On July 25, while John A. Boehner raced around the Capitol desperately pressing Republican House members for votes on a debt ceiling bill that Harry M. Reid was calling dead-on-arrival in the Senate, the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan C. Crocker, took his oath of office in distant Kabul. According to news reports, he then gave a short speech warning that Western powers should not "rush for the exits" in withdrawing from the war.
In Afghanistan today, after almost a decade of U.S.-led war, there is no sign of a rush for the exits. The airstrikes, night raids, assassinations, roadside bombings, and soldier and civilian deaths continue, and will until 2014 and beyond. And the war, despite the panic in Washington over debt payments, will be waged at an enormous cost.
In Iraq, meanwhile, in year eight of America's armed involvement, U.S. officials are still determined to keep significant numbers of U.S. troops stationed there beyond an agreed end-of-2011 withdrawal date. And the State Department is preparing to hire a small army of 5,000-odd armed mercenaries (with their own mini air force) to keep the American "mission" in that country humming along to the tune of billions of dollars.
In Libya, the American/NATO war effort, once imagined as a brief spasm of shock-'n'-awe firepower that would oust autocrat Moammar Kadafi in a nanosecond, is now in its fifth month, with neither an end nor a serious reassessment in sight, and no mention of costs there either. In Yemen and Somalia, the drones, CIA and military, are being sent in, and special operations forces built up.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, national security spending still seems to be on an upward trajectory. At $526 billion (without the costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars added in), the 2011 Pentagon budget, is, as Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of Defense under President Reagan, has written, "in real or inflation adjusted dollars … higher than at any time since World War II, including the Korean and Vietnam wars and the height of the Reagan buildup." And the 2012 Pentagon budget is slated to go even higher.
Sen. John S. McCain recently raised the question of Pentagon spending in tight times with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the newly nominated chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He asked about a plan proposed by President Obama to cut $400 billion in Pentagon funds over 12 years, as well as proposals kicking around Congress for cutting up to $800 billion over the same period.
Dempsey replied: "I haven't been asked to look at that number. But I have looked and we are looking at $400 billion. Based on the difficulty of achieving the $400-billion cut, I believe achieving $800 billion would be extraordinarily difficult and very high-risk."
In little of the reporting on this was it apparent that Obama's $400 billion in Pentagon "cuts" are not cuts at all — not unless you consider an obese person, who continues eating at the same level but reduces his dreams of ever-grander future repasts, to be on a diet. The "cuts" in the White House proposal, that is, will be only from projected future Pentagon growth rates.
So here's a question at a moment when financial mania has Washington by the throat: How would you define the state of mind of our war-makers, who are carrying on as if the only sensible role for the United States is to eternally police the planet?
When I was kid, I used to be fascinated by a series of ads filled with visual absurdities, in which, for instance, five-legged cows floated through clouds. Each ad's tagline went something like: What's wrong with this picture?
Now consider the actions of elected officials in Washington. America's credit rating is in danger of being downgraded, jobs are disappearing, infrastructure is eroding, homeownership levels are falling rapidly, foreclosures are sky-high, times are bad, and even the president admits that the political system designated to make things better is "dysfunctional," yet Congress and the president remain committed to guarding those global ramparts, fighting those wars, and continuing to build and feed a massive national security complex — larger than anything ever imagined when the U.S. still faced a nuclear-armed superpower enemy.
Tell me: What's wrong with this picture?
Americans have been focused on raising that debt ceiling, as onscreen countdown clocks ticked away to disaster. In the process, few have asked the obvious question: Isn't it time to lower America's war ceiling?
Tom Engelhardt's latest book is "The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's." He is co-founder of the American Empire Project and runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com, where a longer version of this piece appears.