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Popular myths cloud debate about defense spending

Maybe if we would stipulate that, yes, the United States needs to remain strong to protect its national security, we could move on to consider how best to actually achieve that goal.

Maybe if we would stipulate that, yes, the United States needs to remain strong to protect its national security, we could move on to consider how best to actually achieve that goal. Instead we waste our breath in fruitless huffing and puffing and pledge allegiance to various myths that just ain’t so.

One is that the more we spend on the military, the more secure we are. Mitt Romney, for one, has asserted this precept repeatedly during the endless series of debates among Republican presidential contenders. He’s also suggested that the obverse — cutting the Defense Department budget, even modestly — amounts to treasonous weakness.

Candidate Romney says he wants a military force so strong that no foe would dare to attack us. That such a goal is attainable is another myth. We had unparalleled military might in the ’90s, yet al-Qaida savaged two of our embassies in Africa and one of our warships in the Middle East. If you say that happened because a Democrat soft on national security was in the White House, then how do you explain the assault of 9/11, when Republican George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office?

The reality is there’s no such thing as absolute security. We can never be completely invulnerable to lethal actions by individual or small groups, what the military calls, “asymmetric warfare.”  We can and must counter and try to marginalize militant extremists bent on mayhem. But that kind of battle is not determined by who has the biggest, most modern fighter jets, tanks or aircraft carriers.

Smarter uses of power

It’s a struggle to be won not by big bazookas but by smarter, more calculated uses of power, like the Special Forces raids that got Osama Bin Laden last year and rescued hostages from Somali pirates in 2009 and 2012.

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Similarly, the Obama administration achieved the U.S. goal in Libya — getting rid of the tyrant Gaddafi — without shedding American blood and without spending vast sums of our dwindling national wealth. Our allies had a more direct interest this time, so they — and the Libyans themselves — carried more of the burden.

Our foreign wars, as Ron Paul keeps reminding us, are a major reason we’re so deep in debt. When the counting is done, the Iraq War will have added a staggering $2 trillion to $3 trillion dollars to our IOUs. Not to mention the number of American, allied and Iraqi lives lost in that war of choice.

Defense hawks never tell us how they will resolve the conflict between high defense spending and the need to stop running up — and start paying down —  the national debt. Just cut non-military spending and we’ll be fine, they suggest if pressed. But that’s a copout. Experts who take the trouble to study the numbers tell us there simply isn’t enough fat or meat there to hack away at and balance the scales. That’s true even if you’re willing to cripple or eliminate many programs and services Americans have made clear they value and want to keep.

To believe we can maintain or increase defense spending and reduce the national debt without increasing revenue is a delusion. It may be pretty to think so, but it doesn’t add up.

We can’t just come home, either

Ron Paul and others are equally wrong, however, to believe we can fold up our tents and come home. We’re a world power with genuine political, economic and security interests around the globe. We can’t be indifferent to the fate of Israel, to the free passage of ships carrying oil and other vital commodities, to the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon, to the rise of China, or to the danger carbon emissions pose to the environment. A return to isolationism is not an option.

Though our continued engagement must certainly include a superior military force, do we really need to spend nearly as much on arms as the rest of the world put together?  There are powerful lobbies — the military-industrial complex President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about — that say yes.

In making that self-serving case, they ignore our need to get our debt under control, revive our economic health, and address the many pent-up demands at home. They also fail to appreciate that we have many non-military tools — diplomacy, intelligence, public diplomacy, law enforcement, foreign aid and soft power (the ability to attract others through our ideas, ideals and values) — to employ in our favor.

We also have trusted friends and allies to work with us on international problems. We do not have to cure all the world’s ills by ourselves — or mainly through military force. We’ll be better off when we recognize that, Mao Zedong to the contrary, not all power comes from the barrel of a gun.