Barney Frank on Defense Spending: Reduce Reuse

This morning I had the opportunity to hear Barney Frank (D-MA) speak about ‘Creating a Sustainable and Affordable Denfense Posture’ at the Center for American Progress.  I don’t know much about defense spending, but I wanted to hear Barney Frank speak and find out more about defense, especially in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden.

I was not disappointed.  Frank suggested that we reduce the spending on defense (obviously), and should reexamine the breadth of worldwide commitments.  I whole heartedly agree with this.  We currently spend about $700 billion on defense (both military personnel funding and weaponry), while we only spend about $30 billion on foreign aid (as of 2008).  Why do we spend so much more on defense, when arguably the world’s biggest threat is inadequate distribution of food and clean water?

According to Frank, one of the reasons for spending so much on defense is that there is a cultural lag of sorts.  Since the 1940s there has been a serious threat to the existence of lives in the United States, first with WWII and then with the Cold War.  We built up our defense systems based on those threats.  However, the current threat of terrorism is a different beast all together — a stockpiled nuclear armament will not reduce this threat.  Frank quipped ‘if nuclear submarines could beat terrorism, we’d have won by now. We have many and they have none.’  His point: terrorism is very different than other threats to security and so our strategy should be different.

Case in point? The capture and elimination of Osama bin Laden was not done through military might, but strategic implementation.  We didn’t drop a bomb and eliminate him, he was captured by a military team.

Frank’s second point was that there is much talk to day of the United States going to war or ‘intervening’ in areas to support the idea of the US as a great nation.  There are many people who believe that for the US to appear to the rest of the world as a great nation, we must have military might, and be ready to step in to police the world.  To me, this sounds reminiscent of manifest destiny.  As Frank put it ‘living well seems to me to be a very nice national purpose.’  That is, helping our citizens to live better lives and to make sure that our citizens are taken care of is a very great national purpose, and I would suggest it is a much better national purpose than to bring peace and order to the world through conflict.

One of Frank’s final points was that it is important to make the desire to reduce defense spending not about demonizing the military, but about reorganizing priorities.  In a time where things are supposed to be either black or white, right or left, this is a very important point.  We can support our troops and have respect for all they sacrifice and still support cuts to defense.  The cuts are not against the military personnel after all, but against the spending on intricate weaponry and increasing arms.

While I found myself agreeing with Rep. Frank about much of this, I was waiting for him to suggest where to use that money instead.  While he hinted at this throughout the talk, it wasn’t until the Q&A session that he said outright that we could be using that money on foreign aid — use that money to help people eat or build infrastructure in war torn countries (say, Iraq or Afghanistan in a true ‘reuse’ of defense spending).

I absolutely agree that we are overextended and that scaling back our troops in Europe or in Japan would be beneficial.  Frank pointed out that as we spend so much on a strong defense to protect our allies, those allies are spending less on defense and more on social programs.  We have created the need for our military strength, and are saving our allies money.  But at what cost to ourselves?  Is a national purpose of being the ones to bring ‘order’ to the world worth losing environmental protection or women’s rights? I think not.  After all, isn’t a true leader one who leads by example, not one who leads by force?

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