THE BLOG

Spend More on Defense but Purchase Less Security

03/13/2008 02:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

That seems to be our national strategy these days.

I'm going to start an internet campaign of putting the words "defense budget" in quotations because -- according to my unscientific survey out around the country -- Americans are feeling pretty uneasy about their security and our leadership priorities. In other words, just whose defense are they talking about? It seems that really only a handful of people, Members of Congress, the president, commercial "defense" interests, those who benefit from the military's revolving door (where defense public servants walk through and, like Cinderella, end up in a castle in Fairfax County). The following random bits of information showed up in my in box recently, and they each make me wonder if there's much difference between a conspiracy theory and organized, collaborative intent. I don't believe in conspiracy theories -- but in this case it seems that our leaders are almost intentionally not paying attention anymore when it comes to real security threats. Truth be told, our problem is simply that we're stuck in the past -- fighting some phantom USSR and hoping that China explodes another rusty old weather satellite so we can rationalize our faith in the the really expensive technology gods to save us with weapons in space. We're spending upwards of 500 billion this year, more when you add in the war costs (then the numbers make my head explode Wheeeeeee!) A pittance of this money is dedicated to funding the direction that our whole ship of state needs to go (away from the bully principle and toward the persuasion one) But the skeptic in me thinks that the USA never will right itself with all the gold-plated barnacles on its hull. We must engage in a discussion about our nation's security, abandon old rhetoric and cite specifics. We have a wide open window right now to do so, while simultaneously championing core military values like public service and real post-9/11 needs. How might this happen? Here are few examples of public sector plunder and how to respond to them without being accused of criticizing the military.

Example One: Bribing Poland to take missile defense. This boondoggle spectacular formerly known as "Star Wars" is costing American taxpayers nearly $9 billion dollars this coming year (after more than a hundred billion spent). Its industry makers have cleverly internationalized it -- an expansion on the strategy of making sure that some component of your weapon is made in multiple congressional districts. So we're telling Poland that we will buff up their military if they will just please just cooperate and put part of this non-working jalopy of a weapon on their soil. I went to see missile defense in Alaska as part of a congressional delegation a few years back. Words fail me. But farce will do. Let me just say that it was like going from drinking the Kool Aid to mixing the kool aid, to being in the kool aid jacuzzi. The trip came with a defense contractor Dr. Strangelove type. Acting as our minder, he got mad and then ignored me for much of the trip because I asked a few questions that I found on the MIT website. (Actually, I asked the question and he said it was classified, then I said the part about finding it on the internet. Dr. Strangelove not happy.) Then he insisted on sitting next to me during the fabulous Anchorage skyline dinner. This is another post but there were exactly four of us on the trip whose jaws kept dropping to the floor -- especially after we spent only an hour with the Navy SEALS and a whole day on a chartered fishing trip (those appalled included the professional military with us). There's a lesson here: DON'T Confuse the public servants with the commercial interests. The military is NOT the defense industry. That means don't say "the military budget needs to be cut." Say "we need national security reform across the board and the roles and missions of the military need to be on the table along with everything else." If you put people ahead of profits, the military will love you for it.

Example Two: The military budget should automatically be 4% of the GNP. Legislation has already been introduced in both the House and the Senate that would make the defense budget an automatic transfer payment -- thereby negating any attempts to make hard choices in defense spending. Of all ironies, the uber-conservative Heritage Foundation is using this argument to reframe the old standby guns-versus-butter debate. It's Social Security and Medicare versus Defense, according to their online video course. There is merit to some of this argument. The budget train wreck is well-documented and is actually going to happen before it hits the station (uh, like right now). But methinks that the intention behind this claim is to silence opponents who are worried that they might be accused of insufficient patriotism when they bring up new security issues like climate change, counter insurgency and what the heck are we going to do with 90K more troops? This is a clever strategy for maintaining the conservative philosophy of defense debate which can be summed up crudely as "shut up, you traitor": More precisely, if nobody asks hard questions on this issue, we'll never get to tax cuts for zillionaires and the fact that conservative philosophy has even privatized our nation's sacred cow: the U.S. military itself. Heck, even the Congressional Progressive Caucus substitute budget recognizes that rebuilding the military is going to be very expensive. I never thought I'd see the day that their bottom line is $468 billion. But they are the only ones willing to throw down the gloves on what we desperately need. Not the usual guns versus butter debate, but the guns versus guns debate. Our over-deployed National Guard is creating a dangerous deficit of emergency personnel and their equipment is full of sand, ruined. We need to talk about why the military has taken on the lion's share of foreign policy AND defense responsibilities around the world. We need to learn the strategic lessons of counter insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan and apply them to defense spending. We need to ask ourselves why it was the Army and Wal-Mart who came to the rescue in New Orleans and not a civilian agency? This all has to do with money. The military budget might need to be more, it might need to be less -- but making it an automatic transfer payment? Noooooooooo. Lesson: the military will appreciate any public conversation about the role of the military in U.S. democracy. It is long overdue and the lack of it is threatening the institution. Citizen discussions about these issues are the cornerstone of democracy. Tell anyone who disagrees with you to read the constitution.

Example Three: The U.S. Air Force is falling apart
Remember a few weeks back when a B2 bomber fell into the ocean off Guam and sank to the bottom like a 1.2 billion dollar anchor? Now, thank God the pilots got out safely, but the rejoinder should have been. HOW MUCH AGAIN? And we would have learned that 1.2 billion is a lowball estimate. Meanwhile, it's a real problem that the Air Force's old airplanes are cracking and heaving and endangering our military personnel. But why isn't the Air Force making some hard choices? Pay for the good stuff that works -- and quit firing personnel (40K fired last year). Don't get me wrong. I would stand in line all night to get a ride in a B2. I love beautiful machines. I have spent untold paychecks on a 1974 BMW Bavaria and only gave it up when I had a real baby. But we called the Bavaria "cream puff" for a reason. It was for looking, not for driving. The B2 is a cream puff. Most important, though, we can't afford the B2. Not when the majority of threats are not happening at 30K feet and we have no peer competitor on the horizon. Yes, it has some great qualities, but it was built to fight the Soviet Union and it can't be justified in today's scarce budget climate. I have lots of arguments over this plane with friends. And I have a great deal of admiration for the Air Force -- they let me take the Air Command and Staff College -- and I have great hope for it as the youngest and in many ways the most progressive part of the military. But we need to get over the collective eight-year-old-boy admiration of fighter pilots and commandos and get to work on brainwashing the rest of the world into not fighting us in the first place. For example, the Air Force's counter insurgency doctrine is frighteningly immature and grasps at straws. Maybe the Defense Department should start doing product placement for some of the really great -- but ugly -- planes...like the A-10 "Warthog." Or a movie about the superb human rights champions among the Air Force JAG corps (their lawyers). Lesson: If you're going to criticize the military, remember to say something good, positive and problem solving about it at the same time. It is our largest and most admired public service, after all.