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Cross of Irony

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"Down the long lane of the history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. . . . Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose."

So is it time to start doing this now, 48 years down that road?

These words were part of Dwight Eisenhower's 1961 presidential farewell speech, in which he famously warned that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Were Ike's words simply part of the wisdom-on-leaving-office syndrome that keeps idealism and long-range thinking permanently separated from the political process? I couldn't help but feel them summoned a few days ago by Rep. Barney Frank, who called, in an article in the Nation, for an unheard of 25 percent gouge out of the bloated, influence-besotted -- insane, sacred -- U.S. Defense budget.

No, it ain't going to happen, not this year, but without at least one politician taking a risky stand for common sense, the possibility of doing so won't even be part of the general awareness, much less the public debate about how the United States should spend its money in an economic crisis, or what kind of nation we should be.

Frank chastises those who are quick to criticize and cut government social spending but "fail to talk about one area" -- the Department of Defense -- "where substantial budget reductions would have the doubly beneficial effect of cutting the deficit and diminishing expenditures that often do more harm than good."

Yeah, to put it mildly. He goes on to talk about the Pentagon's ongoing, undebated plans not only to keep bleeding our treasury in Iraq (and, I would add, Afghanistan), but also to keep spending billions to design and build Cold War-era weapons "that lack not only a current military need but even a plausible use in any foreseeable future."

And that's just the tip of the festering, special-interest insanity that is U.S. "defense" spending. The consequences, if not the calculated goal, of this unchecked force is the exacerbation, not the elimination, of threats (global terrorism, let us say), guaranteeing that more spending will be necessary to deal with them ad infinitum, or until everything collapses and reality comes to collect its due.

Many of the costs we've brought on ourselves from our past military follies are unavoidably here to stay, e.g., the care for physically and emotionally injured vets of our two current wars, which economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimate will run to more than $700 billion (and the whole Iraq fiasco will ultimately cut $3 trillion from the flesh of the body politic, they surmise).

Other expenditures in the war on terror are money lost for good, in the rampant waste and fraud of occupied Iraq. Some $125 billion is unaccounted for in the "reconstruction" of Iraq, Patrick Cockburn reported a few days ago in Counterpunch. Pallets of cash have just disappeared, with senior U.S. officials among the suspects, in what Cockburn calls "the biggest fraud in U.S. history." And Iraq has not been reconstructed; most Iraqis don't even have running water, reliable electricity or decent sewage disposal.

Do we dare begin excising the budget that brought all this to the nation and the world? Interestingly, neoconservative columnist Robert Kagan, writing in the Washington Post, has accused the Obama administration of contemplating just such a thing: a 10 percent Defense budget reduction. Oh, the horror. Such an outrage would "unnerve American allies" and "embolden potential adversaries," he warned.

In point of fact, the new administration is reportedly planning to propose a $14 billion increase -- to $527 billion -- in the Defense budget; Kagan and his ilk are claiming this is a cut because it's 10 percent below the bloated figure the Pentagon had asked for.

The fact that the neocons, from their forums in the nation's most respected media outlets, can simply wave the flag and stoke our fear and keep defense spending politically holy, no matter how malignant it is to American, not to mention the rest of the world's, interests, exemplifies "the disastrous rise of misplaced power" Ike warned us about.

For instance, we accounted for fully 46 percent of the $1.2 trillion in world military expenditures in 2006, and 80 percent of the increase from 2005, according to globalissues.org. This brings to mind another famous Eisenhower speech, his 1953 "Cross of Iron" remarks to the American Society of Newspaper Editors:

"All these war-weary peoples shared too this concrete, decent purpose: to guard vigilantly against the domination ever again of any part of the world by a single, unbridled aggressive power."

The hellish vision of unchecked military spending he invoked 55 years ago is now here, and humanity is hanging, and I paraphrase, from a cross of irony.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

© 2009 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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