The Nation at War

March 1, 2002

“Terrorism Fades as Nation’s Most Important Problem,” said the headline on an analysis by the Gallup News Service in January.

In a Gallup poll last October, 64 percent of the public said terrorism and national security were the most important problems facing the nation. The number saying that in the January poll was down to 35 percent.

Gallup explained that this does not necessarily mean that Americans no longer regard terrorism as important, just that other matters, such as the economy, weigh more directly on their minds.

If the war on terror slips too far in the national awareness, that becomes a problem in itself.

We are engaged with an implacable enemy who seeks our destruction. Our passive response to attacks before Sept. 11 emboldened our adversaries and rallied converts to their cause.

The diagrams of American nuclear power plants and public water facilities, left behind in Afghanistan by al Qaeda, give us a preview of what else they have in mind. We do not know how close they are to having nuclear weapons.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush said that the war on terror is only beginning and that his budget for next year would propose the largest increase in defense spending in two decades.

A Los Angeles Times poll in February found that 76 percent of Americans support an increase in military spending. More than half are for such an increase, even if it means cutting domestic programs.

Perhaps national awareness has not slid that far after all.

The budget President Bush sent to Congress Feb. 4 asks for $369 billion for defense next year, plus another $10 billion, if needed, to fight the war on terrorism. That is an increase of 12 percent. Adjusted for inflation, it would put the defense budget about where it was in 1990.

Not everyone agrees we can afford that much, or that we need to.

“I’m becoming a little nervous as I hear we’re going to spend more and more and more on the military,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D­W.Va.). “It’s going to have to come out of somewhere, out of somebody else’s hide.”

The New York Times calls the budget proposal “bloated” and says it siphons too much money away from domestic programs and “undermines the security of the nation’s social safety net.” We can thank our lucky stars, then, that we are not faced with a real wartime budget. During World War II, defense outlays were 38 percent of the Gross Domestic Product and almost 90 percent of federal spending.

The Bush budget allocates 3.3 percent of GDP for defense, the same as in 1997. Even by peacetime standards, that is a moderate burden.

The amount proposed, it is said, is bigger than the economy of some of the world’s nations and more than the combined military spending of a dozen of them.

Okay. But so what

Those countries do not have the capability to take on global terror. Only the United States can do that. When NATO wanted to put down Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs in 1999, the United States had to take the lead, although any number of Alliance members were closer to the scene.

If US forces were scaled back to the world average, you can bet there would be panic in many a foreign clime.

Another recurring theme is that our existing forces are good enough. The New York Times, for example, says that our F-14s, F-15s, and F-16s “already dominate the skies.” Thus, in the opinion of the editorial writers, new investment should go to unmanned aircraft and special forces rather than “outmoded” systems like the F-22.

It is true that existing US weapons were effective in Afghanistan. The unmanned Predator drone performed well, for example, as did many of the weapon systems that have been around for awhile.

The enemy’s lack of advanced air defenses made it possible for older aircraft to operate freely. Stealthy, radar-evading platforms were not required after the initial strikes. However, it must be regarded as exceptional that 50-year-old bombers and 30-year-old fighters got in that close. Anyone who believes they will “dominate the skies” of the future is severely deceived.

War is expensive. This one is costing $30 million a day. At the same time, the Pentagon is struggling to recover from a decade of under-funding, when we failed to replace aircraft and other capital equipment as it wore out.

Decision-makers of the 1990s thought they could divert defense resources to other priorities because they saw no threat to national security for another decade or two. The threat showed up sooner than expected.

Over the past 50 years, the nation has agonized about its involvement in various conflicts, from Vietnam to Kosovo. This war is different. We have no choice but to fight.

The United States has been singled out as a target by terrorist fanatics committed to bringing us down. The latest intelligence says they are preparing to strike again. Either we get them or they get us.

So far, many Americans have been inconvenienced, but few of us have been called upon for sacrifice. That is likely to change.

Fifty years ago, Americans were equal to the commitment required of them in wartime. Now history is about to take its measure of our own generation.