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The deal between Republicans and Democrats for settling a debt ceiling increase has brought down a political storm about who won and who lost. Looked at through this Catholic lens, the basic – and perhaps the only — virtue in this political agreement is the drastic cut to the funding of the U.S. military.
General public disgust with the process should not divert attention from the compromise’s details, where two elements stand out. Negotiation is the key for bringing a reduction of $1.5 trillion dollars in future budgeting from commission with 12 members, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. If they agree on a plan that saves that much money by tax increases, closed loopholes, spending cuts or the like, then the Congress must vote after Thanksgiving in November, straight up-or-down, no amendments allowed. On the other hand, if the commission fails to deliver a plan, a “trigger” will automatically kick in. Half of the money will be taken automatically from the military budget and the other half from government spending – excluding only benefits of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
My bet is on commission disagreement and the necessary invocation of the trigger. As I read promises from the GOP never to tax millionaires and from Democrats not to give in on entitlements, I predict that the trigger will be set off this Christmas. The trigger will cut spending for those unemployed, for student college loans, for repair of roads and bridges, and construction projects that provide jobs. (Thankfully, because one Congress cannot oblige any future Congress in legislation, the 2012 election will likely rotate about a fundamental choice of whether or not to continue such cuts.) But although the same reversal of the trigger is theoretically possible about the defense budget, I suspect spending for war will be the loser.
Cutting U.S. war funding is a “Catholic” issue because a major cut of equal size to domestic spending will be taken from the bowels of what President Eisenhower called, “the military-industrial complex.” After all, a gaggle of “defense contractors” have acted all too often like “war profiteers:” overcharging taxpayers, under serving the GIs, and plumping up their own bank accounts. Catholic America should shed no tears to see cuts to Haliburton or the discredited private security forces like Blackwater.
The bloating of defense spending under President Reagan was supposed to end because many expected a “peace dividend” after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, that bloating reached unprecedented new heights under George W. Bush. The excess has grown so fat that cutting more than half a trillion dollars from the defense budget will not affect the capacity of the United States to defend itself. The principal effect instead will be to under cut U.S. forces on the land, sea and air that might be used to invade another country. As apparently been the case in rebellious Libya, bombs and unmanned drones will likely substitute for “boots on the ground” in future conflicts. As in Egypt, Tunis, Yemen and now Syria, rebellion will not be aided by the U.S. as “policeman of the world” but rather by diplomacy to allow people of a conflicted country to take responsibility for their own reforms.
No doubt, some political types will view this as a form of weakness. Such opinions, however, deny the lessons of history. You don’t have to read the book from Yale Professor Paul Kennedy to realize that the empires of Spain under Philip II, France under Louis XIV and Great Britain under Queen Victoria declined when they spent more money on foreign wars than on the needs of the people at home. Today, sane analysis shows that under the administration of President George W. Bush the United States wasted money it did not have in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have to change.
Even if the choice to disassemble its interventionist war machine is being forced on the U.S. because money is lacking for global adventurism, it may yet become a triumph for Catholic teaching against war and in favor of peace. At long last, the U.S. will be impelled to heed the scriptural admonition to turn “swords into plowshares” (Is. 2:4).