Prisoners of War

ByRobert Borosage

September 30th, 2008 – 10:27am ET


On September 29, Congress revolted against the $700 billion price tag of the
proposed bailout of Wall Street. The day before, that same Congress passed
without murmur—unanimously in the Senate—a $700 billion budget for the Pentagon
in 2009. The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression has shattered
the conservative illusions about deregulation and market fundamentalism. But
the equally costly illusions about America’s role as an “indispensable
nation” policing the globe go without challenge. We remain prisoners of war.

Most Americans have no sense of the cost and scope of America’s role
as globocop. We sustain what Chalmers Johnson calls an “empire of bases” across
the globe – over
700 active bases in more than 30 countries
. Our navy polices the world’s

oceans. We task our military to maintain “dominance” not only in our own
hemisphere, but in Europe, the Persian Gulf and Asia.
Our intelligence “plumbing in place” engages in covert activities throughout
the globe. We are the only nation with the capacity to airlift expeditionary
forces rapidly and in large numbers across the globe. We are now devoting some
$12 billion a month to wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq.
Bush has declared a “Global War on Terror,” a so-called “long war,” without
limits or exits. Our Defense Secretary complains that the military is
displacing the desiccated State Department as America’s representatives across
the world.

The cost of sustaining this commitment is staggering. The Pentagon’s budget
itself represents more than half of all discretionary spending—everything the
government does, outside of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and
interest on the national debt. At $700 billion, it is about equal to that spent
by the rest of the world combined on the military. But the actual cost of our
military is strewn throughout the budget. Add in the cost of our veterans, the
arms aid in the State Department budget, Homeland Security, and more—and
actual spending climbs over $1 trillion a year

Our military has no rival, but we grow ever less secure. There are three
fundamental reasons for this.

As carpenters know, if you only carry a hammer, lots of things start looking
like a nail. Maintain a global military constantly engaged across the world,
and it will find things to do. As one conservative Southern Senator once said,
“the greater ability we have to go places and do things, the more likely we are
to go there and do them.” Neo-conservatives dream of the military remaking the Middle East. Humanitarians demand that it act to stop
genocide or atrocities from Rwanda
to Darfur. Global corporations insist that it
challenge pirates and rogue states that are posing an increasing nuisance to

Thus, the fanatics that launched the airplanes against the World Trade
Towers are turned into
warriors; the very real threat they pose transformed into a Global War on
Terror. This not only helps justify the “war of choice” against Iraq, surely the most costly national security
debacle since Vietnam.
It also distracts us from a sensible strategy against al Qaeda and its allies.
As  the Pentagon’s own think tank, the Rand Corporation concluded in a recent
study, the very concept of a “war on terror” isn’t only a
distraction; it is detraction from a sensible strategy. By elevating al Qaeda
into global warriors, it inflates their importance, and aids their ability to
recruit. At the same time, it scorns the real measures needed to counter al
Qaeda—intelligence cooperation, financial constraints, and alert and aggressive
policing. Worse, it undermines the broad challenge that must be made to engage
Islam, to rally the forces of moderation, and to isolate the extremists.

The second problem is the obverse: things that don’t look like nails get
ignored. America’s
priorities are badly distorted. Abroad, as Defense Secretary Gates
acknowledged, generals and admirals displace our diplomats. Arms sales dominate
our foreign assistance programs. At home, our country is literally falling
apart from lack of investment in a modern, energy efficient infrastructure. We
spend tens of billions each year to project our military power into the Persian
Gulf, but fail to invest in the renewable energy and conservation at home that
could reduce our dependence on foreign oil, generate jobs here in the U.S., and help
capture the green markets that will be the growth markets of the future. We are
a wealthy country, so in fact, we probably could afford to sustain military
spending at current levels. But we can’t do so, and slash taxes on the wealthy and
the corporations, without starving basic investments here at home, even as we
rack up record deficits.

Worse, the military has no answer to the major threats to our security: a
growing global indebtedness that can’t be sustained, the rise of India and China as economic powerhouses,
catastrophic climate change and the growing resource struggles that will be far
more destabilizing than Islamic terrorists, an integrated global economy of
ever greater instability. Worse, the attention devoted to military misadventures
like Iraq
gets in the way of addressing
these looming threats

The third problem is the contrast between the Republic we are trying to
secure and the national security state that has been built to police the globe.
War augments the power of the executive. War and military threat justify
secrecy, covert operations, disdain for constitutional limits and checks and
balances. President Bush claims the right to launch preventive war on any
nation in the world, to wiretap Americans without warrant, to designate them an
enemy combatant and arrest them without reasonable cause, to hold them without
review. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, rendition and
torture have shamed America
during the Bush years. But the lawlessness of the national security state – and
the trampling of our own liberties in the name of security – did not begin in
2000. Bush has merely taken to the extreme prerogatives claimed by presidents
over the last decades.

myths that sustain our military
—and the lobbies that promote military

spending—are politically unassailable. Both major party presidential candidates
pledge to increase the size of the military and project higher military
spending in the future. Both support an increased military occupation in Afghanistan, ignoring the history of fierce
Afghani resistance to foreign occupation that confounded Britain at the height of its empire, and the Soviet Union right off its borders. The financial crisis
and coming recession is forcing a great reckoning in America. But to date, there is no
serious challenge to our priorities, or to America’s commitment to policing
the globe. The presidential debate on foreign policy featured disputes about Iraq, about Georgia,
about Afghanistan,
about the economic crisis. But our basic global strategy, our spending
priorities went without question or comment.

Economic crisis, like hanging, has a way of concentrating the mind. The
financial crisis and the harsh recession likely to follow will spark a
fundamental debate about America’s
economy. But the debacle in Iraq
has not had the same effect on the foreign policy debate. A challenge to America’s global strategy will not come from Washington. It won’t
come from the national security managers of either party. It can only come if
citizens build a democratic movement willing and able to demand the debate that
we need.


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