Monday, May 21, 2012

The Lady Or The Tiger

Ahead of the NATO summit just up the road, Mitt Romney had an op-ed published in Col. McCormick's bird-cage liner, complaining about cuts in the US military budget that, specifically in context, do not match with the expansiveness of the uses of military power.
Last year, President Obama signed into law a budget scheme that threatens to saddle the U.S. militarywith nearly $1 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years. President Obama's own defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has called cuts of this magnitude "devastating" to our national security. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has plainly said that such a reduction means "we would not any longer be a global power." Despite these warnings, the Obama administration has pledged to veto an attempt to replace these cuts with savings in other areas. This is reckless. We have a military inventory composed of weapons designed 40 to 50 years ago. The average age of our tanker aircraft is 47 years, of strategic bombers 34 years. Our Air Force, which had 82 fighter squadrons at the end of the Cold War, has been reduced to 39 today. TheU.S. Navy, at 285 ships, is at levels not seen since 1916. Should our air, naval and ground forces continue to age and shrink, it will place the interests of the U.S. and our friends and allies at risk.
Think Progress is correct to criticize Romney putting the onus on Obama alone for signing that bill. Part of the far larger deal that avoided a default on our sovereign obligations, those cuts were reached after negotiations between both parties, and the Executive and Congress. Of course, the House partisan leadership scuttled that deal, dumping eight billion dollars worth of extra goodies in to the Pentagon budget in the version of the NDAA they passed on Friday.

The thing is, Romney - or his ghost-writer - is right. Since the Cold War, NATO has been lurching and grasping for a reason to exist. When one got plopped in Europe's lap in the form of the series of wars as Yugoslavia collapsed, everyone clucked their tongues, shook their heads, and turned away. At that point, the Brussels headquarters should have been shuttered, and folks sent on their merry way. Yet, NATO is in titular control of the current coalition in Afghanistan. Last years ridiculous air campaign in Libya was a NATO affair. Yet, again, as Romney points out, calling these "NATO" missions is a bit like calling the Normandy invasion a Brazilian mission.  Further, specifically in regard to Libya, such a mission, without serious thought regarding monetary cost, the cost in wear on our military equipment and weapons platforms, to say nothing of the political and diplomatic damage, was an example of the over-extension of the military that is not reflected in our DOD budgets. In that regard, Gov. Romney is quite right.

So, what's the solution? I think we need to ask ourselves a couple questions. Since the attacks on the United States in 2001, we have continued to carry on our politics here at home much as if our troops, engaged (after March, 2003) in combat on two fronts - since expanded to several of varying intensity and commitment - existed in a realm apart. Both invasions, Afghanistan and Iraq, were accounted largely off-budget, i.e., the money spent was not counted in normal fiscal requests and appropriations. For over a decade now, we have conducted our domestic affairs with the pretense that it is possible to do so without any reference to the economic, social, and political cost of fielding two pretty substantial armies in combat. We've been through not one but two economic downturns in that time, the second historic in size and scope. We've had two Presidential elections, conducted by and large with little reference to the actual circumstances the country faced. We've had long, drawn-out discussions on taxes and spending, with a large and vocal voting bloc within one party insisting on the necessity of fiscal probity, always, however, with the money set aside for the Department of Defense somehow magically excluded from any such discussion.

Do we wish to admit that we are, and have been for a while, a country at war? Whether or not any formal declaration has been made, the reality is we continue to act as a belligerent around the world. Whether it's central Asia, Yemen, Uganda and neighboring states in central Africa, or Latin America, our military posture is one of a nation ready and willing to put our troops in harms way. Please notice I didn't add "able", the matter Gov. Romney addresses in his op-ed. That, of course, is the $1 trillion dollar question. The President, the Joint Chiefs, and the Congressional leadership of both parties need to face the reality that, as large as our military is, as overwhelming as our power becomes, as well-trained and disciplined as our troops continue to be after years in combat - and despite abundant evidence of the psychological toll years of repeated exposure to combat has wreaked upon our men and women in uniform - we have constructed, and live within, a fiscal and political fantasy land in which these things do not cost any money; do not play havoc with the economy; are separate from our day-to-day existence. In other words, we do not act as a country at war.

Which are we? Are we a nation at war, willing to make the sacrifices - fiscal and monetary, political and structural - to support the military as many both in the civilian leadership and the uniformed services envision? Or do we continue to pretend that we can somehow make it all work out without recognizing the links between the struggles our military faces to accept the challenges they are given by civilian leadership? Do we reorder our entire national life to support a military that can continue a variety of missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and Uganda/CAR/DRC and, perhaps should the President feel the need to "do something", Syria? Or do we prefer to insist on fiscal probity and thrift, not only reducing the size and scope of the military, but redefining its mission accordingly? 

These, it seems to me, are questions we just don't want to ask, let alone actually consider. The old story of the man facing two doors, while perhaps not perfectly appropriate, exemplifies in a larger sense, the situation within which we find ourselves. We face stark choices, and we must choose carefully and thoughtfully. We have not been either careful or thoughtful in a very long while. It would be nice if we at least started.

Virtual Tin Cup

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