Arthur Cyr - No major debate on defense policy changes

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The Obama administration has proposed major changes in defense policy. In an earlier era these sweeping proposals would have sparked intense and highly visible discussion and debate. Unfortunately, this has not yet happened.

This is the case despite combat engagement in two extremely long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. Department of Defense is also involved in a range of military missions in many other places around the globe, along with the continuing struggle against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups since the attacks of 9/11.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is proposing a substantial change in the profile of our military forces. The remarkably durable U-2 spy plane and highly effective A-10 ground support jet are to be retired. The Army is to be reduced by approximately 70,000 from the current level of 520,000. By contrast, the Marine Corps will be maintained at the current 190,000, and special operations forces increased.

Hagel vows to reduce the overall number of military bases. Their total reflects domestic political patronage more than strategic necessity, and he deserves credit for taking on the issue.

Republicans routinely dismiss the Obama administration's defense postures as weak, but have yet to define and press detailed alternatives. This simplistic approach neglects a number of facts, including service by Secretary of State John Kerry as well as Republican Hagel in combat in the Vietnam War. They also by the way both served in the United States Senate.

In addition to the discipline of detailed analysis of proposals, at least two more fundamental subjects regarding Pentagon policies should be addressed. First, constant deployments have severely stressed American military personnel, with high rates of suicide and mental illness.

Previous Defense Secretary Robert Gates consistently emphasized this human cost. In July 2009, he visited Chicago to address the Economic Club, the first defense secretary to speak before this largely commercial group.

Gates' courageous speech emphasized the human costs to our service personnel, and also the enduring challenge of bloated defense programs. The man some criticized as a bloodless bureaucrat proved to be the reverse.

Second, Americans increasingly are contracting out military responsibilities to private commercial corporations. Blackwater, renamed Xe and then Academi to deflect notoriety, has generated tremendous deserved controversy. Until recently, these heavily armed mercenaries operated largely outside the boundaries of military or civil laws.

In contrast to alienated, marginalized Americans who in earlier generations became mercenaries, for instance in the Africa wars of the 1970s, Blackwater ranks are populated with highly experienced senior U.S. military veterans. They are generally extremely highly paid.

The activities of the military contractors reach globally, well beyond Afghanistan and Iraq. The book Corporate Warriors by P.W Singer documents Military Professional Resources Inc., another large private security firm, part of L-3 Communications Corp. MPRI has had extensive involvement in Africa, including Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria.

While Angola involvement is generally regarded as helpful to United States foreign policy, in both Guinea and Nigeria the company assisted highly repressive regimes.

This was directly contrary to United States policies. In each case, profits came first, whether congruent with or contrary to American national interests.

Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address to the American people warned of long-term dangers to our democracy represented by the 'military-industrial complex'. Ike's insight continues to resonate ever stronger, while our ambitious politicians -- and we complacent citizens -- continue largely to avoid this reality.

(Arthur Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of After the Cold War.)

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