Monday, September 17, 2012

Energion Political Roundtable: More on Economic Priorities

As the conversations unfold regarding our budget priorities in the Energion Political Roundtable, the lines are pretty predictable. Bob Cornwall and Joel Watts line up on the left, Elgin Hushbeck and I on the right. There is one major exception here and that is on the topic of the military. I expected some blowback on this one and I wasn't disappointed!

The military is the one area where I get the most disagreement from more traditional conservatives and it is an area where I would have disagreed with my current position just a few years ago! As I have struggled with our militarism as a nation I have found that our passion for foreign entanglements, our flag waving and our prideful posturing is, despite all of the patriotic ribbons we hang upon it, not only not terribly conservative but a;so largely harmful to our national interests. Elgin Hushbeck, my conservative counterpart in this roundtable, took umbrage at my stance and took the time to write a thoughtful response.

I want to take the time to respond at length to Elgin. Joel Watts' channeling of Hugo Chavez in his proposed "solution" of seizing private property for redistribution, nationalizing many industries with absolutely no Constitutional justification and curtailing business across state lines via arbitrary limits on the size of a corporation is so removed from reality that it defies a brief response. I will respond separately to Bob Cornwall because he makes some coherent points even though I vehemently disagree with almost all of them. Because Elgin and I are in agreement on most issues but not this one, I am going to spend a little time laying out the differences as this is going to be an increasingly crucial issue in conservatism in the years to come. Right at the outset, Elgin lays out his point:

Herein is a huge difference between the military and other branches of Government. Not only is it a prime responsibility of the federal government, but experience has shown that with all the talk of cutting waste, cuts in the military normally end up being born by troops who at the end of the day, still need to get the job done, as they operate equipment that is often older than their fathers, and now days, at times their grandfathers.  As a result, peace dividends are often paid for with the lives of our troops. 

I certainly acknowledged in my post that the armed forces are a core function of the Federal government, one of the few in fact. Having said that, the military is not above reproach and military spending is an enormous line item in the budget that needs serious reduction. The issue we need to have a serious conversation about concerns the role and function of the armed forces. Are the Armed Forces of the United States designed to be a force to project American will around the world or as a primarily defensive force that is intended to counter direct threats to our sovereignty? I would argue the latter and further argue that since World War II the United States has created a permanent state of mobilization which in turn led to a general state of mobilization around the world, enormous standing armies squared off against one another knowing full well that outright war between the U.S. and the Soviets would be devastating. In spite of no credible military threats to the United States we have yet to stand down from World War II and in place of actual threats to the U.S. we have engaged again and again in wars, hot and cold, around the world that has no bearing on national security. In fact we have never really known peace in my lifetime. As a child we were terrified of the commie Russians. When the Berlin Wall fell and Russia stopped being a threat we conveniently had all sorts of mini-wars to fight under Clinton, from the Iraq War to Somalia. The decade of the 90's ended and then September 11th happened. From that point forward we have been "at war" against an amorphous enemy. Forty years old and we have been in a state of perpetual war or preparation for war my entire life.

As far as the comment that "peace dividends" are paid for by the lives of our troops, that sounds great but what actually costs the lives of our troops are the constant interventions in affairs that are none of our business. When we look around the globe for threats, the list is pretty short.

Europe? In the pre-World War II years the world was a very different place. Europe had been engaged in war after war for centuries. An uneasy peace was in place after the meat-grinder of World War I. All of the major powers in Europe were sizing each other up, trying to see a weakness. Today? Former belligerent Germany is bailing out the rest of Europe. The entire continent is deeply engaged economically with one another to the point of a common currency. None of the European powers possess a significant military other than Great Britain and why should they when the U.S. spends as much as the rest of the world combined. When the Europeans need some muscle they call in the U.S. Marines and we never say "no". Europe is not a threat to America.

Asia? While China is ramping up military spending we can hardly blame them for that. We tend to classify foreign  nations as "others" and assume that our motivations are pure (at least with a Republican president) and theirs are evil but looking at Asia from the eyes of China might give us a different perspective. The United States has had a major military presence within striking distance of China for decades in Korea and Japan. Our military operates close to their borders on a regular basis. I am not sure how we would respond to the Chinese sailing just outside of our territorial waters and stationing tens of thousands of troops in Canada and Mexico. Is China a repressive regime? Of course. Is China a sovereign nation with all of the same rights as the United States? Yes. We arrogantly assert our right to outspend the rest of the world on "defense" spending and maintain an enormous nuclear arsenal but demand that the rest of the world disarm. China is a growing military presence but also a major economic partner. It is high time for the Japanese, with the third largest economy in the world and a sizable defense force of their own that ranks sixth on military spending, to take the lead in Asia. Looking at the spending charts shows that the U.S. outspends the Chinese by an almost 5-1 ratio, ironically spending that is largely financed by borrowing money from...China. Without a single functional carrier and economically dependent as they are on trade with the U.S. China is not a threat the United States.

What about Africa? Well Africa is a mess by and large but we also have no national interest in Africa although that hasn't stopped us from getting entangled again and again in Somalia, Libya, Egypt, etc. America faces no threat from Africa, not if every nation on the continent banded together.

Likewise the Middle East, a region of non-stop violence and strife that has been worse since the end of WW II and the establishment of a Jewish state. Israel has one of the very finest militaries in the world, the very best equipment and of course nuclear weapons. To be perfectly honest Israel is more than capable of defending herself. That is easy to say but not so easy to put into practice as any suggestion that Israel should be treated like any other friendly nation is met with outrage ranging from "abandoning our most important ally" to charges of anti-Semitism. Support for Israel is a sacred cow for conservatives of the highest rank, an issue made all the more muddled by the intermixing of pop culture eschatology on the part of many evangelical Christians with geo-politics which leads to a "sacred duty" for a "Christian nation" to support Israel. This isn't the proper venue for debunking dispensational geo-politics but you can be sure that there is a calculating effort to encourage this sort of thinking by supporters of Israel.

The Middle East has not only Israel but also the issue of oil and whether you admit it or not much of what drives our foreign policy in that region is tied to the ready flow of oil. If we would encourage oil exploration and drilling domestically instead of spending money on military engagement a world away we could dramatically reduce spending and create jobs which in turn generates taxes. Of course the fanatical regimes and terrorist groups would still hate Israel but Israel can take care of herself. None of the Middle East regimes is going to invade or directly attack America unless one assumes that the Iranian Navy of speedboats and antiquated "warships" could somehow manage to make the voyage from the Persian Gulf to Florida without sinking. Certainly Iran is working toward nuclear weapons, the same nuclear weapons that we have had for decades and have used on civilian populations in the past. We already have an unbelievably large nuclear deterrent. Unless we are willing to invade yet another country without provocation based on a potential future threat, there is not much we can or should do about Iran.

The greatest threat we face is from terrorism, as in 9/11, and conventional military spending has very little impact on that. While we have successfully avoided another terror attack in America, we have also shed an unacceptable amount of blood in our military adventures around the world with little to show for it beyond reduced personal liberty, flag draped coffins and young men missing limbs. Oh, and don't forget a ton of new debt.

So why again do we have this huge standing army? What foe do we plan on engaging in a conventional war requiring multiple carriers groups and a huge ground force supported by overwhelming air power, artillery and tanks? For decades we have planned and spent to fight "the next war" and when war doesn't materialize we find one (Iraq anyone?) but the enemy we are built to fight no longer exists. We need a more nimble and a much smaller military, one that serves the purpose of deterring aggression but not one that is prepared to fight non-existent foes. What is the exact number for this? I am not sure but it is substantially less than our current spending. The Cato Institute proposes some very common sense ideas to reduce spending by an average of $120 billion a year over the next decade, a proposal that does nothing to reduce our military effectiveness. I found that proposal to be a bit timid if the truth be known but it is a good place to start.

Elgin concludes with this

Finally, as Sido writes, “Even more troubling is the enthusiastic embrace of unlimited military spending by people who claim the name of Christ.”  Perhaps he would include me in this category, but I find it little more than a straw man.   No one I know wants “unlimited military spending.”  Granted I and others may err on the side of over-spending, but I would rather waste dollars than waste lives.   I would rather be so strong that no one would dare attack us, than just weak enough that we end up in a war.  I would rather our troops go into battle over-equipped than under-equipped and struggling to make do.  In short, I do not believe the threat comes from us being too strong, but rather too weak.

Elgin's argument here is a difficult one. On the one hand he rejects my charge of unlimited military spending but then he talks about overwhelming force that would deter anyone from attacking us.When you examine the rhetoric that surrounds even the faintest suggestion of reducing military spending and indeed suggestions that we increase military spending, the "enthusiastic embrace of unlimited military spending" seems to be appropriate. For example, see Mitt Romney's position on "defense" spending:

As Commander-in-Chief, Mitt Romney will keep faith with the men and women who defend us just as he will ensure that our military capabilities are matched to the interests we need to protect. He will put our Navy on the path to increase its shipbuilding rate from nine per year to approximately fifteen per year. He will also modernize and replace the aging inventories of the Air Force, Army, and Marines, and selectively strengthen our force structure. And he will fully commit to a robust, multi-layered national ballistic-missile defense system to deter and defend against nuclear attacks on our homeland and our allies. 

This will not be a cost-free process. We cannot rebuild our military strength without paying for it. Mitt will begin by reversing Obama-era defense cuts and return to the budget baseline established by Secretary Robert Gates in 2010, with the goal of setting core defense spending — meaning funds devoted to the fundamental military components of personnel, operations and maintenance, procurement, and research and development — at a floor of 4 percent of GDP.

So under Romney we would build almost double the number of ships each year, ships that need to be maintained and manned by sailors, along with other increases in military spending and a "floor" of 4% of GDP. What is notable there is that with a floor of 4% spending on the military would go up as the economy recovers regardless of whether it makes sense or not. If we know anything about bureaucracies it is that they will spend everything they receive. It is hard to make a serious case for deficit and debt reduction when you wall off one of the major line items to not only be free of cuts but actually be penciled in for increases!

This is an area where both our Kingdom sensibilities (when I am weak then I am strong, 2 Cor 12:10) and a belief in limited government should work together toward the same outcome. An enormous standing military designed for offense rather than defense is not only not fiscally viable and contrary to the mission of the armed forces of the United States under our Constitution, it is contrary to the values we should espouse as Christians. We cannot wall off our Christianity, applying it to gay marriage and abortion but not to offensive wars of aggression. If you are a believer in Christ a terrorist is no danger to you but supporting Caesar in wars of aggression certainly is. The enthusiastic support for wars of aggression and the flag waving that is so common in the evangelical church is damaging to our witness and we have centuries of evidence that the church being entangled in the bickering of the world is harmful.

Our armed forces are rarely used to "defend" America and haven't been used for that purpose since World War II, an era that many conservatives seem stuck in. Korea. Vietnam. The first Gulf War. The second Gulf war. All of the myriad engagements in between from Somalia to Grenda to Bosnia and Kosovo to our recent aid to the Arab Spring rebels in Libya that just murdered our ambassador. The pattern over and over is America sending in our young men and women to try to police the world, the same world that often condemns us (except when they need us) and spends combined about the same that we do alone on the military. The need for America to be the biggest and baddest "sole remaining superpower" certainly appeals to our nation hubris but "peace through superior firepower" and "he brings a knife, you bring a gun" is not what America was founded on and not what Christ would have us do. We cannot afford it as a nation and we cannot support it as the church.
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