Let me start off the new decade by asking a question that goes to the root of what is America.
How many in Washington realize that being the world's sole military hyperpower is not compatible with the ideals this nation was founded upon?
Don't mistake me for a pacifist.
I supported Reagan's defense build up well before 1981 and until it became clear Gorbachev was bringing sincere change in 1986. Even more aggressively, I advocated indicting and overthrowing Saddam (Iraq) in 2000 after I pieced together that Saddam had diverted food in order to starve large numbers of Shiite children during a late 1990s Iraqi drought under cover of blaming UN sanctions. (But I pointed out in 2003 we should not try to mould Iraq, but simply should put responsibility for Iraq right back into Iraqi hands (clerics), and remain only as helpers to popular (religious) Iraqi leaders, in contrast to our slow and uncertain effort to first create a Western democracy in Iraq to our own conception.)
So my views on military power originate not from the point of view of a pacifist (Though I do respect this point of view, as taught by the Christ, no less. We are seeing how overwhelming power and the morals of America cannot impose right nor aid peace except when peoples choose peace by their own choice, in their own time.)
Instead, I've had much of my life a pragmatic and aggressive view: we need to take steps to make the world a safer place for freedom and liberty, in terms of actual outcomes.
I supported a large and aggressive military since we had large and powerful enemies.
But this is no longer true.
We face no major enemies.
Look, and you will see no massed armies of millions arrayed aggressively against us and our allies. (North Korea is deterred with only moderate forces. Meeting current deterrence needs while maintaining an excellent military does not require anywhere near our current level of expenditure.)
We spend so much more than needed on defense because it is the ultimate form of earmark: every year representatives hope to send ever more money to defense contractors in their Congressional districts.
Americans have no idea how much defense spending we actually need.
$100 billion, $200 billion, $500 billion -- these numbers seem identical to average Americans.
Really, how many people have a clue whether $200 billion or $400 billion is the right amount of spending?
Americans are easily fooled by comparisons to defense spending levels as a percent of GDP of the last 40 and 50 years...
as if we were still in a cold war with a massive, armed enemy like the Warsaw Pact.
Typical voters are left to blindly hope that most of the money isn't wasted. And they know perfectly well a great deal is.
It's like many Americans are living in the past -- stuck in 1983 like flies in amber -- unaware that the world has profoundly, fundamentally changed.
The real enemy of America now is a set of ideas which cannot be defeated with guns, nor by killing or arresting momentary leaders. These ideas will be defeated only by better ideas.
In the meanwhile, deterring Iran and North Korea while fighting in Afghanistan and maintaining most of our base strength could all be accomplished with about half the level of defense spending we now have.
Few commentators even seem to comprehend that there might be any downside to spending $680 billion a year right now to maintain such a large gap of superiority over any other nation's military forces.
Few grasp that raw power in and for itself might not be a virtue, but a corrupting influence that could eat at the soul of America.
We were warned long ago of this danger by the Supreme Allied Commander and subsequent Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower was no shrinking violet. He commanded and won WWII, led the new NATO, and finished the Korean War.
But this strong military man warned us explicitly that our great military spending would threaten the very fabric and soul of America itself.
In short, I don't find popular commentators in newspapers and in the media that understand enough of the principles that are the essence of America.
We, as a culture, have even gradually half-accepted using disproportionate force to respond to attacks.
In the last 30 years, we have begun to take military action with less and less justification. Hitting innocent bystanders is inevitable when we try to defeat an ideology (Al Qaeda) with physical weapons. But even those who refuse to see Al Qaeda as true believers, as if they were only a power-hungry gang instead, should then ask if it would make sense for the U.S. in the 1920s to have fought Al Capone and his thugs with a troop surge against Chicago neighborhoods "harboring" Capone?
Now, even the theoretical possibility of a future threat (Iraq, 2003) is used to rationalize broad and sometimes imprecise attack.
Enemies are blown up into massive shadows. A ragtag band of fanatics have been greatly empowered into an equal stature with our nation by our words and action. Criminals that have committed serious mass murder have been elevated up to the stage of playing on the same field as our nation itself. Made equally important. As if we cannot accept their true smallness, as if we need a great enemy.
This is not how we should want to be.
Lacking wisdom in its mainstream national dialogue, America rolls blindly downhill towards a loss of something of far greater value than the temporary gains of military power -- we risk losing the very essence of America itself.
Mark my words, spending about 5% of our GDP, a massive $680bn, on military expenditures while our major economic competitors like China spend less than 2% means that we *cannot* grow our economic strength the way other nations can that have more resources available for investment in their future.
It's not simply that $680bn in a single year is about 4 or 5 times as expensive as the contemplated annual cost of providing health care (even after full subsidies are in effect in 2017) to uninsured Americans under the proposed health care reform for instance.
Realistically, we could spend half as much on defense and still maintain military superiority, and...pay fully for health care reform...and subsidize college tuition costs for all American students. All of this from the current level of defense spending alone.
But the economic cost is higher yet: Pragmatically, maintaining this disadvantage of spending 3% of GDP more on defense than our competitors year after year instead of spending this part of our limited resources on science, technology and education means that US economic power will fade.
Education, science, technology -- the future.
Can we expect a secure future without investing adequately in the future?
The current defense spending of the U.S. threatens our security.
But even this pragmatic reality of loss of economic and military might is not the center of what I want to communicate here.
No one else in the center is saying it, and it needs desperately to be said:
Being a "superpower" is not American.
We were not born as a nation only to gradually transform ourselves into an empire.
I write this as someone who avidly supported Reagan in 1975 years before I would be old enough to vote, who told my college roommates excitedly in 1984 about the possibility that Gorbachev might bring change (he later came to power in 1985 and began real change) and then became excited by the rising Boris Yeltsin in 1985 (years before he gained power and continued moving Russia towards liberalization). I felt great joy at the historic fall of the Wall and of the Iron Curtain.
But...while I supported all this military might in 1979, and in 1984, it was for a reason....not for the sake of power.
We did not need a large military because we were America. We needed it because the Warsaw Pact was massed with tanks and huge armies in the field.
We actually had a significant opponent in those days. Armies with many hundreds of thousands of capable, well-armed troops arrayed in invasion-ready stance specifically against our West European allies.
Those days are long gone.
In the last decade, we have begun to lose ourselves, lose the sense of America, even in this elementary way of what America is about -- what America stands for.
Empires begin in response to having been attacked, whether on a personal level or as a nation, and having a determination to avenge that attack or be on top in a rule-of-the-jungle world.
Those who want power want that power in order to feel safe.
For so many decades, most of our lives, America has been a superpower only because the outcome of World War II made us a superpower and the subsequent necessity of deterring the Soviet Union forced us to remain one.
Most of us have grown up knowing nothing else.
But, people, this necessity has passed. There is no massive enemy facing us in the world today.
Our worst genuine enemies are merely bands of angry, fundamentalist wingnuts, numbering in the thousands. They require a strong response, but not a war.
Let me tell you why.
They will number only in the thousands unless we continue to fight them in other peoples' homelands long enough to give them new allies and thus unite real armies someday against us... Unless we prolong this mistake of provoking new enemies, we appear unlikely to have any large enemy who wants to fight us.
Al Qaeda is based in ideas and ideals. It cannot be defeated with guns or by killing its troops or leaders. Its ideas and ideology will only be defeated by superior ideas and ideals. It is a 'war' of ideals, of belief. We lose if and when our own best ideals are not lived up to. It's precisely that simple. We will win or lose on the basis of our self-conduct.
America became a superpower by necessity in World War II.
We remained a superpower by necessity in response to Stalin, then Khrushchev and finally Brezhnev.
This became so normal for us that we do not know what it would be like to spend a lower portion of our nation's treasure on defense like other advanced nations. Americans today do not know what it would be like to have a proportional military -- proportional to the absolute size of our likely foes. Instead, we know what it is like to be a dominant superpower.
But the world today does not need a dominant power any more than a typical city needs a strong man (a dictator).
A typical city, with criminals and gangs, needs a law-abiding police force.
The world needs stable alliances and organized international efforts at peacekeeping.
The world needs the American character our nation was born with, not this newly-aggressive superpower of late.
If Obama makes one fundamental error, it is to underestimate the American people. We elected him on the promise of real change. We do not want to see him cowed by the military-industrial complex.
Truly, what is ideal is pragmatic.
What is most pragmatic and smart is to follow ideals.
American influence depends on our values and character.
America cannot afford $680 billion a year on "defense" financially or morally.
Eisenhower warned us -- this military power would change our character unless we somehow found a way to remain who we are.
It is time for most of the soldiers to come home, right now.
It is time for America to become America again.