One of the unique pleasures of living near our nation’s capital is to sit down with the first morning cup of coffee, open the Washington Post, and flip through the full-page ads placed by defense contractors. The ads almost always feature dedicated young soldiers, fierce bald eagles, and American flags. They extol our heroic warriors and note how they, the contractors, are on the front line defending freedom and the American way. They do not mention that the ads are paid for by the taxpayers, courtesy of the huge profits generated by unneeded defense spending. Their CEOs and shareholders must smile when they see the ads. The rest of us shouldn’t.
This is not to suggest that defense contractors don’t do a lot of good in the world. They support armies of lobbyists and contribute to congressmen who otherwise would have to find real work. They make sure that the pundits and ideologues who promote a vigorous defense of American interests at home and abroad are well-funded through their contributions to think-tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, and Frank Gaffney’s ubiquitous Center for Security Policy. They hold gala dinners and invite Bush administration hacks and blue dog Democrats to speak, paying them generous honoraria to make sure they have comfortable retirements. They sometimes show incredible ingenuity, figuring out how to make gasoline that costs $1.13 per gallon in Kuwait cost $8 when it arrives in Iraq a day later. They produce ships and planes and missile systems that America doesn’t need, but doing so surely keeps workers in their factories in key congressional constituencies from having to file for unemployment. It’s a win-win.
And defense contractors know how to make people afraid and keep them that way. The next war, against Iran, will no doubt be prepped by claims that Tehran was involved in 9/11 and that it is the principal supporter of al-Qaeda. Those Persians are "killing our soldiers." And nothing much changes when you flip from Republican to Democrat. Even if the Global War on Terror (GWOT) is now being referred to as Overseas Contingency Operations, there has been no shift in how Washington approaches the terrorism problem. Overseas Contingency Operations are just as big a business as was GWOT; they are designed to make money and create good jobs for a lot of people. If one opens that same Washington Post featuring the full-page self-congratulatory ads and turns to the employment pages, the few jobs available in this recession-wracked economy are in the quarter-page listings for defense contractors. Squeezing money from the taxpayers or borrowing it from foreigners appears to be the entirety of Washington’s local economy.
This huge war-driven economy is particularly difficult to comprehend given that the principal enemy is neither a foreign country nor a coalition of states. Contemporary terrorism is best describable as the tactic employed by a loosely wired political movement. There are no accurate statistics on how many terrorists there are in the world, but it is safe to assume that there are probably no more than several thousand Salafists, Islamic extremists who have an international agenda that makes them ideological foes of the United States and its allies. Al-Qaeda is one of several Salafist groups.
Those several thousand militants are most often engaged in carrying out actions against their own countries of origin. They are essentially stateless even when they take up residence somewhere. They are harried, arrested, and killed whenever possible by every police force and intelligence service in the world. They have occasional successes but more often find themselves running from one safehouse or cave to another to avoid detection. Ideologically speaking, they are a force whose time has passed, with ever fewer young people attracted to the revolutionary rhetoric. Apart from places like Afghanistan, where carrying a rifle is the only job available, new recruits are few and far between.
These couple of thousand terrorists should be the principal target of United States counterterrorism efforts, which should focus on good police work and intelligence operations combined with cooperation with friendly governments working to the same end. But the United States instead apparently prefers to use an elephant to swat a fly. The buildup of the new U.S. military commands in Africa and Latin America continues with no peace dividend in sight, as if the 101st Airborne provides a viable solution to a band of militants hiding in a hut or in the jungle. The Pentagon budget under President Barack Obama has gone up by 12 percent, not down, and exceeds $581 billion, excluding special appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan. The intelligence budget is in excess of $70 billion, and Homeland Security costs $43 billion annually. Other agencies and bureaus, such as the Department of Energy, have their own security budgets. Much of this spending is directly or indirectly attributable to the terrorist threat or, to put it more accurately, the perception of the terrorist threat.
The inflated cost of doing business in the age of terror means that U.S. taxpayers are spending as much as $200 billion per year in a not completely successful attempt to deal with a couple of thousand terrorists scattered around the world. Dividing the money spent by the number of terrorists suggests an astonishing $100 million or so per terrorist per year. Is this money well spent? The defense contractors and Beltway bandits who have gotten fat on government contracts think so. But anyone not directly profiting from the status quo would likely look at the "business model" and conclude that it might work far better to buy each terrorist a nice villa on the Riviera with a Mercedes parked out front and give his kids a full scholarship to Harvard to make the problem go away.
To shift the failed counterterrorism paradigm, the first thing President Obama should do is delegitimize the fear merchants with a dose of reality. His intelligence briefings should be telling him that while terrorism is a serious problem, it is not an "existential" threat, as the currently fashionable expression has it. Obama should calm the waters by telling the American people that terrorism is a containable problem that is in decline anyway. He should reduce everyone’s blood pressure by observing that terrorism cannot seriously damage the United States unless we Americans let it do so by ruining our economy using borrowed money in a futile attempt to spend our way into some kind of terrorism-free nirvana.
If Obama truly wants to change the perception of terrorism, he first has to cut off the flood of money that makes the whole anti-terrorism effort a huge feeding trough for defense contractors and other parasites who would not exist but for the flow of cash. The full-page ads in the Post gushing with faux-patriotism don’t mean a thing except that the military-industrial complex has a lot of money to burn courtesy of U.S. taxpayers. Without the money feeding the contrived narrative about the global threat, the whole terrorism mythology will wither and die. The contractors can go home and hopefully find something useful to do, such as giving something back to the American people who have made them rich. America can stop getting involved willy-nilly in other people’s quarrels overseas and might even be able to return to being a normal country with normal people aspiring to normal things.