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Military Maw
Nickel-diming an open society

If homeland security once had the kind of linguistic whiff evocative of lebensraum and polizei, it is now a national religion with the appeal of a cult and the force of doctrine. And President Bush is preaching it for every penny. His $2.13 trillion budget is a military-industrial coup of such massive guile and opportunism that even Julius Caesar, were he able, would fax him his congratulations: “You came. You saw. You spent.”

The question must be asked, though. If so much money is being diverted to protect against the barbarians, how much homeland value will be left to save? If poor workers will be left untrained, college students left to their own debts, highways left to crumble, the environment left to spoil, the uninsured left to luck, future retirees left to bust and the middle class, as always, left to pay for all the security in the world, since the rich are on a decade-long tax holiday, what would terrorists want with a place like this even if they could crumble it? They wouldn’t bother. We’d be doing it for them.

It is 11 years since the Soviet Union imploded under the weight of its own homeland security obsessions. The six next-largest military powers in the world combined can’t rival a Pentagon war game. Russia’s military is a skeletal goblin out of a Gogol tale. China’s military, after a hearty go at it in the 1990s, just gave up its dream of being a naval power. Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the new millennium’s “axis of evil,” probably couldn’t fix the broken axle of a troop transport.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, has just finished conquering a nation in a matter of weeks with the loss of two men. That’s two men, not divisions. It did so with the “downsized” military of the 1990s, the military of Generation X’s alleged slackers and volunteers, of “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” and of soldiers, again alleged, on food stamps. Yet the victory in Afghanistan, like America’s lone superpower hegemony, has no parallel in history. Not even Rome had it this easy in its day.

Terrorists, as they’ve proven, need only look for weak nodes in the nation’s intelligence web to turn the most random civilian hardware into weapons of mass destruction. The problem at home (since alleviating economic and intellectual poverty in the Muslim world is the greater challenge) isn’t a weak military or a complacent society. It is a flabby secret service establishment too engrossed in conventions of super-satellite wizardry and too little inclined to return to the grind of human intelligence. But as Israel’s super-security state proves every day, even that can fail in the face of fanaticism. An open society must risk the costs of openness, or close.

Rather than committing to this open society, the president is choosing to nickel-and-dime it in the name of military absolutism: A 30 percent increase in military spending over the next five years, bringing the Pentagon’s share of tax dollars close to the half-trillion dollar mark (while 45 million Americans bank on prayer and luck for health insurance). Some of the money will improve airport security, soldiers’ pay and intelligence services. Some will pay for the ongoing war—that is, for the semipermanent deployment of forces in Afghanistan and neighboring Asian beachheads.

But homeland security is to the new millennium what the communist conspiracy was to the Cold War—ka-ching for the military’s pet projects: A “missile defense” shield that may never work and that the nation doesn’t need, fighter jets whose only rivals sit in American hangars, and a 310-ship armada to battle nonexistent navies. Those, too, are on the administration’s list, which is why Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told congressional leaders on Friday that an extra $120 billion over the next five years isn’t enough. He wants an extra $110 billion a year “for several years.”

America is already garrisoned against every conceivable enemy but two: the ever-imaginative suicide fanatic and the nation’s own bankruptcy.

One of those is the more dangerous of the two. It isn’t the fanatic. And the Bush budget invites it in.

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