Waist Deep in the Washington Quagmire

Here’s the latest news from Congress, in case you’ve been in Afghanistan for the last couple of weeks. A debate about slashing the federal budget is now upon us, while fears of a possible government shutdown as spring approaches are on the rise. The Republican leadership of the House of Representatives originally picked $40 billion as its target figure for cuts to the as-yet-not-enacted 2011 budget. That was the gauntlet it threw down to the Obama administration, only to find its own proposal slashed to bits by the freshman class of that body’s conservative majority.

They insisted on adhering to a Republican Pledge to America vow to cut $100 billion from the budget. With that figure back on the table, Democrats are gasping, while pundits are predicting widespread pain in the land, including the possible loss of at least 70,000 jobs “as government aid to cops, teachers, and research is slashed.”

In the meantime, the Obama administration has hustled its own entry in the cut-and-burn sweepstakes into place, leaving Democrats again gasping. Its plan calls for ending or trimming more than 200 federal programs next year. It also reportedly offers cuts adding up to $1.1 trillion over a decade and puts in place a “five-year freeze on domestic programs [that] would reduce spending in that category to the lowest level, measured against the economy, since President Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in 1961.”

It all sounds daunting, and the muttering is only beginning about “entitlement” programs — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — that have yet to be touched.

Which reminds me: Didn’t I mention Afghanistan?

If so, how fortunate, because there’s a perfectly obvious path toward that Republican goal of $100 billion. If we were to embark on it, there would be even more cuts to follow and — believe it or not — they wouldn’t be all that painful, provided we did one small thing: change our thinking about making war.

After all, according to the Pentagon, the cost of the Afghan War in 2012 will be almost $300 million a day or, for all 365 of them, $107.3 billion. Like anything having to do with American war-fighting, however, such figures regularly turn out to be undercounts. Other estimates for our yearly war costs there go as high as $120-$160 billion.

And let’s face it, it’s a war worth ending fast. Almost a decade after the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. military is still fruitlessly engaged in possibly the stupidest frontier war in our history, thousands of miles from home in the backlands of the planet. It’s just the sort of dumb conflict that has, historically, tended to drive declining imperial powers around the bend, just the sort — in the very same country — that helped do in the Soviet Union. And though news from that war remains remarkably grim, were we by some miracle to win, for hundreds of billions of dollars we would have gained tenuous control over the fifth poorest, second most corrupt, and premier narco-state on the planet. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, would undoubtedly still be happily ensconced in the Pakistani tribal border areas with a range of superbly failed states available elsewhere for exploitation.

There’s genuine money to be slashed simply by bringing the troops home, but okay, I hear you. You live in Washington and you can’t bear to give up that war, lock, stock, and barrel.

I understand. Really, I do. So let’s just pretend that we’re part of that “moderate” and beleaguered House leadership and really only want to go after $40 billion in the 2011 federal budget.

In that case, here’s an idea! We’ve been training the Afghan military and police forces for almost a decade now, dumping an estimated $29-billion-plus into the endeavor, only to find that, unlike the Taliban, our Afghans generally prefer not to fight and love to desert. What if the Obama administration were simply to stop the training program? What if we weren’t to spend the $11.6 billion slated for this year, or the up-to-$12.8 billion being discussed for next year, or the $6 billion or more annually thereafter to create a security force of nearly 400,000 Afghans that we’ll have to pay for into eternity, since the Afghan government is essentially broke?

What if, instead, we went cold turkey on our obsession with training Afghans? For one thing, you’d promptly wipe out more than a quarter of that $40 billion the House leadership wants cut and many more billions for years to come. (And that doesn’t even take into account all the saveable American dollars going down the tubes in Afghanistan — a recent report from the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction suggested it adds up to $12 billion for the Afghan Army alone — in graft, corruption, and pure incompetence.)

Think about it this way: Are we actually safer if we get rid of police, firefighters, and teachers here in the U.S., while essentially hiring hordes of police and military personnel to secure Afghanistan? I suspect you know how most Americans would answer that question.

Dumb Intelligence Runs Rampant

Here’s another way to approach both those $40 billion and $100 billion targets. Start with the budget for the labyrinthine U.S. Intelligence Community which is officially $80.1 billion. That, of course, is sure to prove an undercount. So, just for the heck of it, let’s take a wild guess and assume that the real figure probably edges closer to… $100 billion.

I know, I know, the Republican House majority will never agree to get rid of all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, and neither will the Democrats. They’ll claim that Washington would be blinded by such an act — although it’s no less reasonable to argue that, without the blinders of what we call “intelligence,” which is largely a morass of dead thinking about our world, our leaders might finally be able to see again. Nonetheless, in the spirit of compromise with a crew that hates the “federal bureaucracy” (until the words “national security” come up), how about cutting back from 17 intelligence outfits to maybe three? Let’s say, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency.

I’ll bet you’re talking an easy $40 to $50 billion dollars in savings right there — and the cost of the job-retraining programs for the out-of-work intelligence analysts and operatives would be minimal by comparison.

According to a Washington Post series, “Top Secret America,” here are just a few of the things that you, the taxpayer, have helped our intelligence bureaucracy do: Produce 50,000 intelligence reports annually; create the sheer redundancy of “51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, [to] track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks”; and, in the category of the monumental (as well as monumentally useless), construct “33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work… since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings — about 17 million square feet of space.”

Take just one example: the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency which has 16,000 employees and a “black budget thought to be at least $5 billion per year.” Until now, you may not have known that such a crew was protecting your security, but you’re paying through the nose for its construction spree anyway. Believe it or not, as Gregg Easterbrook has pointed out, it now has a gleaming new, nearly Pentagon-sized headquarters complex rising in Virginia at the cost of $1.8 billion — almost as expensive, that is, as the Freedom Tower now going up at Ground Zero in Manhattan.

Or let’s check out some smaller, distinctly choppable potatoes. Officially, America’s Iraq War is ending (even if in a Shiite-dominated state allied with Iran). All American military personnel are, at least theoretically, to leave the country by year’s end. Whether that happens or not, the Obama administration evidently remains convinced that it’s in our interest to prolong our effort to control that country. As a result, the planned “civilian” presence left behind to staff the three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar citadel of an “embassy” the U.S. built in downtown Baghdad and various consular outposts will look uncomfortably like a mini-army.

As Wired.com’s Danger Room website put it recently, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq “will become a de facto general of a huge, for-hire army.” We’re talking about 5,500 mercenaries paid to guard the 17,000 “civilians,” representing various U.S. government agencies and the State Department there. To guard the Baghdad embassy alone — really a regional command headquarters — there will be 3,650 hired guns under contract for almost $1 billion. The full complement of heavily armed mercenaries will operate out of “15 different sites… including 3 air hubs, 3 police training centers… and 5 Office of Security Cooperation sites.”

In 2010, USA Today estimated that the cost of operating just the monstrous Baghdad embassy was more than $1.5 billion a year. God knows what it is now.

What if the cost-cutters in Washington were to conclude that it was a fruitless task to try to manage the unmanageable (i.e., Iraq) and that, instead of militarizing the State Department, the U.S. should return to the business of diplomacy with a modest embassy and a consulate or two to negotiate deals, discuss matters of common interest, and hand out the odd visa. That would represent a cost-cutting extravaganza on a small scale. (And the same could be said for the near billion-dollar “embassy” being built in Islamabad, Pakistan, and the $790 million going into another such embassy and consulates in Afghanistan.)

Deep in the Big Muddy

It’s important to note that none of the potential cost-cutting measures I’ve mentioned touch the big palooka. I’m talking about the Pentagon budget, a very distinctive “entitlement” program on the American landscape. Given the news reports on “Pentagon cuts” lately, you might think that the Obama administration is taking a hatchet to the Defense Department’s funds, but think again. As defense analyst Miriam Pemberton wrote recently, “The Pentagon is following the familiar tradition of planning ambitious increases, paring them back, and calling this a cut.” In fact, at $553 billion, the proposed Pentagon budget for 2012 actually represents a 5% increase over the already stunningly bloated 2011 version of the same.

Keep in mind that U.S. military spending equals that of the next 15 countries combined (most of them allies) and represents 47% of total global military spending. If Washington’s mindset were different, it wouldn’t be hard to find that $100 billion the Republican House freshmen are looking for in the Pentagon budget alone — quite aside from cuts in supplemental war-fighting funds — and still be the most heavily armed nation on the planet.

And here’s my question to you: Don’t you find it odd that cuts of this potential size are so obviously available and yet, with all the raging and groaning about deficits and budget-cutting, no one who matters seems to focus on such possibilities at all? To head down this path, Washington would need to make only the smallest of changes: it would have to begin thinking outside the war box for about a minute and 30 seconds.

Our leaders would have to conclude the obvious: that, in these last years, war hasn’t proven the best way to advance American interests. We would have to decide that real security does not involve fighting permanently in distant lands, pursuing a “war on terror” in 75 countries, or growing the Pentagon (and the weapons-makers that go with it) year after year.

Americans would have to begin to think anew. That’s all. The minute we did, our financial situation would look different and for all we know, something like not-war, if not peace, might begin to break out.

Forty years ago, Americans regularly spoke about a war 7,500 miles away in Vietnam as a “quagmire.” We were, as one protest song of that era went, “waist deep in the Big Muddy.” Today, Afghanistan, too, looks like a quagmire, but don’t be fooled. The real quagmire isn’t there; it’s right here in Washington D.C., that capital mythically built on a swamp.

There’s no way that thinking so old and stale, so out-of-date, can begin to take in or react adventurously to a fast-changing world. Look at Egypt, or China, or Brazil, or India, or Turkey. There, new thinking and new developments are blooming, but you wouldn’t know it in Washington.

Neither $553 billion nor $80.1 billion can buy Washington a brain. Right now, by all evidence, our leaders are still convinced that it’s their job to run the world and fight distant wars until hell freezes over. They can’t bear to think a new thought, or take a chance, or experiment on anything, or look at our planet in a new way. At the moment, the evidence indicates that they have the brainpower of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz without that character’s urge for self-improvement, and it’s taking us down.

TOM ENGELHARDT, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com, where this article originally appeared. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).



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Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

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