This is the third post in a series on George McGovern’s book, What It Means to Be a Democrat. For links to previous articles, see “Related Items “ at the end of this post.
CHAPTER TWO: FEAR AND DEFENSE SPENDING
When George McGovern decided on the title for the second chapter of his book, he knew exactly what he was doing. Putting “fear” and “defense spending” together is a necessity, as the two are inextricably linked in our current political world. And putting “fear” first was also an accurate idea. There is no question that fear is the means used to justify an excessive and outdated approach to our military budget. And while it is the Republican Party that has cornered the market on planting the seeds of fear among our citizens, Democrats have found themselves unable to effectively combat this trend. Worse, they have been victimized by fear as well – fear of standing up to the GOP, fear of political fallout, fear of addressing the reality of a changing military paradigm.
McGovern spells out America’s problem in What It Means to Be a Democrat. “We live with too much fear and not enough common sense”, he writes. “We are a nation in which fear and paranoia run deep…It’s as though we are never without an enemy, whether from within or without, real or imagined.” He reminds us that our country has enabled and encouraged witch hunts from our earliest days, whether they took the form of actual witch hunts in Colonial times, or McCarthyism in the 1950s, or the invented ”weapons of mass destruction” boogeyman that led us into war with Iraq.
The intensification of such tactics has led to the current political atmosphere, in which conservatives feel perfectly comfortable painting our own democratically-elected president – and, by extension, those who support him – as the enemy (see any recent public comment by Ted Nugent for an example of this mindset). The idea of birtherism, in which President Obama is accused of being a foreign-born interloper, stems directly from this witch hunt mentality. So does the recent discussion of the president’s past attendance at the church of Pastor Jeremiah Wright, and so do the many other tenuous and ultimately insignificant connections that have been trotted out over the years (Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko, Derrick Bell, etc.). The result is a factious government and a divided populace, deeply polarized and unable to function. Fear has been an effective tool for the Republicans politically, but it has poisoned the nation. It could be argued that the efforts by the GOP to divide and weaken our union have been a threat to our national safety and stability, as much as any efforts our enemies may make.
As much damage as right-wing fear mongering has done to political discourse, even worse is the damage it has done to our economy. The difficult financial times our government is currently facing are due, in large part, to the misguided attempt to rush into two wars we did not pay for. In the wake of 9/11, Americans supported the idea of military action against al-Qaeda. Instead, we were sold on a story about Saddam Hussein and the ominous threat posed by his (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction. President George W. Bush and his administration were so keen to engage in Iraq that covering the cost of this effort was laid aside. As the war raged on and the expenditures grew higher, no attempt was made to supplement the outgoing funds with tax increases, making Bush the first president in US history who refused to raise taxes during wartime. In fact, the Iraq War was a time of sweeping tax cuts under Bush, an unprecedented and reckless move which sealed our nation’s economic fate even before we added the expense of engagement in Afghanistan. Conservatives love to accuse Democrats of being “tax and spend liberals”. Yet under George W. Bush, the GOP acted as “borrow and spend” Republicans, never uttering a peep in protest as US debt was sold to China in order to push a massively expensive military agenda that was not entirely justified to begin with.
Even beyond this specific situation, defense spending in America has become problematic in recent years. George McGovern points out that defense “consumes roughly half of our nation’s discretionary spending”, yet it has begun to yield “diminishing returns”. This can be attributed to the reality of a changing world. In years gone by, defense meant having the sort of weaponry and machinery to prevent attacks via aircraft, battleship, or missile. Now, those types of attacks on our shores are becoming less and less likely. Rather than a traditional military invasion, we must protect ourselves from a new breed of enemy that uses different ways to strike against us. As McGovern observed, our towering combined military forces “did not stop nineteen al-Qaeda-trained men from bringing down four U.S. commercial airliners with box cutters and a few cans of Mace on 9/11.”
Hostilities against the United States are now taking the form of individual incidents, limited in scope and varied in method. We will have far less to fear from the army of any particular nation than we will from a lone soldier representing an extremist terrorist organization. With this in mind, it would be appropriate to rethink our approach to defense. Just as the attacks against us have changed, so too must our efforts to respond to them. As we are seeing in recent months, the most effective tools against terrorists are effective intelligence gathering and smaller-scale, strategic military missions, with a specific target or goal in mind. The killing of Osama Bin Laden is an excellent example. With a limited crew and a limited window of exposure, there were limited risks. Of course our Navy SEALs still faced danger, and even one life lost is one too many. But by sending in a relatively small and very elite squad of highly trained troops, with a well-planned mission and a singular focus, our military was able to achieve its goal with a substantially lower possibility of human casualties, wasted resources, and extended military involvement. In one night, this plan accomplished what more than 10 years of widespread war in the Middle East could not.
The US is also beginning to yield significant results in preventing terrorist incidents, and not just fighting back against them. Due to efforts within the intelligence community, multiple terrorist plots have been exposed and stopped before they could be carried out. Now that success seems to be coming from these intelligence strategies, as well as the more limited strategies of engagement used by our armed forces, there is a real argument for a defense budget that recognizes the new parameters of war. President Obama has proposed a “leaner” military, to reflect the emphasis on the smaller-scale efforts that will likely be the heart of our national defense plan going forward.
Of course, this is not an acceptable proposal to the Republicans, who are unable to handle the possibility of any money being cut from the defense budget, despite their insistence on austerity measures for just about every other government-funded program. The House recently approved an alternative defense budget which would add billions of dollars onto the amount proposed by President Obama’s budget. It is a plan which the president has threatened to veto, and it serves as a symbol of the difference between Republican and Democratic leadership on the issue of defense spending. Strategic, smart expenditures are as effective as the “bigger is better” approach favored by the GOP, if not more so. There is no reason to continue the same indiscriminate outlay toward defense that has been the norm for too long now, and there is no extra money in the budget to do so, either.
George McGovern does a good job of laying out the case for a more streamlined military budget, and in fact goes so far as to argue that the Department of Homeland Security should be dissolved, allowing the FBI, CIA and local law enforcement agencies to handle the job instead. He notes that it is the third-largest Cabinet department, and that its effectiveness may be more illusory than real: “I suspect that…Congress…will not fell the Homeland Security behemoth. Why? Its very existence makes us feel safer.” There are several elements to consider in McGovern’s argument; while there has been some useful consolidation of information under the Homeland Security umbrella, there has also been a certain level of expansive (and expensive) bureaucracy, concerns over privacy and fairness, mismanagement and fraud.
Regardless of any specific suggestion regarding Homeland Security, the overall picture painted by George McGovern is clear. We must maintain our ability to protect and defend our borders, but we can do so with different strategies, different tools and technologies, and different costs than we’ve become used to in the past. “We need to end the false choice between a bloated budget and a weak spine”, McGovern writes. And this responsibility falls as much to Democratic politicians and voters as it does to Republicans. For too long, thanks to Republicans, it has been accepted dogma in the world of politics that our defense budget is sacrosanct, an untouchable constant, without which America would become disastrously vulnerable. Democratic politicians need to stand up to the hypocritical and illogical arguments that we must cut back funding on everything else in our government, except for military spending. They have been trained not to push for too much when it comes to defense, for fear of being labeled as “soft on terrorism”. Their worries about re-election are a more pressing influence on their decisions than common sense. Democratic voters must make clear to their elected representatives that we do not support wasteful allocations for military spending, based on nothing more than traditional and outdated ideas of defense policy. Politicians are being paid to act as our voice in Washington. But we are all responsible for making sure they are hearing and representing us well. We can start by letting them know that we expect more fight from them on this issue. Bowing to the will of the right on issues of defense spending is a habit that Democrats must break.