Our security depends on more than guns alone

The upcoming elections will dominate the news for another 37 days, but I guarantee you that on Nov. 7 the “fiscal cliff” will take over the front pages until Dec. 31 or until Congress passes the grand bargain that will prevent it.

No matter their political leanings, virtually all reputable economists, led by Fed Chairman Ben Bernake, agree that we face going “over the cliff” into another, perhaps much worse, recession unless agreement is reached in the lame duck session of Congress on how to handle the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the necessary debt limit increase, and the size of the federal budget.

I’ll be following developments closely and will no doubt be writing more about the fiscal cliff in future columns. Today, I’d like to zero in on just one important part of the budget –defense spending. Remember that last year, in order to get the votes of a number of members of Congress to increase the debt ceiling, a legislative package had to be cobbled together that included the cutting, called sequestration, of defense spending.

Today, most of those members seem to have developed amnesia about their votes, or are arguing that they really didn’t mean to cut defense spending at all. I hope that as the debate about defense spending goes forward, we can talk not just about how much is spent but why and where it is spent –what our national security configuration should be moving forward.

Even if all the presently scheduled cuts in defense spending were actually put in place, we would still have by far the most powerful military force not only in today’s’ world but in all of history. Our troops are the best trained, our equipment is overwhelmingly superior, and we have the capability to successfully fight a war not only against another national force but also against insurgents anywhere in the world.

Yet, despite this unquestionable military superiority, we have not been completely successful in our most recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unless we were prepared to commit troops and treasure for an unlimited number of years into the future, we had in both cases to rely on our ability to foster democracy among the people in the country we would leave behind.

We all know that we cannot realistically control what happens after our military leaves. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, corruption is so widespread that it is bound to undermine whatever government we leave behind. So, moving forward, it seems to me it is imperative that we do absolutely everything we can to avoid the introduction of troops into foreign countries. That will always be an option, but it must be the very last option.

If that is so, we must acknowledge that our national security depends not only on our troops and our weapons, but also on our ideas and how effectively we transmit them.

Let me just give one example of what I mean. Shaping the hearts and minds of the people in the Middle East ought to be a No. 1 priority. Perhaps the best way to do that is through satellite television broadcasting, which is the primary source of news and information in the region. We have a good service called Alhurra, but by far the dominant channel in the region is Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera is owned and funded by the state of Qatar to the tune of $650 million a year, according to the global market research company Ipsos. We allocate $90 million a year to Alhurra. How does that make sense? Nobody knows more about building a great broadcasting operation than Americans. We should be spending whatever it takes to give people in the Middle East the best television service possible. Would we get an immediate payoff? Of course not. But if it helped prevent a future multi-billion dollar war in 10 or 20 years, wouldn’t this be an incredibly cost-effective use of our defense dollars?

As I pointed out in a column last fall, this isn’t a hawk versus dove argument. Spending defense dollars in ways like this has the support of people like ex-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. What we have to do is to make sure that when the debate about defense spending takes place, it is not just about how much we spend but how we spend it.

Originally published 29 September 2012 on delawareonline.com