Last week, Pentagon budget “cuts” were in the headlines, often almost luridly so -- “Pentagon Faces the Knife,” “Pentagon to Cut Spending by $78 Billion, Reduce Troop Strength,” “U.S. Aims to Cut Defense Budget and Slash Troops.” Responding to the mood of the moment in Washington (“the fiscal pressures the country is facing”), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen made those headlines by calling a news conference to explain prospective “cuts” they were proposing. Summing the situation up, Mullen seconded Gates this way: “The secretary's right, we can't hold ourselves exempt from the belt-tightening.”
Gates then appeared on the PBS NewsHour to explain the nature of Pentagon “belt-tightening,” while reminding anchor Jim Lehrer that last year the Pentagon announced plans to cap or cut “programs that, had they been built to conclusion, would have cost the taxpayers about $330 billion.” The newest $78 billion in cuts over five years was to be considered but an add-on to already supposedly staggering savings, which he described as “changes in the expected dollars that we thought we were going to have when we prepared last year's budget.” According to the Secretary of Defense, this massive set of cuts would, in fact, guarantee “modest growth” in the already monstrous Pentagon budget for at least the next three years.
Keeping Mullen’s “belt-tightening” image in mind, what you have here, imagistically speaking, is an especially obese man cutting down on his own future expectations for how much he’s planning to overeat, even as he continues to increase what he’s actually eating. In other words, this is actually a belt-loosening operation. (And by the way, the Secretary of Defense knows perfectly well that some of his “cuts,” announced with such flare, will never make it through a Congress where powerful Republicans, among others, prefer to exempt the national security budget from serious cuts, or any cuts at all.)
Consider this indicative of the new thinking we can expect from Washington in a crisis. As new, in fact, as the announcement less than a week into 2011 -- the year President Obama once targeted for a major drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- that 1,400 more Marines were being sent into that country. It was a small but striking reminder that, as in 2009 and 2010, when it comes to the widening war in the region, the path of “more” (and more of the same) would invariably trump the idea of “less.” This is the war-zone version of “belt-tightening.”
Similarly, when the President decided to “shake up” his administration for a new era of split-screen government in Washington, he called on a top JPMorgan Chase exec (also deeply enmeshed in the military-industrial complex and Big Pharma) and a former Goldman Sachs advisor, both Clintonistas of the 1990s, to do the shaking. This passes for “new blood” in our nation's capital. Think of it this way: if you fill the room with the same old same old, you’ll always end up with some version of the same old same old.
If, on the other hand, you want to see some new thinking of a sort you won’t find in Washington, check out “Why Peace Is the Business of Men (But Shouldn’t Be)” from Ann Jones, a hands-on aid worker in Afghanistan and elsewhere and remarkable writer. Her eloquent new book, War Is Not Over When It’s Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War, will undoubtedly go largely unreviewed, because when wars “end” even as the destruction of women (and children) continues, it’s no longer really news.
Worse yet, she favors the “less” path in Afghanistan, where any path heading vaguely in the direction of “peace” (a word now synonymous with “utopian dolt” or “bleeding heart idiot”) will automatically be waved aside as hopeless. Since putting any money behind thinking about or testing out new pathways towards peace in our world is inconceivable, we’ll never know what might work. You can put $130 million taxpayer dollars into a new aircraft-fueling system at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan or billions of taxpayer dollars into the Pakistani military (defending a country in which the rich go notoriously untaxed), but not one cent for peace. As for women, well, too bad.
© 2011 TomDispatch.com Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture: a History of the Cold War and Beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His most recent book is The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books).