We are a small-town coffee klatch: One guy is a tea bagger, two others are very conservative Republicans. Two are moderate something-or-others, and I am the lone progressive.
We are talking about the federal budget deficit and the burgeoning national debt. We all agree something has to be done, and it would be immoral to saddle our kids and grandkids with the huge debt resulting from the failure of our generation to make the sacrifices to handle the problems.
The tea bagger and conservatives want to end the problem by cutting taxes and making government much smaller, though they are unclear what departments or programs have to go. The moderates seems to be more or less content with the status quo, and I, as a progressive, want to temporarily increase the deficit by pouring more stimulus money into the economy to get it started, hoping the deficit will then be wiped out à la the Clinton years.
Suddenly it comes to us that none of us is talking about the 500-pound gorilla in the room. We are referring, of course, to the enormous sums spent on defense: $700 billion for the Pentagon; more billions for Homeland Security, CIA, NSA, the FBI, etc. Add in ongoing wars that suck up billions for vague purposes. We are told the defense budget exceeds the total of all of the rest of the countries of the world combined.
We continue to build sophisticated fighter planes (to shoot down Russian bombers?), nuclear submarines, and aircraft carriers. Contrast all this to our modern enemy made up of 50,000 or so Al Qaeda fanatics who attack us with box cutters and powdered explosives in their shoes and underwear. They are probably, as we speak, building homemade bombs in basements somewhere. We are asking whether our expenditures on defense are realistic in light of the enemy we face.
Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense under George W. Bush, in a speech to Pentagon employees on Sept. 10, 2001, said the following:
“The topic today is an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America ... . The adversary’s closer to home. It’s the Pentagon bureaucracy. Not the people, but the processes. Not the
civilians, but the systems. Not the men and women in uniform, but the uniformity of thought and action that we too often impose on them.
“In this building, despite this era of scarce resources taxed by mounting threats, money disappears into duplicative duties and bloated bureaucracy—not because of greed, but gridlock. Innovation is stifled—not by ill intent but by institutional inertia.
“Just as we must transform America’s military capability to meet changing threats, we must transform the way the Department works and what it works on. We must build a Department where each of the dedicated people here can apply their immense talents to defend America, where they have the resources,
information and freedom to perform.
“Our challenge is to transform not just the way we deter and defend, but the way we conduct our daily business. Let’s make no mistake: The modernization of the Department of Defense is a matter of some urgency. In fact, it could be said that it’s a matter of life and death, ultimately, every American’s.”
The next day, the twin towers fell, fear exploded, and hope of cutting defense costs went out the window. It is now 10 years later and time to revisit Rumsfeld’s thoughts.
If we cut the military and the military industrial complex down to $500 billion, we would still be spending more than 10 times the $40 billion or so the Chinese purportedly spend on defense. We certainly could fund the operative kind of intelligence and quick-strike units that are necessary to fight Al Qaeda.
In the end, we all agreed we probably don’t know what we’re talking about and probably don’t know all the facts, since we’re just small-towners. We would, however, like politicians across the political spectrum to tell us what, if anything, they think should be done with the 500-pound gorilla. We also know that is not likely to happen.
James M. Duenow is an attorney in San Luis Obispo. Send comments via the opinion editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.