The nation is falling apart and we are sending troops worldwide, draining resources from the two vital tasks facing the nation: avoiding global turmoil and revitalizing America. The jobs in the military and the industrial complex behind it are hollow, turning valuable resources into nonproductive, dead assets, undermining the nation's ability to address the core challenges it faces.
[updated 2 April 2010]
Globally, food and water shortages are intensified daily by population growth. The added impacts of global warming remain uncertain, but what it certain is that they will not be positive. Building the resiliency needed to address these challenges demands a notable increase in Global Good Governance, encouraging all nations to develop effective civil and economic systems. The United States is the only nation positioned to provide the necessary leadership, but it is hobbled with international skepticism fueled by years of unilateral and overbearing initiatives. The Muslim world, in particular, is highly critical of US intentions. China is ambivalent. As it rapidly grows into a counterpoise to US dominance, it is uncertain if the United States can engage it constructively as an ally, or if the relationship will degenerate into some kind of a new Cold War. Strident Chinese nationalism and an exaggerated emphasis on sovereign prerogatives could easily lead to a fragmented world devoting major assets to military systems, provoking vicious cycles of confrontation, and precluding any effective programs to address basic global needs.
Turmoil is already visible worldwide. On our very doorstep, the Mexican government is challenged by a vast network of drug cartels that reach through Central America down into Columbia and beyond and up throughout the United States. Even more disturbing these countries are unable to provide employment, much less prosperity, for growing populations, fueling immigration into a United States that no longer has space for more unskilled laborers and creating discontent at home. Cuba is no longer the sole despotic government in the hemisphere as Venezuela and Bolivia systematically suppress dissent and Nicaragua returns an earlier doctrinaire government to power. Honduras remains in crisis, Haiti remains in shock, and Chile with a new rightist government struggles to recover from its own earthquake. Further afield, the Middle East remains a tinder box with oil still lubricating conflicts, now exacerbated by radical Islamic furor that spreads into South Asia. Iraq may still descend into bitter sectarian violence, while the outcome in Afghanistan remains uncertain and the Pakistani army tries mightily to maintain control of a fractured country. Russia struggles with its own Islamic militants, as do Indonesia and the Philippines. Africa is stirring and one recent overview sees its future development hinging on whether it can complete its capitalist revolution before it drowns in the tidal wave of the global economic crisis, not even beginning to address the looming food, water, and population challenges.
These challenges intensify at the very time that globalization is integrating all nations into a networked whole. No longer can there be islands of prosperity in a sea of turmoil. No longer can an industrialized world sit in comfort over a downtrodden and exploited melange of post-colonial and backward nations ruled by elites who prosper while their countries deteriorate under them. The United States can slowly sink into this growing morass or can lead the way out of it. Military assets provide little support in addressing this fundamental task, but without real leadership it is hard to envision how the world can maintain stability in the XXI Century.
Domestically, US society was losing its cohesion even before the current recession. Katrina and Ike vividly demonstrated how little resiliency the nation has, undermined by failing infrastructure and an overstressed health system. On top of this, the economic recession has brought unemployment to millions, forcing many out of their houses even as the financial managers who initiated the disaster still enjoy outsize compensation, to say the least, while their organizations, too big to fail, receive massive government support. Society is increasingly divided into the very wealthy and the struggling masses. Unskilled immigrants, many illegal and overwhelmingly from Latin America, find jobs no longer available, but the prospects of returning to countries of origin are even less appealing. Desperation and frustration promote drug use while breeding violence and extremism, stoked by Islamic radicals. Outbursts and plots have become an everyday occurrence. An Army major kills a dozen people, a Denver airport shuttle driver conspires to bomb the New York subway, a disgruntled taxpayer flies his light plane into an IRS building, a Michigan-based "Christian" militia group plots to spark off an anti-government revolution by a mass murder of police, shooters show up at the Holocaust Museum and the Pentagon, as well as at schools, offices and family gatherings. In fact gun sales have soared while the US incarceration rate remains by far the highest in the world. Prisons seem to do a better job of training criminals than the education system does of educating children. The US comparative standing in international educational ratings steadily declines, eroding the very basis for the innovation that has driven US economic dominance and underlies US prosperity.
This diminution in US standing comes at the same time that economic globalization is challenging US economic dominance. Not only have factories moved overseas, but high-paying technical and management jobs have also moved. More recently research centers followed them as global corporations have built new facilities around the world. Despite this, US consumer spending has spurred a major balance of payments problem, with China now holding almost a trillion dollars of US debt. Although there has been some economic recovery, it is uncertain where future US jobs will come from or how unemployment benefits will be sustained for millions still out of work. The state and local governments which are primarily responsible for unemployment payments (as well as for education and infrastructure) are all badly stressed by massive revenue shortfalls. A new health care bill commendably broadens the availability of health care, but it is uncertain how it will be paid for. Indeed, many of the worst health care problems, exacerbated by smoking and obesity, are disproportionately found in the parts of the population now stressed by job loss, housing foreclosures, and reduced social services. On top of this are the uncertain effects of global warming on the United States; agriculture, water supply, and wildfire patterns are already changing, while more intense storms and higher coastal sea levels are likely.
These global and domestic challenges are already in progress, happening before our very eyes. Into this picture steps the military with its industrial complex behind it. The nation no longer faces significant immediate threats, but the military maintains its forces on autopilot, buttressing its global military dominance, preparing for contingencies, and addressing potential threats. Nuclear threats from Russia are gradually being assuaged by agreements and the broadening of cooperative relationships. China could become a serious nuclear threat, but only if we badly mismanage that developing relationship. The biggest nuclear threats are actually from a Pakistan-India confrontation or a terrorist attack and neither of these can be addressed militarily. Much US military effort is focused on protection of allies, even though the allies themselves are distinctly less concerned about military capabilities.
Protection of oil supply routes, particularly in the Middle East, remains a high priority, but has been a major historical failure. The net effect of hundreds of billions of dollars spent on this effort has been to perpetuate US dependence on, and support for, autocratic regimes -- one of the underlying drivers of Islamic radicalism. Al though in terms of overall fleet combat capability, the US Navy is as large as the next thirteen navies combined, it still must cooperate with allied and friendly naval forces to protect global sea lanes. But even this "thousand-ship navy," a conceptual framework referring to the totality of cooperative effort, is proving unable to eliminate the major current threat to sea lanes, the same scourge faced in the XVIII Century - pirates: off Somalia, off the west coast of Africa, around the Straits of Malacca. Indeed, the threat off Somalia is clearly land based. Current military efforts to support favored factions seem, at best, to be avoiding a descent into total chaos; an earlier attempt at military intervention there ended in disaster.
Overall, the XXI Century is different from everything that has preceded it. Defending America takes on a whole new meaning and cannot be done just with weapons. The nation faces a whole range of amorphous challenges which are difficult to define and even more difficult to address. The military continues its traditional thrust of seeking dominance, focusing on specific threats which can be neatly described and for which specific countermeasures can be designed. But a focus on force and weapons no longer addresses the basic challenges; a whole new approach to warfare is needed. Using force for political aims has become self-defeating, even though the United States has a long history of this in the Western Hemisphere, most recently in Grenada, Panama, and Haiti. Similarly, France long considered it had an exclusive sphere of influence in Africa and launched almost fifty military operations there prior to 2005, but now stresses participation in multilateral efforts. Russia has intervened in Georgia, China threatens intervention in India, and India pressures Pakistan to suppress Islamic dissidents. Unilateral US interventions in Lebanon and Somalia were disastrous; more recent ones in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in major efforts with limited and still uncertain achievements. A potential intervention in Iran has, if anything, hardened the Iranian response and prospects for any kind of successful outcome seem quite dim. Overall, the attractiveness of interventions and the need for large expeditionary forces has declined dramatically.
Every penny put into military resources is a penny not available to address the major challenges. Weapons promote confrontation rather than cooperation. This was clearly visible when a nuclear arms race with the Soviets resulted in totally irrational levels of armament. It was also clearly demonstrated in Europe in 1914 when military buildups had the continent under such tension that a relatively minor incident in Sarajevo sparked a conflict that killed millions. Thankfully, there is no major arms race now in progress as the United States faces no major military challenger, although there is a potential with China if the relationship is badly managed. Globally, the more resources which are put into weapons, the less the world will be able to promote prosperity. And prosperity is no longer divisible.
Vested interests weigh heavily on the military budget. Threats are overinflated to justify a larger Military-Industrial Complex, a clear concern ever since President Eisenhower's direct warning. That is where the nation stands now; threats and capabilities overinflated as an outsized Military-Industrial Complex drains resources from essential tasks and builds a dominating military with feet of clay. The military and the industry behind it provide hollow jobs, putting people to work undermining overall US security. Several million dedicated people put their hearts, and sometimes their lives, into these jobs, toiling away at turning valuable resources into nonproductive, dead assets. They see this work as vital to the nation, and a few decades ago it was. Even today there is clear case for force to provide security in places as disparate as Mexico, the Congo, and Afghanistan, protecting terrified and intimidated populations against brutal killers. However, even in these places -- illustrative of what could happen on a global scale -- military force has limited effectiveness and the US responsibility to provide it is debatable. Nevertheless, the US military still has wide-ranging missions, supporting the United States as the ultimate guarantor of the international system, a role self-assigned, open ended, and requiring an ability to intervene basically anywhere on the globe.
The nation needs to re-assess the totality of threats and challenges it faces and allocate resources to maximum effect. Any military requirements need to meet a high standard of being clearly and urgently vital to address current threats.