Radical Rethink Needed in Washington

It is time to put an end to fortress America and force Jack Bauer to retire. President Barack Obama is reportedly reviewing America’s involvement in various conflicts overseas as well as its domestic defenses. He would be well advised to make the review a thorough one, starting at zero and challenging every assumption being made about the nation’s security.

Over the past seven years the United States has struck the devil’s own bargain, trading liberty for security and receiving neither in return. Given the tumult in the U.S. economy, Obama might also consider broadening the inquiry to include a serious cost-benefit analysis, because George Bush’s Global War on Terror and his monstrous Department of Homeland Security don’t come cheap. Indeed, the heedless borrowing of money from foreigners to fight a series of wars without end "to protect the homeland" was undeniably a contributing factor in America’s economic meltdown. The British Empire collapsed due to the huge budget deficits in running a global enterprise that, like the war on terror, had no beginning or end and no bottom line. The Soviet Empire, sheltered for a time by a command economy, was likewise doomed because its economy could not sustain the burden of a swollen military budget combined with support of numerous client states.

It is arguably now America’s turn to learn about the twilight of empire. What comes out of the process might well be a new and better place, but the transformation could be a traumatic one. The stream of revenue that supports a huge military, more expensive than almost the rest of the world combined, plus a burgeoning domestic security complex, could easily vanish if President Obama’s stimulus program fails to work, as is all too likely. The Chinese and Japanese will call in their chips, and the dollar will sink to the level of the Belarusian ruble. It is not surprising to note how the generals and their mouthpieces in the media are already starting to groan and stage their counterattack, stressing the need for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to guarantee America’s security. Petraeus and Odierno are being described as military geniuses on a par with Hannibal and Napoleon, with the implication that all that is needed is for them to "finish the job." The bill of goods about trusting the generals has been sold a number of times in the past seven years, and there is no reason to assume that it cannot be sold again, even though the American people are now confronting very hard times.

The issues of security and the federal government budget are, of course, linked and are further complicated by hidden costs in maintaining a constant war footing that distorts the economy overall. America’s heavily armed troopers are vastly more expensive than the conscript grunt of Vietnam, as are the armored vehicles that transport them into battle, the technical wizardry that supports them, and even the defense contractors who feed them. The tenuous Iraq supply line snaking up from Kuwait, guarded as it is by platoons of mercenaries, drives the cost of food, fuel, and equipment to support the occupation to unimaginable levels. Harvard economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated that the total cost of the war in Iraq alone will exceed $3 trillion, and that war is not over yet. Afghanistan is already promising to be worse. The supply line from the port of Karachi in Pakistan up through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan has been cut repeatedly over the past three months. The militants have figured out that the long streams of trucks constitute a vulnerable jugular for the entire Afghan project. Overland shipment through Turkey and Russia will increase the costs even more.

Obama should, for starters, negotiate without preconditions with all of Iraq’s neighbors and non-state players to create a stable security environment for the entire region. Groups and nations described as "rogues" – Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas – will behave accordingly if they are deliberately marginalized. Their legitimate concerns need to be addressed. Obama should then bring the troops home from Iraq, all of them. There is nothing more that they can accomplish, and it is time for the Iraqis to sort things out for themselves with America’s best wishes.

Israel should be made to understand that they should roll back the settlements and seek a viable two-state solution with the Palestinians or risk forfeiting both economic and political support from Washington. Obama should then provide evidence that the age of American imperialism is over by declaring the war in Afghanistan over and working closely with all relevant parties among the Pakistanis, Afghans, and Indians to create a security structure for the region that will preempt any development of a state sponsor of terrorism. He should then look hard at the other vestiges of America’s post-World War II empire, including the U.S. hostage soldiers in Korea, the large military presence in Japan, and the still considerable U.S. bases in Germany. All served a function during the Cold War, but none of them any longer have any role apart from convincing America’s allies that Washington is serious about mutual defense. Europe, Korea, and Japan should all work with the United States to determine how to defend themselves, a relatively easy task as they face no serious threats apart from a bellicose but barefoot North Korea.

The U.S. defense budget is 40 percent of the world’s total for military expenditures, even though there is no real enemy to fight. By eliminating "wars of choice" and removing bases around the globe, the Pentagon budget could be pared down from its projected $663 billion for 2010 by at least a third to $440 billion. We don’t need three more infantry divisions, as we will not be looking around for someone to fight, nor the F-22 fighter, as no one can challenge the U.S. in the air, and we surely don’t need more carrier groups, as Washington already has the world’s only blue-water navy.

Obama should also look at the Department of Homeland Security. Its budget of $50 billion is only the tip of the iceberg, as many of its costs are subsumed or hidden in other budgets. By all means, take every step necessary to secure America’s borders but the compilation of no-fly and terrorist lists has been largely a mismanaged fraud, with many innocent Americans caught up in a Big Brotherish nightmare from which there is no escape. If there were really as many terrorists in the U.S. as appear on the list, the homeland would have fallen long ago. Contrived show trials of paint gunners and pizza delivery men hardly provide convincing evidence that there is a terrorist hiding under every bush. Homeland Security has been an albatross ever since it was created. Its color codes have been a joke, its leadership has been moribund, and its claims that it has protected the country from attack have been largely a fiction. It has driven up costs for American companies operating internationally and turned the U.S. into a destination that few tourists seek because of a corps of hostile officials puffed up on testosterone at ports of entry.

And then there is the huge and growing intelligence budget, semi-officially running around $55 billion but actually at least half again bigger than that. Shut down the office of the director of national intelligence, since it only duplicates functions elsewhere and adds extra layers of bureaucracy and cost. Reconstitute the CIA and give its director genuine authority over budgets and intelligence operations worldwide. Then fire most of the tens of thousands of intelligence contractors and all of the staff employees who are doing anything that does not directly relate to terrorism or nuclear proliferation. It really doesn’t matter who is elected in Botswana next month, and we don’t need the local CIA station to recruit a spy to figure it out. Anything that cannot actually harm the United States we should ignore. That way costs will be reduced and the intelligence community will become efficient, centralized, and able to truly speak with one voice. This would also reverse the militarization of intelligence operations that took place under the Bushies.

A little more lopping here and chopping there and, voilà, there will be a balanced budget. America will also be able to stand tall in the world again, no longer the school bully, no longer interfering in other people’s quarrels, a friend to all. A fantasy? Not really. It could be done. The United States quickly demobilized and returned to a peacetime economy after the Second World War. In those days, the U.S. produced more of what it consumed and was energy efficient, with huge cash reserves, so admittedly things are a little different now. But if Barack Obama were able to bring about even a tiny shift in direction for an impoverished America circling the globe in search of dragons, it would truly be change that we can all believe in.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.