Saturday, April 30, 2011

Up From Truly Stupid

Our national debt is our biggest national security threat.
Adm. Mike Mullen, Chair, Joint Chiefs of Staff, June, 2010
We are in the midst of a national discussion on the whole question of our national debt, what our fiscal posture should be, and how to prioritize spending in the face of growing strains caused not least by the on-going economic stagnation inhibiting economic growth and keeping revenues low. There are various budget proposals of a more or less serious and mendacious nature, with the plan offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) being the most prominent. The House of Representatives endorsed the plan in a partisan vote, and with House members back in their districts, the plan and those who voted in support of it are being hit pretty hard. This isn't surprising, really. Just as Pres. Obama's policy agenda was the focus of so much constituent angst and anger over the past couple years, so now that the Republicans have control of the legislative agenda, their proposals are large, easy targets.

All the same, the level of discussion, while rising ever so slightly, has been abysmal. There seems to be little coherence to much of the discussion, made even more ridiculous by the adamant opposition of the Republican Party to countenance any serious talk of tax increases. Paul Krugman's simple, clear, and destructive breakdown of the effects of Ryan's proposal is part of the much larger backlash against the kind of policy nonsense Republicans continue to support.

What's needed is not a "plan" that decimates any part of the tattered remnants of the social safety net. Instead, our entire fiscal structure needs to be looked at, as a whole, with the guiding questions being: Who are we as a people? What kind of country do we wish to have? Answering these questions should set our budgetary and fiscal priorities all the time; now, more than ever, we need, in a way, to rip it up and start again.

In this regard, "A National Strategic Narrative" offers itself as a helpful guide for starting, and guiding, such a discussion. As I wrote earlier, Mr. Y sets the whole question of national security within the whole broad context of our domestic and foreign policy, defining security in far broader (and, historically, more accurate) terms than simple physical, national protection from military attack. Indeed, the authors seem to follow on Adm. Mullen's comment, the epigram to this post, that our current fiscal and long-term situation poses a far graver national security threat than any other. To that end, while short on specifics, they envision a set of policy priorities, including defense, that are reset along an axis and against a horizon that sees the United States far less reliant on military defense alone. Indeed, as security is dependent upon economic and fiscal health as big ships and bombs, they call for what they term a National Prosperity and Security Act that would set our national security policy firmly within a larger policy framework of relative fiscal probity and sanity, as well as understanding our military stance as far more flexible than it currently is.

Reading through Mr. Y, I sense a certain reluctance to make some things clear that, if stated (let alone implemented) would drastically alter the entire fiscal and economic outlook we face. First and foremost, ending our military engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya. The maintenance of nearly 50,000 American troops in Iraq is hardly a "withdrawal"; the force is too small to face any possible large-scale military contingency, and large enough to be a constant irritant to Islamic militants across the regions (in particular in a time of political turmoil all over the Muslim world). In Afghanistan, we have over 100,000 troops whose mission, it seems, is to sit there and respond to attacks from various forces, most of whom manage to cross back to Pakistan. Responding by using military RCVs is having a horrible effect on Pakistan in any number of ways, creating an atmosphere diametrically opposed to any perceived interest. Mission creep in Libya continues, and the President's assurance that we won't send American ground forces is hardly reassuring.

Ending these missions and deployments as quickly as feasible would certainly end certain fiscal and budgetary strains, as well as ease political tensions at home. It would also create an opportunity to have a far more serious, far less dangerous discussion on the structure of our military moving forward. While Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already set out a proposal for cutting $78 billion from the Defense budget, much of the savings would come in the form of future savings, from a draw-down of forces after the 2015 end-date of American deployment in Afghanistan. Other cuts Gates proposed, including the F-35 joint strike fighter, would be, relatively speaking, far smaller.

What is needed, however, as Mr. Y makes clear, is an entire revisioning of our military within a far larger understanding of security. Do we need a 400-ship Navy? Do we need a large strategic bomber force? Do we need a large force of nuclear missile submarines? Part of the reason our defense budget is so large - we spend more on defense than the combination of the next fourteen largest militaries on the planet combined - has been the tradition, outlined in the previous post, of defining American interests and projecting our interests pretty much anywhere on the globe. There was a certain logic to this in 1950. Today, it seems almost absurd, and in tight fiscal times, far less defensible.

None of this is to suggest we should "gut" the US military. Our defense costs would shrink quite a bit, however, if we defined our interests differently, and saw our needs, therefore, within a far different frame of reference.

It is frustrating, to say the least, to be having a "national discussion" of economic and fiscal priorities that is almost wholly divorced from any reasonable and realistic assessment of the challenges and risks we currently face. Mr. Y's proposal for a security narrative, among its many other virtues, offers an opportunity to change the entire nature of such a discussion.

If only any one were paying attention to it.

Virtual Tin Cup

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