Backwards Priorities

Consider the following.
1) The United States has no mortal national enemy. No USSR, no new Axis is likely to appear.

2) It is possible, indeed probable, that sometime within the next few years, thousands of Americans, perhaps many times that number, will be killed or injured by a nuclear, biological, or chemical Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) ? the greatest carnage on this continent since the Civil War. The people I talk to in the military and in counter-terrorism tell me that, given the proliferation of these weapons and a variety of crude but functional delivery means, it’s now a matter of when, not if.

3) The United States has no real defense against such attacks and, apparently, no serious intention of acquiring one. Continental ballistic missile defense is nonexistent, air defense not much better. Counter-terrorism is parceled out among literally hundreds of agencies, inter-agency groups, and task forces.

4) The United States will spend over $300 billion this year on defense and an array of defense related activities. Most of this money will go for expeditionary forces, i.e., forces intended and configured to fight elsewhere. Nobody believes that this force can be maintained, let alone modernized, on any conceivable peacetime budget.

5) Humanitarian and other-than-war uses of the military may be expected to increase. That inserts us into the problems and passions of others.

6) A lot of these “others,” and a lot of their supporters, wouldn’t mind hurting us.

From this admittedly unoriginal assessment, two equally unoriginal conclusions emerge. The first is that there’s no money, at least if present spending patterns and priorities are maintained. The second is that, the more we mess in other people’s problems–or, if you prefer, the more we exercise “global leadership” and keep our commitments–the more likely we are to get hit at home.

So what’s a country to do?

For starters, recognize two facts of life and begin to ponder the implications of a third.

1) When you aggregate a current miscellany of activities–anti-missile and anti-air defense, defense against WMD delivered by other means, counter-terrorism, drug interdiction, border control–you find that they add up to homeland defense, which is the first mission of any democracy’s military.

2) The United States only needs homeland defenses if we pursue an activist foreign policy. Were America to embrace genuine isolationism, there would be scant need for Fortress America. Many people would still hate us, but few would care to attack us and risk retaliation. Leadership and activism, not isolationism, require homeland defense. Not having it means that, someday, a president may have to choose between disaster and submission to threat or blackmail.

3) In human conflict, as in all other aspects of contemporary existence, previously clear boundaries are blurring. It may no longer be possible to make neat distinctions between war and crime, i.e., between the military and law enforcement spheres. When subnational groups and even individuals may have the power to do us more harm than most nation-states, it’s a new world. The military may prefer only to do certain things under certain conditions. It may no longer be possible to honor those preferences.

But how to defend the homeland when threats are diffuse, cash running low, and dangers to civil liberties and constitutional rights only too apparent? The answer may lie in two words: dual use–systems and organizations that can function in both expeditionary and homeland defense roles.

At the hardware level, for example, anti-missile systems designed to protect troops in the field and theater-level operations might be adapted for domestic use against shorter-range missiles. Ships can protect the coast of New Jersey as well as the coast of Saudi Arabia. At the people level, the National Guard–too often and too easily dismissed as archaic–is a classic dual use system. Available to both governors and the president, the Army Guard is on-site, knows the physical and human territory, and already performs a variety of quasi-military/quasi-law enforcement missions of relevance in homeland defense. It’s a far more appropriate force for working with local police and disaster relief agencies than federal troops. The Air Guard has long held continental air defense responsiblities. Whatever the Guard’s value as the nation’s expeditionary reserve (a value greater than many care to admit), its potential as a homeland defense force is enormous.

But will anybody get serious about homeland defense before some disaster gets everybody asking why nobody ever got serious about homeland defense? One indicator may be the Quadrennial Defense Review now underway at the Pentagon. The history of such efforts, most recently the Commission on Roles and Missions, indicates that they generate little save uneasy compromises, artful dodging, and per diem claims. This one may be different, given that it may no longer be possible to “ration the poverty” among the services. But cuts themselves mean less than restructuring, the realignment of roles and missions, and–could it happen?–at least a theoretical recognition of the growing need for homeland defense.

Deputy Defense Secretary John White, who chaired the last commission, claims that “Everything is on the table.” To translate from Beltwayese into plain English, that usually means that a rather intricate charade is about to begin, an elaborate pretense resulting in little real change. Perhaps this time will be different. And one indicator of real change could be whether homeland defense–the common defense–even gets to the table at all.

Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and director of “ReVisioning Defense: Protecting the People, Defending the Defenders,” a Discovery Institute project in cooperation with the Heritage Foundation.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.