Honor our veterans: cut military $
On Veterans Day 2010, the United States finds itself in an unsettled domestic situation in which the balance of political power is shifting toward the Republican side, as various economic indicators suggest that the nation's fiscal integrity is in peril. Our armed forces remain engaged in a difficult and costly counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, while the occupation of Iraq rapidly winds down. (Finally: "Mission Accomplished!") As the human toll from those wars becomes increasingly evident, we need to think about two things: First, how much commitment should be made to help the Afghan government pacify the countryside and root out the Taliban forces. And second, whether the veterans who served their country so well in those wars will get the support and benefits that they need to become reintegrated into civilian life. For those former soldiers and Marines with missing limbs, brain injuries, or other debilitating conditions, we the American people owe them the highest level of care and treatment.
Yesterday the bipartisan deficit commission named by President Obama called for cutting more than $200 billion a year from the budget of the Pentagon and other federal agencies. Even with large cuts in entitlement programs and various tax increases, the plan would not lead to a balanced budget until 2040. In other words, it's a huge amount of sacrifice and effort in order to reach a goal 30 years into the future. That itself conveys the awful situation into which we have fallen. See Washington Post and/or USA Today. The Pentagon is straining to justify a wide range of high-tech weapons programs, very few of which are relevant to the war on terrorism or have a plausible use in the near term, or even the medium term. We should probably cancel or delay the F-35 fighter jet program, and some of the new generation of warships. Unfortunately, however, the Republican "Pledge to America" specifically exempts military spending from budget cuts. That is simply not realistic.
Even though the two issues are often viewed as completely separate, economic solvency is part and parcel of national security. As Paul Kennedy warned in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), throughout history nations have risen to global preeminence and then fallen because they undertook strategic commitments that could not be sustained economically. Are we close to that point now? Kennedy "cried wolf" during the first Persian Gulf War of 1991, arguing that the United States was going out on a strategic limb and would not be able to pay for the forces needed to win. Obviously, he was wrong on that occasion, probably not foreseeing the huge "peace dividend" from winning the Cold War, but this time around, his argument holds much more weight.
In sum, we shouldn't run the risk of bankrupting our country by trying to maintain a super-sized military establishment of questionable utility. Being engaged in a protracted war of occupation on the other side of the planet puts a severe limit on what kinds of future security commitments we can make. We should also rethink our policy in Afghanistan, and avoid the trap of seeking to validate the sacrifices that have already been made there. We certainly don't want to put at risk our government's ability to provide the proper attention and services for veterans, so if we really care about our service men and women, we'd better pay heed to the urgency of fiscal reform at home. The best way to honor our veterans is to make substantial cuts in military spending, soon.