Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Modern-Day Version of Cleopatra's Barge

Five months to go until the 2008 election, and new polls show that 82% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. This causes me to ask two questions. The first and most obvious question is, “What the hell is going through the optimistic minds of the 18% who still don’t get it?” And the second and more subtle question is, “Would the 82% do what was necessary to turn things around if they knew what it would take?” Would they ever vote for a candidate who wanted to cut the defense budget by 70%? Would they follow a leader who suggested mothballing our carrier fleet? Could they ever be seduced away from the national love affair with the military?

It’s no secret to most Americans that we spend more on our military-industrial machine than the entire rest of the world spends on their combined armaments. We have a military presence in 130 foreign countries. These are supposed to be sovereign nations, but we figure our invasiveness should be okay with everyone because we’re the good guys. Anyway, that’s our story, and we’re sticking to it. The funny thing is, the ancient Romans viewed the world the same way. So how did we get to this point?

In 1947, the War Department and the Department of the Navy merged into what we now call the Department of Defense. The primary reason for this consolidation was to raise the status and clout of the military arm of Government so that it could compete for funding with State Department. In 1947, State had seven times the budget of Defense. And for the next 44 years of the Cold War, the strategy made sense. The problem is, the Cold War ended. But nothing changed militarily for the United States. And now the iconic personal image that America presents to the rest of the world is not that of a businessman or scientist or statesman, but the image of a fully-battle-armored Marine. The U.S. State Department is now nothing but a footnote. As for the rest of the world, they are too busy making America irrelevant to care what we do militarily. They know that global influence no longer correlates with military power.

The world’s largest publically-traded corporation and the world’s tallest skyscraper are both Chinese. In neighboring India, Bollywood has passed Hollywood as the film capital of the world. Six universities in India provide graduate education in science and engineering that surpasses MIT and Cal Tech. At least three dozen industrialized nations have a lower mortality rate than the U.S. because of better healthcare systems. Toyota is now the most successful car maker, and 54 nations have more efficient railroad and airline infrastructures. The ten largest shopping malls on earth are outside of the United States. Most multi-billionaires are foreign, not American. And the American dollar is quickly losing status as the major global currency. Quite simply, the rest of the world looked at everything that projected American dominance- all of our financial and cultural and technological triumphs- and they worked diligently to surpass us in these areas. But the most visible icon that was intended to project American dominance, our Naval super-carrier fleet, was profoundly ignored by the rest of the world. Nobody outside of the United States considers an aircraft carrier to be anything but a truculent modern-day version of Cleopatra’s barge.

And here’s the final irony. The United States has the raw power to destroy every human being on earth, but our Pentagon can’t win a modern 4th generation war. For those countries and cultures that still believe in projecting themselves through violence, they have learned during the last seven years that their wars can be waged on the cheap, using nothing more than brilliant imagination and handmade explosive weapons, and sometimes just suicidal commitment. Trying to intimidate that kind of enemy with an aircraft carrier is like threatening a pesky house fly with a ball-peen hammer.

In early 2007, the Pentagon released an estimate that the insurgents spend about $100 to kill one of our boys. Their costs are so artificially low because the insurgents use captured U.S. military hardware, and arms that have been diverted from supplies given to the Iraqi army, and residue from pre-invasion stockpiles, and, of course, munitions supplied by Iran. They fight their side of the war in the same way that the “good guys” in Star Wars fight The Evil Empire. This is what’s meant by 4th generation warfare. 9/11 was another example of this. By way of comparison, we spend about 50 million dollars to kill one of them (the trillion-dollar cost of the war divided by the 20,000 that we’ve killed so far).

All of this takes us back to the idea that America is on the wrong track. It’s not that we can’t afford our huge military expenditures. We actually spend a lower percentage of GDP on defense now than we did in the late 1950s. It’s wasted money, but we can still afford the cost. What we can’t afford is the global perception that we, as a country, are just big and stupid. To use an analogy from the school environment, the rest of the world is hitting the books and excelling at extra-curricular activities, and The United States is bulked up on steroids and focused only on the Friday night game.

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