Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

America Undefended
The Waste of Intervening in Kosovo

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, February 23, 1999 --  

Now that United States forces are descending upon Kosovo, the U.S. government has once again committed its military to referee an obscure ethnic feud in an isolated corner of the world. This is just the latest episode in a steady decay of focus following the end of the cold war. Ever since President Bush deployed marines in a futile attempt to calm tribal fighting Somalia, the purpose of the U.S. Defense Department has been murky at best.

It shouldn't be. By its very name, you might expect the Defense Department to actually do something that might help in the defense of the United States. Amazingly, that is far down on the department's agenda. Since the first term of the Clinton administration, the Pentagon has focussed its budget and strategy on fighting two simultaneous regional wars (both far from U.S. soil) and providing peacekeeping support to prop up various failing nation states. A third purpose, mostly forced by Congress on Pentagon leaders, is the maintenance of unneeded military bases and weapons contracts. Millions of Americans remain under arms in a standing army that faces no conceivable threat of invasion on U.S. territory. Millions more work for defense contractors, making weapons and supporting bases that everybody knows will never be used. This pork spending provides obsolete jobs for congressmen's districts while fattening up their campaign coffers.

Meanwhile, thousands of operational nuclear warheads--still aimed at U.S. cities--rust in dilapidated bases in Russia. The frustrated soldiers guarding them live in abysmal conditions and receive pay that is at times nonexistent. These impoverished, desperate men are all that stands between Americans and the countless terrorists who would undoubtedly offer millions of dollars for each of these weapons.

On the periphery of the continent, nuclear weapons research forges ahead by such anti-American states as Iran and North Korea. As hundreds of billions of defense dollars are wasted, every person in the United States is in danger of a horrific death from a rogue nuclear launch. Given the volatility of America's potential nuclear adversaries, this is a truly frightening risk.

This is exactly the threat that led the Clinton administration to propose amending the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia and spending $10.5 billion over the next six years to develop a limited missile defense.1 After witnessing a nearly successful launch of a North Korean intercontinental missile last year, it seems the government may be wising up about the very real threat from overseas enemies.

Maybe, but not likely. The $10 billion outlined by Defense Secretary William Cohen is just a drop in the bucket of the Defense Department's $1600 billion budget for the same period.2 Given Cohen's acknowledgement of a serious threat to Americans, how can he possibly justify spending over 99 percent of the defense budget on projects that are completely unrelated to the urgent need to defend American citizens? What could possibly justify maintaining a policy that places all Americans at risk while offering no obvious enhancements to their security?

Defenders of the administration's policy are quick to play the isolationist card. They contrast America's intervention in Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, and Iraq with the West's failure to do so in Czechoslovakia before World War II. They claim that failure to intervene early on in Kosovo could lead to a terrible regional war involving neighboring Greece and Turkey--a war that would tear apart the NATO alliance. They claim that anyone who opposes this interventionist policy must be an isolationist who risks making the same mistakes as during the inter-war era.

These arguments vastly overstate the importance of Greece and Turkey to the NATO alliance. What's more, they overplay the importance of NATO itself--an alliance that has clearly outlived its principle use to American citizens. Reluctance to intervene in a family quarrel is not the mark of an isolationist. It is the mark of a man with good, common sense.

Aside from these obvious reasons to keep U.S. forces out of Kosovo, there is a more important issue: it isn't free. Are the billions of defense dollars that will undoubtedly be spent intervening Kosovo really worth it? Is this a better way to defend the citizens of the United States--citizens who are in terrifying danger of nuclear attack--than putting up a limited missile shield?

The answer, unquestionably, is no. Even with all the unknowns. Even with the likely risk of technical failure of an anti-missile system. Even though America would remain completely vulnerable to a warhead on a barge entering New York harbor. Even with all these risks and shortcomings, proposals to shield Americans from enemy missiles are a far more appropriate use of defense dollars than anything else in the budget. Opponents with leftover grudges from President Reagan's Star Wars program must put these prejudices aside. The potential consequences of not doing so are too great.

A return from Kosovo to build a missile defense is just a first step. Just as important is to create a coherent U.S. foreign aid plan to stabilize the security of Russia's remaining nuclear arsenal. From there, it is an uphill battle to secure America's borders from the clandestine smuggling of nuclear devices. Then--and only then--will the use of defense dollars in Kosovo come close to being in the interests of American citizens.

Related Web Column:
Brewpubs and Atom Bombs
Pick the Real Threat to American Security, February 24, 1998
  1. The New York Times, Missile Defense: Rethinking a Treaty for a New Kind of Enemy, January 24, 1999
  2. Office of Management and Budget, Historical Tables, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2000