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It's Not Just the Bases—or the Nukes

Mother Jones magazine is sponsoring a series of commentaries on its website about the sprawl of American military bases around the world and the implications. Straus Military Reform Project Director Winslow Wheeler contributed to this series with a piece entitled "It's Not Just the Bases—or the Nukes."

Mission Creep Dispatch: Winslow Wheeler

As part of our special investigation "Mission Creep: US Military Presence Worldwide," we asked a host of military thinkers to contribute their two cents on topics relating to global Pentagon strategy. The following dispatch comes from Winslow T. Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, DC, and author of Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages US Security.

It's Not Just the Bases—or the Nukes

The sprawl of American bases, both wanted and unwanted by their international hosts, is an important consideration in understanding and then limiting the obnoxious overreach of the American empire. But as with nuclear proliferation, the other issue the left in American politics has latched onto, even were the matter to be solved to the complete satisfaction of the advocates (which I would strongly welcome), there would be hardly a scratch on the foreign policy and defense ills that drag America down.

Consider the following:

America's defense budget is now larger in inflation-adjusted dollars than at any point since the end of World War II, and yet our Army has fewer combat brigades than at any point in that period; our Navy has fewer combat ships; and the Air Force has fewer combat aircraft. Our major equipment inventories for these major forces are older on average than at any point since 1946—or in some cases, in our entire history.

The effectiveness of America's supposedly high-tech weapons doesn't compensate for these reduced numbers. The Air Force's newest fighter, the F-35, can only be regarded as a technical failure; the Navy's newest destroyer cannot protect itself effectively against aircraft and missiles, and the Army's newest armored vehicle cannot stand up against a simple anti-armor rocket that was first designed in the 1940s.

Despite years, nay decades, of acquisition reform from the best minds in Congress, the Pentagon, and the DC think tanks, cost overruns on weapons systems are higher today (in inflation-adjusted dollars) than ever. Not a single major system has been delivered on time, on cost, and as promised for performance.

The Pentagon refuses to tell Congress and the public exactly how it spends the hundreds of billions of dollars appropriated to it each year; the reason is simple; it doesn't know how the money is spent. Technically, it doesn't even know if the money is spent. President George W. Bush's own Office of Management and Budget has labeled the Pentagon as one of the worst-managed federal agencies.

At the start of the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon's senior military leadership failed to warn civilian leaders of the tremendously difficult mission they were being asked to perform. Indeed, most did not even perceive the difficulties of those missions and misperceived that the key issue was the number of military personnel sent to invade and then occupy an alien land in the Middle East. Many of these senior officers then publicly complained—from the comfort of a retirement pension—that their civilian bosses had made a mess of things.

In Congress and the office of the Secretary of Defense, there have been acrimonious hearings and meetings but no real oversight to appreciate just how and where programs and policies ran off the tracks. Except for a very, very small handful, no one has been held accountable. Indeed, it is not even apparent that anyone in Congress knows how to conduct oversight. If so, they apparently lack the spine to do it in a manner that then-Senator Harry Truman, a superb Pentagon watchdog during World War II, would call competent.

Perhaps most damning of all, America has permitted itself—and most leaders from both political parties have aggressively pursued—a national security strategy that has torn us apart domestically, isolated us from our allies, made us an object of disrespect in the eyes of those not committed to our cause, and caused our enemies to find motivation for greater provocations on their own part. In fact, it is not even clear whether our leadership understands what an effective national security strategy is, much less how to put one together and exercise it effectively.

A collapse of the grotesque American exercises in Iraq and Afghanistan is only a matter of time. The architects of the war in Iraq glibly proclaim victory in sight thanks to the success of the "surge." Politically motivated to their very core, they studiously ignore the internal dynamics in Iraq and the region that have been inestimably more powerful in lowering the violence there. Blind as the proverbial bat, they—and even opponents to the Iraq misadventure—now proclaim that more of the same in Afghanistan will rescue the imploding situation there.

As Pentagon wags used to remark inside the building, "It's data-free analysis and analysis-free decisions" driving US national policy. That is especially true of the mindless talk about expanding the size of the Marines and Army and maintaining the Pentagon budget at anything near its current hyperbloated size.

Bases? Nukes? Have at it. Do not pretend for a minute, however, that fully addressing those worthwhile issues will change America's course to something future historians will describe as appropriate to the world situation we are in, or enabling America to survive on its own terms in a troubled world.

The fundamental problem is one of ethics. Across the political spectrum, our national security experts in Washington have failed the nation, utterly and totally. These men and women and their failed agendas now clamber all over the McCain and Obama presidential campaigns like rats desperate to keep a sinking ship afloat. The best way out of the mess they all have created is not just to think about our problems in new ways, but to have different minds doing it.