Congress, the F-22 and the Monkey on Our Back

07/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Anybody who has lived with an addict knows about denial. So it goes with Congress and defense spending. Case in point this week is the F-22, a gold-plated Cold War barnacle that has been stuck to American taxpayers for decades. Addicts are so comforted by their hazy worldview that they often respond with contemptuous bluster to alternative ideas (i.e., critics are "weak" on national security). Addictions don't discriminate by party (Democrats are the ones who voted to take money out of toxic environment cleanup to fund more F-22 parts). Addicts especially hate advice from authority figures who might know something about the problem (the military itself does not want these extra planes because they think 187 of them is enough and they, like President Obama, see the true threats revealed by 9/11). In fact, addicts don't like to talk about the problem at all (last night the House Rules Committee refused to make in order Barney Frank's simple amendment to restore the defense authorization bill to its original status). The Armed Services Committee's original bill did not include funding for more F-22s.

In today's defense budget discussions, Mr. Frank is absolutely correct -- improving national security is going to require a dramatic shift in spending priorities. Indeed, we won't see what is coming at us as long as we're looking backward for comfort and inspiration. Like addicts.

Congress has every right to push back against the Executive Branch. That's not the issue here. What is upsetting is the refusal of the House to acknowledge that the threats this nation faces are more important than corporate bottom lines, more compelling than defense lobbyist talking points and more urgent than using the defense budget as a jobs program. (Where is our modern industrial policy? So that we aren't endangering our safety by turning defense industry dependent unions against a bold new vision for national security?) Besides, Secretary Gates put the F-35 in the budget to replace those jobs. During World War II, the defense industry was a true strategic partner with the services -- it helped the Army create a battle-decisive Air Force. Today's defense industry is a shadow of its former self: afraid, lacking substance and cravenly greedy. Now its about the game, not the cause. And the rest of us just lost.

Congress' action is even more shocking because the decision to keep these planes in the budget isn't part of a typical "guns vs. butter" debate, which pits domestic priorities like education against defense spending. Military priorities are at stake. In other words, this is a "guns vs. guns" battle, and the military is losing. Both the Air Force Secretary and the Air Force Chief of Staff have noted that because of budgetary pressures, "buying more F-22s means doing less of something else." In economics, this is called an opportunity cost. It is everything that we won't be doing because of a choice made. Like preparing ourselves for 21st century threats, including those that can't be fixed by the military.

I know something about widespread addiction. I grew up in San Juan County in northern New Mexico, a place where drunk driving is epic. The region has often led the nation in motor vehicle deaths. In the late 1980s the Albuquerque Journal did a series on Gallup, a town so afflicted by alcohol that Mother Teresa herself had declared it a forsaken place. The coverage revealed the layers of complicity that led to hundreds of fatalities -- especially concentrated among the local Navajo population. Gallup businesses had five times the number of liquor licenses than allotted under state law. I well remember the dozens of drive-up windows where one could buy booze. Always next to a pawn shop. In Gallup, bars were open seven days a week, from 7:00 A.M. until 2:00 A.M. Wine was often fortified with brandy to make it 19 percent alcohol. Many of the city's most prominent citizens not only owned bars, restaurants, and liquor distribution outlets but also had been elected to public office and appointed to various municipal and civic organizations. The liquor industry was one of Gallup's economic mainstays; by the late '80s it reported more taxable earnings than the finance, insurance, and real estate industries combined.

Finally, Mayor Ed Munoz pointed out the collective addiction: "People had become so accustomed to alcohol abuse in Gallup that they stopped seeing it," he said.

The same could be said about Congress and defense spending today. The F-22 is emblematic of a worldview that doesn't serve our national interest, but the people who control the money can't hear the argument. Most national security lessons since 1991 -- when the Soviet Union disappeared -- point out that military tools are inadequate safety precautions today. Security requires a broader lens. We should have done a full turnaround in 1993 when we lost 18 Army Rangers in Somalia. A humanitarian mission turned into a deadly gang vendetta. It was a lesson ignored by Congress. The decade continued: Haiti needed police and judges, Bosnians needed jobs and houses. From the drug wars to the war in Iraq, today's challenges don't respond well to use of force. Planes like the F-22 are mostly beside the point. Afghanistan is emblematic of our effort to change course both strategically and tactically. Protecting civilians means we will measure success based on indicators of legitimacy not enemies killed or arms caches uncovered. I don't think it is unwarranted to worry that a Congress that can't respect the intentions of the president's budget -- one that is trying to move us toward a safer future -- will be able to exercise the kind of oversight on Iraq withdrawal and Afghan population security -- that we need to move forward.

Gallup, NM began to get better over time. Starting the road to recovery required mass citizen participation, new laws and brave leadership. It hasn't reached its happy ending yet, but the depths of addiction are behind it.

If the Senate doesn't take the F-22 funding out of this bill then President Obama should veto it. If it remains, it will lead to billions of dollars more: Our future will be funding the past. We will hit rock bottom: Uniformed and civilians alike will die because they weren't priorities. If the F-22 goes forward, we will miss our chance to pull ourselves above the haze, assess today's real security threats and hopefully get the bejesus scared into us to do something about it.