The surprising semipermanence of budget sequestration has led to an endless parade in Colorado Springs. Defense Department officials and military-aerospace analysts come through town almost daily to warn of cutbacks at local bases, while The Heritage Foundation warns of a "hollow force" representing the worst of worlds - a smaller pool of soldiers that is also poorly trained, giving us few options in future conflicts.
But wait, doesn't the $672 billion in 2013 aggregate military spending exceed the military budget of the next dozen nations combined - including China and Russia? Doesn't the military constitute the largest discretionary item in the U.S. budget? And why do pundits talk about a "hollow force," when the old notions of standing armies and piloted aircraft are being replaced with small strike force teams and robot forces such as airborne drones?
The problem here is not a Pentagon and prime-contractor chorus crying crocodile tears. Rather, there are built-in assumptions about what constitutes an appropriate 21st-century force for the United States. We can appreciate that presidents from both parties have agreed in recent years that it is time to draw down nuclear forces. But too little thought is given to reforming the global infrastructure that represents a hangover from the Cold War. Note that President Obama's only proposed change in force deployment has been the "Asia pivot," in which new U.S. bases are created in Australia and Japan.
There is a lesson to be learned in the bipartisan shock expressed at the Edward Snowden revelations on intelligence budgets. Members of Congress, from Peter King on the right to Dianne Feinstein on the left, care more about prosecuting leakers than having an honest debate about what kind of intelligence is required. The security state created with the National Security Act of 1947 is taken as a given, and questions on its mission are considered nothing short of treasonous.
Similarly, an honest debate on the need for foreign bases and the potential for NATO burden-sharing would strike at the heart of the image of the U.S. as global cop. A true threat-assessment debate would require puncturing Cold War myths, which often turns those suggesting such cuts into pariahs.
There is a more pervasive problem than clinging to the myth of the security state. The Pentagon has cleverly spread its largess across all 50 states, to create a pork-barrel program of virtual "line-item welfare" across all congressional districts. Not only are full brigade strengths and the expansion of a Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Carson seen as a given, but the Northern Command and Space Command missions of Peterson, Schriever, and Buckley Air Force Bases are never questioned. Every congressional district has its pet programs, and those legislators operating against their own district's interest are almost guaranteed to lose the next election.
If we want to hone the military down to fit a sustainable 21st-century budget, we need to eliminate the dual myths of the national-security state and the localized dependence on bases and contractors - a Herculean task.
Loring Wirbel is the secretary of the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission.