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U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta's Refusal to Cut Pentagon Spending Puts America at Greater Risk

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Refusal by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Members of Congress, and now the Super Committee, to cut US defense spending puts our country on a dangerous path toward further insecurity and instability, both fiscal- and force-wise. Failure to reform the Pentagon to fit within current budget constraints, strategic priorities and long-term sustainability concerns will put America at greater, not lesser, risk. "A Whole, Different View," an article I coauthored with US Congressman Danny Davis (D-IL) for The Hill newspaper while the previous President was in power, has points worth pondering by Panetta.

Here's what Congressman Davis and I said in the article (verbatim):

In forming the foundation of our country's defense strategy, George Washington tilted the tenor of this town in a specific direction, noting that, "to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."

Since then, defense has manifested, with few exceptions, as "operations" oriented toward undermining, usurping or ushering out the enemy. Going further, the current U.S. administration has stretched the conceptual boundaries of defense by introducing, and essentially mainstreaming, the policy of preemption -- that is, the notion that even a seeming enemy, suspiciously intentioned, albeit officially unsuited for the battlefield, can and should be attacked.

Benefiting little from these defense strategies, America is instead witnessing increased violence domestically and a surge, externally, in foreign fighters intent on fomenting violence on U.S. embassies, forces and other interests. And it is costing us much more than an arm and a leg.

Yet what is most disturbing about our defense spending is not that it comprises roughly one-quarter of the federal budget and doubles the rest of the world's combined defense spending. Nor is it that 70 percent of this funding is funneled to private contractors, not federal forces, thus depleting the government of much-needed resources. Rather, what is most disturbing is that the $800 billion in annual defense spending has failed to garner the peace of which Washington spoke. The return on investment is negligible.

Washington's words must be amended, then, for a more efficient undertaking: Preparing for peace is one of the most effectual means of preventing war.

Run this revised equation on our homeland first and security gains are likely. Examine the numbers: The most recent FBI data from 2007 note 1.4 million violent crimes and nearly 17,000 murders. Add to this 9.8 million property crimes and 90,000 rapes. While the colors of our "red, white and blue" may not bleed, our country is hemorrhaging. We outrank most nations in terms of homeland insecurity.

Additionally, the prisoners of America's internal war are many: one in every 100 U.S. adults is behind bars, or 2.3 million Americans. This has created a formidable prison industry lobby, one that is disinclined to see jails junked anytime soon. No surprise, given that $49,000 is spent annually on each prisoner.

Much of this is preventable, but not necessarily by Washington's methodology for warfare.

Spent differently, that same money might protect America's streets from mounting violence rather than instigate it. This shift in strategy is needed now more than ever, as our burgeoning economic woes will have a direct impact on violence. With unemployment rates at a five-year high of 6.1 percent, American violence is bound to rise as well.

We know from American studies that a 1 percent increase in unemployment is accompanied within the year by a 6 percent increase in homicides. We know that the higher the percentage of families living in relative poverty, the higher the violent offenses. We know from the work of economists like Paul Collier that violent conflict increases in countries experiencing economic decline and that with every percentage point knocked off the per-capita income growth rate, the risk of conflict increases one percentage point.

We also know, again from Collier, that a country that boosts by 10 percent its young male enrollment in secondary school reduces its risk of violent conflict by roughly 4 percent.(Worryingly, U.S. high school graduation rates have been declining steadily for 40 years.)

Defending our streets from violence, then, means employing and educating at-risk populations who, left unattended, are likelier to worsen incarceration rates. Washington's defense strategy has prepared America's streets for war, with little peace to preserve. While few talk of "soft power" when it comes to defending America from its own internal warfare, perhaps it is worth rethinking the hard power approach to our violent streets.

Unsurprisingly, defending the dusty dirt roads in foreign lands is no different. Take Pakistan, the newly favored frontier in the war on terrorism. If economic development and education have bearing on levels of violence, as noted previously, Pakistan is ripe for more uprising. Less than one-quarter of its young males attend high school and less than 5 percent attend a university. And in the tribal areas the straw that is badly breaking the camel's back is the average salary of $15 per month. If one wonders if the economists are right here too, simply read the news regarding escalating violence in Pakistan's tribal regions. The correlation is not coincidental.

Washington's warfare may have worked when the threat was a finite number of British soldiers assailing American shores. Warfare is substantially different now: The threats are more insidiously embedded throughout society, and the enemy numbers are no longer finite.

Defense by other means, however, stands ready to help guard the homeland and abroad. If only we employ its good offices and be educated by its method.

For the original publishing of this article, find it here.

Michael Shank is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, an Associate at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, headquartered in The Hague, and a board member of the National Peace Academy.