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Why America Can’t Afford Its Military

Through the last year the defense industries and their supporters in Congress worked overtime to ensure the federal government kept the armed forces in a perpetual procurement cycle. Inside the Pentagon, the generals and admirals who lead the defense bureaucracies worked to minimize procurement costs. This was not altruistic behavior. It’s the only way to protect the armed forces’ outdated force structures from more debilitating cuts; cuts that threaten the single service way of warfare along with the bloated overhead of flag officer headquarters.

Meanwhile, public pronouncements from the office of the Secretary of Defense on cost savings initiatives or about imminent strategic disaster if defense spending is reduced fell flat. In fact, everything in 2011 related to defense, from the controversial F-35 program to the multi-billion dollar contracting fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan, looked like window dressing designed to buy more time for an anachronistic, insolvent defense establishment.

It’s no secret what’s required in 2012 and beyond: an efficient and effective organization of military power for the optimum utilization of increasingly constrained resources. More specifically, a serious audit of the U.S. Department of Defense, along with a national reset where the roles of politicians, bureaucrats and four stars are recast as servants, not masters, of the national interest. Unfortunately, inside the Beltway where accountability is a dirty word, political and military leaders are free to conflate their personal and bureaucratic interests with the national interest.

As a result, there is still no willingness to comprehend or, at least, admit the truth: America’s current national security posture is fiscally unsustainable. Today, the United States’ national debt is so large it will swallow almost any legislation the President and Congress agree to pass. It is only a question of time before the U.S. government is compelled to make drastic cuts in federal spending.

Despite this reality, like the politicians in both parties, the four Chiefs of Service are desperate to save the military status quo from significant reductions in defense spending, a policy stance that could easily lead to a serious degradation of American military power after the 2012 election. In the midst of America’s fiscal crisis, Congress is equally inept. The best Congress could do in this legislative season to was announce its intention to add yet another four-star (this time from the National Guard) to the Joint Chiefs of Staff; an action comparable to adding a fifth wheel to a car that’s already got four flats.

Instead of adding more generals to an already top-heavy force, America’s ignominious withdrawal from Iraq should help sober up politicians of all stripes and parties. It should impart the timeless strategic lesson that the use of American military power, even against weak opponents with no navy, no army, no air force and no air defenses — can have costly, unintended strategic consequences. Today, Iran, not the United States, is the dominant power inside Iraq and Americans are beginning to understand why.

Iranian interests prevailed in Baghdad because Tehran’s agents of influence wore an indigenous face while America’s agents wore foreign uniforms and carried guns. Regardless of whatever the US decides to do, Iran will remain the dominant actor in Iraq so long as it maintains even the thinnest veil of concealment behind the façade of the Maliki government and its successors.

While these unassailable facts are ignored inside the Beltway, “Main Street” is figuring things out. According to a recent CBS poll 77 percent of the American electorate approves of President Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. Two in three Americans say the Iraq war was not worth the cost, and only 15% of Americans support military intervention to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

More important, nearly one-half of American voters now think the United States can make major cuts in defense spending without placing the country in danger. They see no risk in cutting way back on what America spends to defend other countries. The old notion that the United States should maintain expensive military bases in foreign countries, just to ensure troublesome foreigners do not get “out of hand,” is rapidly losing support.

Conventional wisdom says American society’s broader consciousness is shaped by the forces of hype and publicity, and national defense is often subject to it, but the recent polling data suggest a different explanation. Americans are focused on economics, not national defense. Perhaps, the American electorate perceives the Federal Reserve is running out of ammunition to restart America’s stalled recovery?

Perhaps, Americans are concerned the collapse of the Eurozone will eventually lead to a serious financial crisis in the United States, wiping out the savings of many millions of Americans? Or, perhaps Americans are worried the sudden termination of “free services” in America’s largest cities would lead to a surge in poverty and violence, putting American society on a collision course with itself. It’s hard to tell.

What we can say is that Americans are signing up for President Eisenhower’s philosophy in the aftermath of the Korean War. He insisted the nation deserved both “solvency and security” in national defense. Like Eisenhower, Americans seem to understand the nation’s vital strategic interests are only secure when the United States’ scientific-industrial base is productive and our society prospers. Predictably, there is also a growing recognition that the million dollars a year it costs to keep one American soldier or Marine on station in Afghanistan makes no sense when, for a fraction of the cost, the U.S. Army and other federal agencies could easily protect America’s borders from the wave of criminality, terrorism and illegal immigration washing in from Mexico and Latin America.

Looking forward into 2012, American voters seem to understand what many of the men running for President do not: Given America’s fragile economic health, 2012 is no time for uninformed decisions regarding the use of force. The deficit Americans worry most about is not fiscal; it’s a national deficit of integrity and reason.

Col (ret) Douglas Macgregor, a member of AOL Defense’s Board of Contributors, is a decorated Army veteran and author of important books on military reform and strategy including, Breaking the Phalanx (Praeger, 1997), and Transformation under Fire (Praeger, 2003). He is executive vice president at Burke-Macgregor Group, LLC, in Reston, Va.

This article originally appeared on AOL Defense.

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