02/18/2011 02:23 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Our Coup d' Etat, by Accident

The F-35's extra engine got the ax this week, but don't put away your air quotes. The arguments over "security" have just begun. Democrats and freshmen Republicans deserve congratulations for protecting taxpayers, but let's face it, this extra engine could not have been more unwanted if it had been wearing cement boots and dumped off a pier outside Providence. The Pentagon itself raged against it. Eliminating it does nothing to remove our strategic blindfold. And the Senate could yet bring it back. More important: We still can't answer the question about how we're going to get more security for less money. Or how we're going to move past our high tech weapons nostalgia, a fantasy suited to the open terrain of Napoleon, not the crowded streets of Bin Laden.

Security Doesn't Always Come in a Uniform

Exempting defense from the same budget scrutiny as the rest of the U.S. government will not help us achieve a modern presence in the world. What it will do is force the military to take on ever more unsuitable tasks. For the past twenty years, the military has accrued numerous policy assignments simply because it has the money and the personnel (not to mention a can-do attitude). Afghanistan didn't create this problem, it simply revealed it to the American public. Our uniformed personnel are delivering babies, distributing payroll, rebuilding the power grid and fighting a war in Afghanistan. We are learning lessons in reverse i.e. that building social capital is how you win and that this kind of victory is achieved through tools of inclusion: convening, technical assistance, economic support and confidence building. Today, credibility is as important as hardware was a generation ago.

The military knows this. They also know it works best in preventive mode. Take Egypt, for example. Our military education program brings officers from around the world to the United States to study with U.S. and international peers. Testifying this week, Secretary Gates pointed out how U.S. influence minimized violent clashes between Egyptians and their rejected regime. For decades, connections among this professional peer network have been carefully cultivated and prized as security assets. The lesson Congress should learn from this influence bonanza is to replicate defense programs across other areas of the public sector. We should have equally strong peer opportunities for diplomats, educators, economists, city planners, accountants and judges.

Instead, Congress appears ready to cripple or eliminate the nonmilitary side of security. Anything not wearing a uniform is a target. Wild eyed conservatives are even proposing to cut funding to fight the trade in illegal nuclear materials. Gulp.

Tunisia, Egypt and now Bahrain should flip a switch about our security strategy. Egyptians' successful transition to representative government will do more to fight terrorism than, for example, our new $150 million multi-camera Gorgon Stare drone (Medusa the snake haired woman of myth was a Gorgon). Despite the Washington Post's drooling celebration of this weapon, testing found it slow and inaccurate and unable to identify targets. Experts said the same about missile defense long before it hit the 100 billion dollar mark. Constant flogging and fear distortion by industry and politicians made Star Wars an immortal boondoggle. Gorgon Stare might help us understand modern American security challenges if it would fix its gaze on US cities. It would surely see our failing bridges, boarded up homes, potholed roads and long lines at the food bank.

In a world where credibility is a measure of strength, the way we presently care for our own assets makes us unbelievable.

Besides, high tech weapons can't keep up with cheap, simple devices that actually provide the subtle distinctions necessary to have situational awareness "on the ground". This knowledge can be achieved for next to nothing through geo-spatial locating (disaster response groups like Ushahidi lead the way). From Haiti to Cairo, crowd-sourced mobile verification is the future of peaceful transition. Helping individuals everywhere create a positive and interactive alternative to violence is what our elected leaders should be betting on with American taxpayer dollars.

For more on how we can avoid high cost defense failures, check out the new and downloadable Pentagon's Labyrinth.

Our Cammo-Colored Infatuation

Why is Congress unwilling to fundamentally shift our relationship with the rest of the world? Especially when the use of force is becoming less and less productive?

Military professionals normally observe a bright line between expert advice and political advocacy. Yet these boundaries are shifting. Here are some indicators of imbalance:

  1. An overstretched military gradually resents a society that does not sacrifice. This separation stirs alienation and possibly even arrogance, increasing our civil / military divide
  2. The military adopts counterinsurgency i.e. nation building. Our Army has become good at monitoring/controlling populations and engaging in economic development projects. Congress doesn't stop or modify this trend.
  3. Katrina -- we used active duty forces to help bring relief to a disaster area. We become too comfortable with military troops on duty in our domestic terrrain. i.e. calls to the Mexican border.
  4. Rising "Veteranism" where the military is given incrementally more credibility as a legitimate political voice. Both the Left and the Right are guilty of using veteran branding.
  5. Loss of confidence in Government -- low public opinion in our elected officials and a poisoned system.

Lack of interest, oversight and public pressure has created our current over-militarized dilemma: Those in uniform have become a domestic and international 911 service. This is a problem for everyone. We live in a country where popular buy-in to the notion that citizens and their civilian elected leaders are the primary authorities on all policymaking, is vital to sustain the system. Civilian supremacy in setting strategy is the cornerstone of our success and credibility in the world.

Our failure to achieve this balance is manifesting all over the place. We keep telling everybody else to do things that we no longer are able to do ourselves.

A defense budget that has increased 67% in ten years is unreasonable.

A Congress that came in pledging fiscal accountability but refuses to make the Pentagon capable of an audit is not credible.

If we Americans and our civilian elected leaders don't come to terms with our over-dependence on the military, we will cede increasing authority to an institution that doesn't want it and should not have it.

If we don't force this conversation soon, the sad result won't really be an accident. It will be an outcome. And we'll all have a hand in it. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Ask your local university system to create a Cold War conversion task force for the state. If you don't pique interest, get your Congressional delegation to nudge them. Attach it to federal funding.
  • Create a crisis response communications team. In the event of a domestic terrorism attack, we will need civic-minded individuals to stand together and deliver a message of empathy, presence, credibility and teamwork. Create a contact list of local blogs and media outlets. Get to them before Fox sends out its talking points.
  • Reach out to local veterans. Support them. They will give you courage.
p.s. Thank you Representative Betty McCollum for pointing out the wastefulness of the NASCAR/military sponsorship. Just one more example of what needs to stop.