Saturday, 17 July 2010

Military spending: The real crisis for Israel and the U.S.

by Helena Cobban July 11, 2010

Thanks to the ever-vigilant Didi Remez we learn that many of the 'scare stories' about Hizbullah, Lebanon etc, that have been coming out of Israel's defense ministry in recent days have been motivated by-- no, not any real concern about new developments in Lebanon, but more by a desire by defense minister Ehud Barak to fight hard against... the finance ministry's current demands for spending cutbacks.

Remez translates into English an article in today's Maariv that starts with this:

“Ehud Barak is the most expensive defense minister in Israel’s history”; “The IDF is impertinently disregarding all of the Brodet Commission’s findings, while deceiving the public”; “it’s interesting how every time the military budget is on the table, they release from the stocks Hezbollah’s missile array and expose sensitive classified material,” — these are just some of the harsh statements that were heard over the weekend among senior Finance Ministry officials and directed against the IDF and the security establishment.

A brutal struggle over the Defense Ministry’s budget is expected next week. Finance Ministry officials, headed by the finance minister versus the security establishment headed by the defense minister. A personal dual in which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is to give the final ruling.

Over at the excellent Global Issues blog, the info page on "World Military Spending" is headed by this great quote from U.S. founding father, proud Virginian, and president James Madison:
Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes … known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Well, the folks in Israel who have turned down every attempt to broker a fair peace with their neighbors might have reflected on those words a few times over the past 62 years.

Israelis have been extremely lucky in the past 40 or so years to have had many of their military costs borne by the U.S. taxpayer through the always generous aid the U.S. congress has continued to send to Israel's military. But many of Israel's military costs-- especially the manpower-related costs-- can't easily be dollarized, and therefore remain as a burden on the Israeli economy. ( Xinhua had this recent interesting article on the financial burden of Israel's war-fighting and war-preparing projects.)

But in today's United States, the picture of bloated military spending being sustained by (and in turn sustaining) the pursuit of numerous, apparently unresolvable wars-- or, as it's also known in mil-speak here, "the long war"-- is exactly the same. And this, in the midst of a continuing, deep crisis in the civilian, real-world economy at home.

That page on the Global Issues site contains lots of very informative data, if you scroll down beneath James Madison. Including the stunning big pie chart that shows in was no-one can misunderstand the fact that the U.S. (which has less than 5% of the world's population) currently accounts for 46.5% of world military spending.

Of course this is not sustainable. Small wonder that current U.S. defense secretary Robert gates has spent quite a lot of time recently (e.g. here) trying to argue for some serious cuts in military spending.

But where to cut, and how? How to pull back the U.S. military from its present, extremely expensive engagement in war-zones (present and future) in more than 20 distant countries around the world-- without further destabilizing those countries? And how to manage the loss of jobs in some U.S. communities that cutbacks of big-ticket weapons-system production would inevitably cause?
Those, of course, are the big political questions.
The U.S. public needs to start rationalizing our country's interaction with the other 95% of humanity-- and to start bringing our defense spending under some kind of real control-- by taking the following steps:

1. Let go of the idea that the U.S. is any kind of an "indispensable nation" when it comes to reducing inter-group tensions and building real, inclusive political stability in other countries around the world. We aren't. Most often-- including in Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan-- the injection of a heavily militarized U.S. presence has made the situation considerably worse for the peoples of those countries. Those peoples may (or may not) need help from outsiders to get their sharp internal problems resolved. But if they do, there are many, many other international actors-- including regional groupings, ad-hoc groups of neighboring countries, or the U.N. itself-- that are infinitely better equipped to provide that help than the geographically and culturally distant U.S., whose reliance on a heavily militarized foreign policy only exacerbates tensions wherever it goes.

2. Work with the other countries of the world to regenerate the U.N. and other international institutions on a basis of real equality and mutual respect among the world's peoples, rather than continued U.S./western dominance of those bodies.

3. Start planning to convert our massive and bloated defense industries into industries that serve the regeneration of our civilian national economy. Factories producing MRAPs and Hummers? They could and should be turned into factories producing rail cars and modern, green buses. Factories producing surveillance drones and cruise missiles? Shouldn't they be producing solar panels and the hardware needed for a decent national broadband initiative, instead? Etc, etc.

4. Establish programs around the U.S. to take advantage of the (non-lethal) skill-sets the military has worked hard to inculcate in its members, and put those skills to use in rebuilding our nation, first, from the level of individual communities that are currently under great stress through the level of repair and regeneration of our crumbling infrastructure. Supporters of the military and of military spending make one good argument when they note that the military has done well at building a building a strong workforce that is generally well integrated as between different races, ethnicities, and even (to some extent) between men and women. (Though not, alas, between straight people and gay people.) So now, let's take some of the money that continues to pour into sustaining those units as military units, and re-form them as a Civilian Community-Building Corps, to work at home.

... Anyway, these are a few of my ideas right now. Not original, I know. But still, increasingly urgent for us all to think about. These wars are dragging us all down. And there is, certainly, a far, far better way for Americans and Israelis to resolve the problems we face in our relations with the rest of the world's peoples.

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