Taxpayer Alert: National Security and the Defense Budget are Not the Same Thing

Last month, Congress passed a defense budget that will cost American taxpayers over $500 billion dollars...and when you add in the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the numbers get closer to $1 trillion. To put these numbers in context, the United States spends more than the next 45 highest spending countries in the world combined. In our own budget, the defense portion of the budget (again, minus the wars) takes up 54% of the money that Congress has available to spend this year. Today's defense spending is 14% above the height of the Korean War, 33% above the height of the Vietnam War, 25% above the height of the "Reagan Era" buildup and is 76% above the Cold War average. In fact, since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the annual defense budget has gone up 34%. Including war costs, defense spending has gone up 86% since 2001. Left, Right and Center, most people agree that our national security budget is not sustainable and in dire need of thoughtful discussion, re-alignment and reform. We seem to be spending more and more on "defense" yet purchasing less and less security for it. A recent CBS poll found that 81% of Americans are feeling uneasy about our country's direction in the world. That's not surprising when you consider that when it comes to national security, we've been looking backward for inspiration. Indeed, much of our problem today is that we are stuck in the past, still conceiving of security as a problem that can be solved by the military and still thinking that ever more expensive technology will keep us safe.

If we've learned anything from our experience in Iraq, it is that easy assumptions are no longer true. Even military commanders suggest that the vast majority of our challenges in Iraq do not have military solutions. These are lessons we should have learned fifteen years ago. I remember sitting in congressional hearings in 1998, watching generals like Wesley Clark talk about the military's peace operations in the Balkans before the House Armed Services Committee. He spoke of the military's need for skills like knowledge of culture, history, language and politics. Today we're hearing these themes echoed in Iraq, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan. Generals testify that the dilemma we face is a political challenge. That the use of force has become counterproductive at every level....from the national strategy of pre-emptive war to the tactic of kicking down doors and terrifying families. Last year, to better implement its hearts and minds campaign, the military implemented a counter insurgency strategy in Iraq. This strategy places civilian protection at the center of US activities--and has yielded impressive results. The discussion of why these tactics work needs to be separated from the larger, very contentious public argument over staying in or leaving Iraq. Why? because the theme of protecting people holds true for many of our security problems today. We're in the midst of a dramatic shift in how we develop a strategy for US security--moving from reaction to pro-action, away from coercion and force and toward persuasion and cooperation. During the Soviet era that ended in 1991, the organizing principle of US security was containment of communist ideology. It was characterized by continual military readiness, the nuclear arms race, mutual assured destruction and super power summits. Today, containment is obsolete. Our organizing principle must be legitimacy, or leading by example. In other words, we must demonstrate that we will play by the same set of rules that we establish for others. And while a strong military remains vital, we need to ask, what is real security today? The new reality in the post-September 11 world is that protection from terrorist attacks and other security challenges can only be provided by broadening our vision of national security to include law enforcement, intelligence, immigration policy, border security, foreign assistance, economic development, and diplomacy. These are all personnel-intensive missions. We desperately need smart, creative individuals working in national security. Congress needs to hear this so they will stop complaining about "more bureaucrats" and redirect some of those billions of dollars spent on Soviet-era weapons programs toward recruiting talent and modernizing the division of labor for our nation's security.

We are at a crossroads: an unpopular war is winding down, our economy is sliding into the doldrums and we sit on the cusp of a presidential election. How elected leaders decide to define security now will determine our nation's direction for a generation. Will we face the world using coercion or by striving for legitimacy? Will we discard our recent reputation as a rule breaker and work to regain our status as a deal maker? Changing how ordinary Americans talk about security is the first step in this conversation. If the US wants to lead by example, we must recognize that the safety of people across borders is as important to US security as the safety of our country within its borders. We must insist that both these needs are complimentary and inseparable, and not pose them as tradeoffs. I.e. A strong Army is important, but so is education for girls in parts of the world that suffer from contagious ideology and failed governments. That's one thing we can each do today: Resist the language of easy tradeoffs: hawks versus doves, strong versus weak, guns versus butter... There are plenty of legitimate tradeoffs within national security...and if you acknowledge legitimate fears, and put the safety of people at the center of your argument, Americans are willing to hear about all sorts of new priorities---from levees in New Orleans to women's micro-finance in Asia.

In today's world, power is best described by the ability to influence the intentions of others, not by use of dominant force. Interestingly, because women have traditionally been shut out of power, we have found alternative ways to lead, often through networks of relationships. This ability to form alliances, then use our first-hand and personal perspectives on what makes a society work, will be a vital key to filling a global need for a new security.

And it is not that women have all the answers. But, based on what we see of what the world needs and how the definition of security has evolved, women must be part of the dialogue. This must happen not just because women are half the population, but because women have direct knowledge of the politics and the problems in their communities, and they have unique eyes on solutions for real security challenges.

Retired generals always warn their subordinates to "not fight the last war". Well, our elected civilians would do well to listen to this advice. We are still fighting and funding the Cold War--an era that ended in 1991. We continue to apply military tools to political problems. We justify outrageous numbers for a budget that leaves out or marginalizes vital security tools. And Congress still today has not had a comprehensive discussion: where everything is put on the table, where we define ends and means and where our leaders then make the tradeoffs that move us forward. Because of this crisis in leadership, women voters--especially singles--could very possibly have our nation's future in their hands this coming November on election day.

 

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