It's Time for the Pentagon to Get Realistic About Its Budget

Start by rethinking how troops are deployed abroad.

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After a decade of throwing money at the Pentagon—its budget has grown at an annualized rate of about 6 percent a year over the last 10 years—it now appears the nation's defense budget is on the deficit-chopping block. Given the epic waste associated with our national security accounts, a scandal that Congress routinely abets by demanding the military purchase needless weapons for assembly in districts back home, it is high time the Pentagon establish realistic spending priorities and budget accordingly.

An Air Force flag officer who has done several tours overseas recently acknowledged over coffee the need for the Defense Department to match commitments with resources. His concern, he said, is that government bean counters are focusing more on the military's benefits—its healthcare and pension funds, which are critical in retaining recruitment and re-enlistment levels—than its true cost center: its imperial network of far-flung bases. Apparently, the cultic devotion in Washington to its Cold War-era troop deployments worldwide is matched in intensity only by the fanatical rejection of revenue increases in pursuit of a balanced budget. [See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Set aside for the moment the madness of spending tens of billions dollars a year on behalf of nations—South Korea, Japan, the 28 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—that are among the richest on Earth. Maintaining its legacy deployments and alliances is contrary to the nation's geopolitical, strategic and economic interests and should be scrapped or dramatically curtailed. That was the recommendation of the worthy but much-unloved Simpson-Bowles bipartisan committee for deficit reduction and it should be a priority of the so-called super committee of a dozen lawmakers tasked with bringing the deficit to heel.

In the highly urbanized countries that host large U.S. bases, troops cannot train or conduct live-fire exercises in any significant way. They antagonize local populations for their degrading impact on the environment, as has been made obvious most recently by the U.S.-led initiative to build a large naval installation on South Korea's Jeju Island. Combat divisions like the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa and the Army's 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea are cut off from their support units back home, most critically their transport, or airlift, capability. Despite their enormous war-fighting capability, they have been of little use in dissuading North Korea from developing its stockpile of nuclear weapons, nor Iran from pursuing its own strategic deterrent, regarded as among the biggest threats to global security today. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]

In researching my book about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, I was struck by the growing opposition to America's static base network overseas within senior military ranks, a position expressed most prominently in an interview with retired four-star Marine General Anthony Zinni, the highly respected former head of Central Command. "We have troops trapped in places like Okinawa,” he told me. "You can't train there, we've overstayed our welcome. So why not bring these troops home where they can train and be with their families?"

It was a passionate, if plaintive appeal. Despite the urgent need for a sense of proportion between America's military posture and the reality of the threats before it, the Pentagon is proceeding as if its imperial writ is both perpetual and boundless. (At least the Roman emperor Hadrian built a wall.) It is well into a huge military buildup in Asia to contain China, which has inevitably provoked counter-measures from Beijing, and it is in negotiations with the government of Iraq for a residual force of U.S. troops in that country long after the deadline for withdrawal is scheduled to expire. This, despite the crucial insight by Hamid Fhadil, a professor of political science at Baghdad University, into the motivation behind the bombings that killed at least 89 people in Iraq this week. The attacks, Fhadil told The New York Times, were unleashed to frighten the Iraqi government into asking the 48,000 U.S. troops left in the country to extend their stay. Otherwise, said Fhadil, "al Qaeda in Mesopotamia will have lost its rationale for existing.” Should the United States exit Iraq, he went on, "al Qaeda will no longer have an excuse to operate throughout the country. [It] wants Americans to stay here so they will have Iraq as a battlefield to fight Americans."

Such is the perversity of America's forward basing strategy. Empire is not the solution to the problem. It is the problem.

  • See a roundup of editorial cartoons about North Korea.
  • Vote now: Who won the debt ceiling standoff?
  • See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.