financial resources for the war even after 12 years of little success no matter what the American people want.

This is crazy, and if President Barack Obama is in charge he needs to rein in Gen. Dunford and the Pentagon. How is it that they are free to lobby the American people and Congress against his decision to withdraw? Washington isn't Cairo, with a general in sunglasses in charge. Or is it?

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is as bad as Gen. Dunford. He seems to have abandoned his alleged signature practicality in favor of shameless, full-tilt advocacy of money for the Pentagon. He now argues that, if the Defense Department is forced to take cuts, it will either have to reduce forces and do less around the world or abandon some of its plans to build advanced weapons systems. I think Americans knew that already and saw one or the other or both of these alternatives as necessary to reduce spending.

One Pentagon project is the purchase of more than 2,400 new radar-evading F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin for $392 billion. That's $163 million a plane. The whole food stamp program costs $80 billion a year and feeds 48 million people. Mr. Hagel also threatened cuts in health benefits to military retirees, clearly a pitch to an important political constituency so that it will lobby Congress against possible Pentagon cuts.

In the end, it's a question of how we want to spend our money. The United States has troops in more than 150 countries, ranging from Chad in the center of Africa to thousands in Japan, Germany and South Korea, long after our wars there have finished. We are winding down from the 68,000 troops we now have in Afghanistan toward 2014 unless Gen. Dunford and the Pentagon have their way.

Child hunger is only one of the problems the United States has at home. Others include education, particularly in urban areas, infrastructure, housing and health care.

It is a classic truth with respect to the United States that our strongest defense has always been our ability to mobilize quickly to respond to a threat. That means we now should concentrate on strengthening our situation at home. If that means cutting defense expenditures overseas to feed, house and clothe more of our own people, starting with the children who are our future, that sounds right to me.


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


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