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The War on Our Border: Why Mexico is Important

The United States needs to have a serious discussion about Mexico and spillover violence from its war with drug cartels. Here’s why it matters and what can be done.

–WHY IT MATTERS–

Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, announced a war on Mexico’s drug cartels in late 2006. Since that time, at least 35,000 (and probably more) people have been killed. Corruption remains rampant, with the cartels often recruiting directly from police forces. A recent Time article by Tim Padgett reported that:

The corruption watchdog Transparency International estimates that Mexicans paid $2.75 billion in bribes to police and other officials last year. Meanwhile, 95% of violent crimes in Mexico go unsolved.

Drug thugs killed by their competitors are easily replaced. In a country where most workers earn less than $10 a day, the cartels have little difficulty recruiting new legions. The Chihuahua state attorney general estimates that close to 10,000 Mexicans work for drug cartels in Juárez alone, not least because even foot soldiers can earn hundreds of dollars a week as sicarios, or triggermen. It isn’t just the unemployed who get sucked into the war. If you have a pilot’s license, for example, you’re useful to a cartel, which makes you a target for rival gangs.

But the crisis is not confined to Mexico. Violence has spilled over into U.S. border states. An ABC article from March notes that:

The ambush of two U.S. special agents in Mexico last month, the December murder of a Border Patrol agent in Arizona by Mexican bandits and the beheading of a Phoenix man in October by Mexican cartel members are the latest signs that the drug-fueled violence has even become a direct threat to Americans.

Additionally, American drug, gun and immigration policy directly affects to both the cartel war in Mexico and the spillover violence in the border states. Guns smuggled in from the United States arm the cartels, with “70% of the guns seized in Mexico in the past two years” coming from the U.S. Drug use in the United States fuels demand for the cartels’ product, sustaining them and ensuring that they continue to operate in their U.S. market.

And defective U.S. immigration policy forces many regular, non-threatening Mexicans who are desperate for jobs to immigrate to the United States illegally. Previously, immigrants would turn to “coyotes” to help smuggle them across the border, but cartels have since gotten into the human trafficking business themselves. They charge illegal immigrants huge sums of money for a journey many immigrants don’t survive — often because the cartel members rape and murder them along the way.

All of these factors sustain demand for the cartels, and keep them economically strong: heightening demand for drugs and trafficking services, as well as producing a steady supply of weaponry. Stronger cartels keep Mexico mired in a state of corruption, violence and dysfunction that contributes to lower economic growth, which further contributes to higher levels of illegal immigration. It should be noted that Mexico has huge potential for growth, as a result of free trade agreements (NAFTA), and attracting foreign investment. But violence caused by the cartels creates a volatile atmosphere that is not attractive to investors or conducive to business.

–WHAT TO DO–

So far, the United States has taken some steps to address this issue. President Obama has expanded the U.S. border patrol and provided more funding for Mexican law enforcement, but these address mostly consequences, not causes. The administration did, in 2009, launch an initiative (“Operation Fast and Furious“) to track guns purchased in the United States back to the cartels. But it ended up losing track of many of these weapons, leaving them still in the hands of gangsters.

The Economist also notes several steps the Obama Administration has taken:

The administration has stepped up security co-operation with Mexico, deploying drones and American agents south of the border and allowing Mexican police to use American territory as a launch pad for surprise raids southward. It helped to organise a donor conference in June aimed at improving security in Central America. It is paying Colombia to provide training for helicopter pilots and police from Mexico and Central America.

The United States and Mexico are also working more closely together to speed legal trade across the border. Earlier this year Mr Obama at last allowed Mexican trucks to operate north of the border. And the two countries work together on many world issues at the United Nations, says Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s ambassador in Washington, who says the relationship is closer than at any time in the past 15 years.

Admittedly, addressing the sources of this problem does not seem politically viable in today’s partisan atmosphere — especially considering the issues at stake (guns, immigration and drugs). Nevertheless, I will present several brief policy options I think could help in the war against the cartels.

  • Gun Control.
  • Immigration Reform.
  • Reassessing Drug Policies

–GUN CONTROL–

Let me preface this section by saying that I support the right to bear arms — but that I do believe that it is within the government’s purview to regulate gun ownership. In the same way, government regulates automobile travel for the purposes of public safety. Especially when discussing spillover violence from Mexico, there is a direct correlation between firearm availability in the United States and the arming of cartels.

Several gun control measures might help on this front:

  • Strong background checks, to prevent guns from being sold to people who will funnel them to the cartels. Of course, I should note that this is not without its own limitations — one of which being the simple fact that cartels will try to enlist people who will pass such checks. Background checks may make it more difficult (or costly, if they are forced to pay more for agents who can pass such checks) for cartels to acquire weapons, but it will by no means make it impossible or implausible.
  • Requiring gun permits or licenses, and registering transactions at gun shows. Again, these measures would make it more difficult for cartels to acquire guns, and will provide law enforcement with more information with which to track guns that do find their way to the cartels, and gun traffickers. But they will not stop such purchases fully, either.
  • Assault weapons ban. This is a measure for which President Obama has voiced support. As a 2009 State Department travel advisory noted: “Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades.” [emphasis mine]

Such measures seem to have had an effect in California, which accounts for only 3 percent of guns smuggled to Mexico (and later recovered).

–IMMIGRATION REFORM–

As noted earlier, cartels thrive on the demand for human traffickers from illegal immigrants. Immigrants that, it should be noted, are willing to face potential raping and death at the hands of their cartel traffickers in order to find employment opportunities and a better life in America. Comprehensive immigration could, among other things:

  • Streamline the immigration process
  • Strengthen border patrol and law enforcement to crack down on cartels
  • Provide guest worker program

The guiding principle of immigration reform, as it relates to the cartel problem, should be to make the immigration system in America more responsive to changes in supply and demand for immigrant workers, as well making it more streamlined and efficient. This should lower the incentive for illegal entry to the United States.

And lowering incentives for illegal immigration could help focus law enforcement on fighting cartels, instead of draining precious time and resources to track and deport illegal immigrants — immigrants who, as workers, are adding to economic activity.

Also, reform can help lower illegal immigration by including immigration policies that promote Mexican economic development. (It should be noted that the number of illegal immigrations has decline recently, for various reasons including the recession, fallen Mexican birth rates, and economic development in Mexico). An Economist blog post advocates

…an EU-like common North American labour market, as well as expanded Mexican access to American colleges and universities. But I would happily settle for a large guest-worker programme that would make it much easier for Mexicans to legally live and work in America, as well as taking the risk out of cycling back home.

With incentives for illegal immigration lowered, a strengthened border patrol could focus their energies on violent criminals smuggling drugs into and guns out of the United States.

–REASSESSING DRUG POLICIES–

U.S. demand for cartel-provided drugs obviously helps keeps the cartels in business. The main policy options I would advocate here are drug prevention and rehabilitation programs.

They would relieve our overburdened court systems and overcrowded prisons. Such measures would approach drug use as the non-violent, or “victimless crime” that it is, rather than focusing on jail time and harsh punishments. For drug users, prison is not a huge deterrent anyway. A March 2009 report by the Berkley Foundation Drug Policy Programme in London notes that:

For problematic drug users, it is perhaps not surprising that the threat of
punishment will have a limited effect. Many suffer from other serious
problems and it can be argued that being punished is not an over-riding
concern for them. For example, according to the US government’s
Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 53% of drug
users have a diagnosable mental disorder. Many hard-core users in
inner cities already lead such high-risk lives on the streets that prison
is not perceived as a much riskier or more threatening alternative.

Shifting focus from punishment to treatment would not disrupt deterrence, because current prison sentences do not do much in the way of solving drug issues anyway. The report also says that “many users have been led to control or give up their drug use because the toll on personal relationships and home and work lives was too high and the rewards for quitting were attractive.” Supporting these factors with better treatment programs would help address drug issues and, in turn, decrease the demand for cartels’ services.

–CONCLUSION–

The Mexican government’s war with drug cartels should concern all Americans. Violence from the drug wars spills over the border into the United States, while U.S. drug and gun policy figure prominently into the supply and demand of cartels. Smart policy options work to decrease the supply of guns to the cartels while simultaneously working to decrease demand for the drugs and illegal immigration services cartels provide.

A stable and successful Mexico is in America’s best interests — both from a security perspective, and an economic one. And working to systematically weaken its drug cartels should be a priority for the United States going forward.

–SOURCES–

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1651508,00.html

http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2080608,00.html

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/mexico-president-calderon-prods-obama-drugs-guns-violent/story?id=13047470

http://www.economist.com/node/18621268

http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2011/07/arms-trafficking

http://www.economist.com/node/18744547

http://www.economist.com/node/21528271

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2010/04/trade-offs

http://www.economist.com/blogs/lexington/2010/04/wrong_immigration

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/promises/obameter/promise/289/promote-economic-development-in-mexico/

http://www.economist.com/node/16274535

http://www.economist.com/node/21526899

http://articles.latimes.com/2009/mar/23/nation/na-human-smuggling23

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=6960824&page=1

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/07/mexico-migration-and-growth

http://www.bucknell.edu/Documents/RecreationServices/Mexico%20Travel%20Advisory%20-%202-2009.pdf

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=4&ved=0CDMQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.beckleyfoundation.org%2Fpdf%2FBF_Report_16.pdf&rct=j&q=drug%20use%20prison%20deterrence&ei=LlpkTr-kJOLX0QGthdisCg&usg=AFQjCNHFrLAJ5vvzGCYaXWbuNJ3anNDZmg&cad=rja

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CB8QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww-old.gov.harvard.edu%2Fstudent%2Frios%2FMexicanDrugMarket_Riosv2.doc&rct=j&q=cartels%20economic%20growth%20mexico&ei=n7NGTsr6PITcgQfKwJ3EBg&usg=AFQjCNFbq-goC75ieInetM5AAsDsyQtOzQ&cad=rja


Fact Check: Who Commits Domestic Terrorism?

President Obama recently got into an off-the-cuff debate with Tea Party activists in Iowa. Most of this back-and-forth focused on Vice President Biden allegedly saying Tea Party Republicans “acted like terrorists” in holding the credit of the United States hostage during the debt deal. The video is below:

However, we’re going to focus in on another, brief point that was brought up by the female Tea Party activist around 47 seconds into the video.

She said this:

“You do realize that 90 percent of the domestic terrorist attacks are done by the left-wing environmental radicals and not people like me.”

The number — a whopping 90 percent — seemed a bit high. So I did some fact-checking. I do not know which source she is quoting (and would be interested to find out), but all evidence I’ve reviewed pointed to one conclusion. Namely:

Status: False, with bits of truth.

Before I begin, let me clarify my analysis of this claim as false: the woman that made this statement is right when she says terrorist attacks are not done by people like her. She seems to be a political activist (from what little I can tell from the video), not any sort of terrorist. I am not, in any way, implying that she or anyone in the Tea Party, are terrorists. I am not, in any way, equating right-wing terrorists with right-of-center ideals. Neither am I, in any way, equating left-wing terrorists with left-of-center ideals.

I am simply analyzing her claim that “90 percent of the domestic terrorist attacks are done by the left-wing environmental radicals.”

And while environmental radicals perpetrate a huge number of domestic terrorist incidents, I find no evidence to back up such a high estimate as 90 percent. Two other points provide necessary context that her assertion is lacking. The first is that right-wing terrorism has seen a marked rise in recent years. The other is that left-wing and environmental terrorist groups generally target property, while right-wing terrorism often targets human beings.

–DEFINING TERRORISM–

First, we should define terrorism, to make sure everyone is on the same page.

  • Terrorism

    U.S. law defines“domestic terrorism” according to several points. Domestic terrorist acts:(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
    (B) appear to be intended—
        (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
        (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
       (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
    (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

    The FBI provides a more succinct definition of terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

So, terrorism is an inherently political or ideological act. But let’s focus our definitions further, to differentiate different types of terrorism. We’ll use definitions found on the FBI’s website:

  • Left-Wing Terrorism

Generally profess a revolutionary socialist doctrine and view themselves as protectors of the people against the “dehumanizing effects” of capitalism and imperialism.

  • Right-Wing Terrorism

Primarily in the form of domestic militias and conservative special interest causes…Right-wing extremists champion a wide variety of causes, including racial supremacy, hatred and suspicion of the federal government, and fundamentalist Christianity.

  • Single Issue (Or “Special Interest”) Groups:

Single-issue extremists attack targets that embody distinct political issues like environmental degradation, abortion, genetic engineering, or animal abuse.

One problem is immediately evident. The woman in the video (Stacey Rogers) described “left-wing environmental radicals.” According to the FBI’s definitions, however, left-wing terrorists are distinct from single issue terrorist. We can probably safely assume that in her statement, “left-wing” is only a descriptor, and that the true focus is on the “environmental radicals” aspect.

But even so, special interest terrorism, as a category, seems to cut across ideological lines. It contains both left-wing single issue causes (environmentalism, animal rights) and right-wing (abortion). FBI classification lumps environmental terrorists in with other special interest terrorists, making it a little harder to isolate environmental terrorists from the other special interest terrorists in our analysis.

This would seem to suggest that the 90 percent claim is wrong on its face. After all, if environmental radicals were responsible for 90 percent of all domestic terror attacks, would they really be lumped into a category with several other terrorist causes? That would leave only 10 percent of all terrorist attacks to be divided not only among the various causes in the special interest category, but also among the two other categories the FBI lists alongside special interest terrorism.

–WHO COMMITS DOMESTIC TERRORISM?–

One of the initial difficulties we run into when fact checking this statement is that it doesn’t describe any particular period. And terrorism, like anything else, changes over time. For instance, an FBI report notes that right-wing terrorism dominated the interwar period:

In the period between World War I and World War II, the domestic threat primarily came from right-wing groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, which often adhered to principles of racial supremacy or embraced antigovernment and antiregulatory beliefs in favor of individual freedoms.

So it is important to observe, for the sake of context, that terrorism and terrorist ideas evolve and change along with the times. However, it is obvious that  Rogers is not describing the interwar period. Why would she? We can safely assume she is describing some sort of recent history — but what period should we include?

To provide context (and reach a more accurate conclusion) we will consider most of the post-war period (the late 1940s to today), with a concentration on the past decade. As we shall see, certain shifts have occurred in the targets and perpetrators of domestic terrorism.

According to an FBI report, left-wing terrorism generally dominated the post-war period, with such groups as the Weather Underground.

Beginning in the 1950s, the most serious domestic terrorist threat shifted to leftist-oriented extremist groups that generally professed a revolutionary socialist doctrine and viewed themselves as protectors of the people against the adverse effects of capitalism and U.S. foreign policies.

The decline of this type of left-wing terrorism seems to have been caused both by law enforcement and the collapse of the Soviet Union “depriv[ing] many of these groups of their ideological foundation and patronage,” according to that same report.

I use the term “this type of left-wing terrorism” because left-wing terrorism continued in the 1990s and 2000s, but in a different form.

With respect to domestic terrorism, left-wing political groups and special interest terrorism—that is, terrorism committed by extremists who use violence to compel society to change its attitudes about specific causes—asserted themselves during the 1990s… The majority of domestic terrorism incidents from 1993 to 2001 were attributable to the left-wing special interest movements the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).

The vague statistics I’ve been able to dig up support this. Another FBI report breaks down the numbers of terrorism incidents from 1980 to 2001 (domestic and international).

Terrorism Statistics. Original chart found on the FBI website.

Terrorism by Group Class 1980 – 2001 Total 482

International 164

Left-Wing 130

Right-Wing 85

Special Interest 81

Individual 14

Unknown 8

If I’m reading this chart correctly, then the 318 terrorist incidents not classified as “International” are domestic. Now, we are trying to analyze what percentage of these terrorists are “environmental radicals.” Problem is, this is a sub-group within the special interest category, and we can’t separate them out. So, instead we’ll just take the percentage of special interest terrorism as a whole, knowing that it will include other categories like animal rights terrorism and anti-abortion terrorism.

About 25 percent of listed incidents from 1980-2001 were special interest terrorism incidents. And since this category contains various groups, the number for environmental terrorism incidents is surely less. That falls far short of 90 percent.

But Rogers did characterize these movements as “left-wing,” so let’s take a look at the left-wing numbers too. Left-wing terrorism made up about 41 percent of all domestic incidents (defined as incidents not labeled in the chart as “International”) from 1980-2001. Still short of 90 percent.

Combining both left-wing and special interest terrorism still only brings us up to about 66 percent. This is obviously a huge percentage. But only a portion of it includes environmental radicals. Furthermore, some right-wing groups are included in this 66 percent, like anti-abortion terrorists. And more importantly, it is 24 percentage points short of 90 percent.

And, significantly, these numbers are only through 2001. The 1990s, as noted, saw a rise in environmental terrorism. But have any notable shifts occurred since then?

An FBI report looking at the period between 2002 and 2005 said that 24 recorded terrorist incidents happened in this period, and 23 of them were domestic. Of these 23 incidents, all but one “were committed by special interest extremists active in the animal rights and environmental movements.” But, in the next paragraph, the report says that “eight of the 14 recorded terrorism preventions stemmed from right-wing extremism, and included disruptions to plotting by individuals involved with the militia, white supremacist, constitutionalist and tax protestor, and anti-abortion movements.”

So, even though almost all domestic terrorist attacks were perpetrated by environmental and animal activists, the slim majority (eight of 14) of all preventions were of right-wing terrorist threats.

Why is this? While I did not see any explanations in this report, allow me to offer a theory. The same report notes that although left-wing terrorism remains pervasive, right-wing terrorism is more dangerous. This seems counter-intuitive. All terrorism is dangerous, how can one be more dangerous than another. The answer to that is in what the two brands of terrorism target.

In short, left-wing terrorists tend to target “materials and facilities rather than persons.” Right-wing terrorists, however, often targets human beings. The report observes:

Right-wing extremism, however, primarily in the form of domestic militias and conservative special interest causes, began to overtake left-wing extremism as the most dangerous, if not the most prolific, domestic terrorist threat to the country during the 1990s. In contrast to the ALF and the ELF, which have pursued a philosophy that avoids physical violence in favor of acts of property damage that cause their victims economic harm, right-wing extremists pursued a qualitatively different method of operation by targeting people.

This shift of right-wing terrorism overtaking left-wing terrorism as the more dangerous extremism seems to have started in the 1990s, according to an FBI report from 2002.

A South Poverty Law Center report notes that right-wing terrorist threats in the form of militias seemed to die down during the early 2000s, but then began appearing again toward the late 2000s.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning about a resurgent right-wing terrorist threat, caused by racial tensions, economic hardship and the expansion of social programs.

–CONCLUSION–

I’m not quite sure where Rogers got her information. I certainly could not find any evidence to corroborate her claim that “90 percent of the domestic terrorist attacks are done by the left-wing environmental radicals.” The only information that even approached validating this statement was the report on terrorist activity between 2002 and 2005, which said that all but 1 of domestic terrorist attacks during that period were perpetrated by environmental and animal rights extremists.

But that ignores the fact that plotted incidents prevented by authorities were a majority right-wing. Furthermore, her claim is stripped of any and all context. Right-wing terrorism is, generally speaking, more dangerous to individuals than left-wing terrorism. That is because right-wing terrorism generally targets people, while left-wing terrorism mostly targets property and materials.

Finally, the comment implies an absolute, and ignores the fact that terrorism patterns shift. Such a shift seems to be upon us right now, with right-wing terrorism currently on the rise. The statement does not indicate any of this.

Her general point about the pervasiveness of left-wing — and, in particular, environment — terrorism is correct. It is the more pervasive form of domestic terrorism. Though, stripped of context, and using a number that seems (at best) misleading and (at worst) incorrect, I rate her claim false.

–SOURCES–

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/16/obama-tea-party-video_n_928025.html

http://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/the-threat-of-eco-terrorism

http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terrorism-2002-2005

http://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/the-terrorist-threat-confronting-the-united-states

http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/splc-report-return-of-the-militias

http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terror/terrorism-2000-2001

http://www.fas.org/irp/eprint/rightwing.pdf

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0811/60421.html

http://www.fbi.gov/albuquerque/priorities

http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/2331.html


Getting Our Defense Budget In Order

Why the defense budget is so large, and why it matters.

Arguments over America’s budgetary woes have often omitted the defense budget, for a variety of political plays and actual concerns. Obviously, every American wants the military to have the best equipment, to keep our soldiers safe on the battlefield and our civilians safe at home. This (understandable) desire for security has led to little serious oversight of the defense budget, which now stands at approximately 5 percent of GDP. While this may not seem too large to some (and it is actually not large, by historical standards), the size of the defense budget nevertheless has implications for America’s fiscal future. It is critical that all Americans understand these issues.

The main points we will cover in this blog post are as follows:

  • Size of the Defense Budget
  • Defense Budget in Comparison to Threat Level
  • Economic Implications for Our Future

Let’s get started.

–THE DEFENSE BUDGET–

At almost $15 trillion, America is currently the largest economy in the world. It spends about 5 percent of that (or around $700 billion) on defense — more than every other major power in the world combined. Historically speaking, this is both high and low.

First, the low. In 1944 (during World War 2), defense spending as a percentage of GDP reached a whopping 37.8 percent of the entire economy, and was 86.7 percent of everything the federal government spent! Cold War spending peaked in 1968, at 9.4 percent of GDP and 45.1 percent of federal spending.

Historic Defense Budgets, from DaveManuel.com

But simply citing defense spending as a percent of GDP can be misleading. If we look at defense spending in dollars (adjusted for inflation), the amount of money spent is quite high, historically. An excellent analysis of budget information from the 1960s forward can be found at davemanuel.com. In the post-Korean War period, defense spending peaked in 1968 during the Vietnam War at around $500 billion. President Nixon took office in 1969 and began to pare back the defense budget.

To put this into perspective, the U.S. is now spending approximately $200 billion more than at one of the hottest periods of the Cold War.

Fareed Zakaria, on his CNN program Global Public Square, summarized this point nicely:

If you include the spending on Iraq and Afghanistan, we now spend $250 billion more than average defense budgets during the Cold War. Now, that was a time when the Soviet, the Chinese and all East European militaries were arrayed against the United States and its allies.

After the Korean War, President Eisenhower cut defense spending by 27 percent. Nixon cut the budget by 29 percent after Vietnam. Even Ronald Reagan scaled back military spending in the 1980s as the Cold War was becoming less tense. And, of course, as it got over, that process was accelerated by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton – all of it adding up to a 35 percent decrease in the defense budget by the mid ’90s.

–THE THREAT LEVEL–

During World War 2, the United States was facing the combined Axis forces (Germany, Japan and Italy. Their main goals were (to simplify) imperial, and the American citizenry and military undertook a combined herculean effort to help the Allied Forces repel the Axis from Europe, the Pacific and Africa. Although there were unconventional aspects of the war, the players, in general, used traditional militaries.

The Cold War saw a buildup of missiles and funding of proxy wars. Direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union was avoided, though American troops were sent to Korea and Vietnam in an effort to contain communist influence and imperialism. Again, the main players here were both developed nations funding traditional militaries.

Today is a very different context. The main conflict is not between developed nations — indeed, the enemy is not even a nation. Rather, the main enemy is a transnational, decentralized group of terrorist cells known as al Qaeda. The main goal of U.S. forces today, at its most basic level, is not containment of imperial forces (as in World War 2 and the Cold War), but disruption of terrorist acts.

Even much-cited hotspots like Taiwan pose little immediate threat to U.S. national security. China’s military capability is years behind the United States, and their main challenge to U.S. dominance is inherently economic. They do not seem interested in a military conflict, nor would it benefit them.

Traditional military engagement is not very effective against shadowy counter-insurgencies and random acts of violence carried out by individuals against civilian populations. To be sure, the American military has evolved to face this reality. But it has also been insulated against cuts and oversight by legislators wary about looking “soft on defense.”

Yet now, there seem to be some indications that this consensus is fraying a bit. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates identified possible areas for cuts, and prominent Republican Congressman Ron Paul has pushed for decreased defense spending.

The United States government, besieged by the falling revenues of the Great Recession and a decades of borrowing, cannot afford profligacy any longer. Spending cuts are coming, and to believe that 19 percent of the federal budget can continue untouched is unrealistic.

So, can we cut defense spending without sacrificing security? That is the real question. After all, one of government’s most basic roles is to ensure the safety of its citizens. Fortunately, the answer to that question is ‘yes.’

The best way to go about this is a targeted cutting of inefficient and wasteful areas of defense spending, cutting Pentagon bureaucracies and expensive equipment, like the F-35 planes that have “been plagued by years of design flaws and massive cost overruns.”

And, of course, a re-evaluation of the United States’ foreign policy. The past decade has shown that the United States does not have the patience, stomach or resources for long term nation-building exercises that include counter-insurgency and developing another country’s government and economy. Targeted strikes carried out by special forces could be the key component of a national defense strategy, not thousands of soldiers policing failed states.

As far as specific plans for cuts, several people have posed detailed plans. Foreign Affairs published an excellent article by Gordon Adams and Matthew Leatherman titled “A Leaner, Meaner Defense.” And Douglas MacGregor takes the reader step-by-step through his plan to save $279.5 billion in the Foreign Policy article, “A Radical Plan for Cutting the Defense Budget and Reconfiguring the U.S. Military.” A Time article by Mark Thompson advocates cutting $1 trillion over the next decade.

–ECONOMIC IMPLICATIONS–

As we have seen over the past couple of years, America is on an unsustainable economic path. The Great Recession has laid waste to America’s finances and saddled it with a prolonged period of sluggish economic growth as consumers pay off their debts and hunt for jobs. The political battle over the debt ceiling has left the country particularly weak by showing the world, and bond markets, the ugly reality of Washington’s dysfunction when it comes to making tough  decisions regarding the nation’s finances.

The debt ceiling deal essentially kicked the can down the road to the future Congress. A commission has been saddled with the responsibility for devising a plan to rein in the deficit, with the threat that failure to approve a plan would trigger cuts in several areas, chiefly defense.

The markets could also force defense cuts upon the U.S. A rise in interest rates on U.S. debt would trigger far greater cuts in every area, including defense, than if plans were put forth now, and handled responsibly. Zakaria notes that a 1 percent increase in interest rates on government debt would cause a the deficit to rise by $1.3 trillion over the next decade.

Defense is one of the federal government’s biggest expenditures, along with other programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (that must also see similar changes in order to restore and ensure their fiscal health) — it would be nearly impossible to consider dealing with the government’s debt without cutting from the defense budget. Whether those cuts are made responsibly or forced upon the country is, ultimately, the question now facing the United States. It is better to actively present a plan today that would leave a more efficient military, than to risk the harsher route of imposed cuts later.

-SOURCES-

www.gpoaccess.gov/usbudget/fy11/pdf/hist.pdf

http://blogs.abcnews.com/thenote/2011/06/ron-paul-joins-house-lawmakers-in-push-for-military-spending-cuts.html

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2064468,00.html

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2065246,00.html

http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2011/08/09/cut-defense-spending/

http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2011/08/07/fareeds-take-weve-downgraded-ourselves/

http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historicals/

http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67145/gordon-adams-and-matthew-leatherman/a-leaner-and-meaner-defense

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/04/26/a_radical_plan_for_cutting_the_defense_budget_and_reconfiguring_the_us_military

http://www.davemanuel.com/2010/06/14/us-military-spending-over-the-years/