Gun Crazy

The Pentagon and the National Rifle Association have a lot in common these days. They’re in love with guns. They maintain powerful lobbies. They refuse to acknowledge the dangerous consequences of their policies.

And they’re both on the defensive.

After yet another gun massacre over the weekend in Tucson, the NRA in particular has a lot to answer for. The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), and the killing of six others, has again focused attention on how easy it is to buy guns and use them in this country.

The NRA has managed to survive attempted and successful assassinations of presidents, the horrifying school shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, and killing sprees in Omaha (2007), Binghamton (2009), and Appomattox (2010). So many rampages have taken place in shopping malls that trade groups held a conference a couple years ago on how to deal with them. So many workplace rampages have occurred – eight dead this summer at a Manchester, Connecticut warehouse – that the Labor Department has issued a fact sheet that cites, for instance, 421 workplace shooting deaths in 2008. Every year, nearly 100,000 Americans are shot and guns kill nearly 10,000 people, according to gun control advocates.

It’s practically a war. Yet gun control is still a dirty word for many Americans. Despite a spate of shootings over the last two decades, support for stricter gun laws has declined from 78 percent in 1990 to only 44 percent in 2010. To be sure, the NRA will dig in its heels this time around as well to make sure that “the guys with the guns make the rules,” as NRA head Wayne LaPierre phrased it in 2009.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, faces a similar public relations disaster. It’s fighting two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and failing to achieve the stated objectives. The Taliban still controls large sections of Afghanistan. Iraq is a mess. Drone attacks in Pakistan have simply disturbed the hornet’s nest.

It would be fitting if the president, Congress, and the American people demanded major cuts in military spending because of the Pentagon’s failed policies. Instead, the Pentagon currently faces the ax because of the overall budget deficit. However, either way the generals and majors are digging in their heels. Like the NRA, they won’t give up their guns without a fight.

President Obama recently ordered the Pentagon to cut $78 billion over the next five years. This comes on top of about $100 billion that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in an attempt to keep the shears at bay, identified as savings that could be reinvested in “boots on the ground.” The Pentagon is still doing all it can to prevent slipping down the slippery slope. For now, Gates won’t actually have to shrink his overall budget. According to the plan, the military budget will continue rising until 2015.

The Pentagon will be forced to give up some of its toys, such as an amphibious landing craft and a surface-launched missile system. But, believe it or not, military contractors are in relief mode for having dodged a bullet. In exchange for giving up a few token systems, the $100 billion of redirected savings will mean more money for other big-ticket items. Raytheon will receive funds to build missile defense systems in Europe; Northrop Grumman is looking at a new long-range strike bomber; Boeing will likely get more orders for launch vehicles. To ensure that the spigot remains open, Gates has been playing up the China threat even as he heads over to Beijing for talks with Chinese generals.

Like the NRA, the Pentagon refuses to connect the dots between policies and consequences. The United States is responsible for nearly half of all global military expenditures – and yet we’re bewildered at the lack of funds for dealing with climate change or global health issues (check out this video that compares the respective outlays). As the world’s number one arms peddler, responsible for fully one-third of the trade, Washington continues to push exports to Europe, India, Japan, and the developing world – and then we’re surprised at all the conflicts that continue to burn. Our foreign policy labors under the persistent delusion that war is the answer to the problems affecting a great swath of territory from the Horn of Africa through Central Asia – and then we’re aghast that our adversaries seize on violence in return.

Through it all, the Pentagon continues to claim that it’s in the business of “defense” and that demilitarization would make us all less safe. The NRA likewise argues that gun control would only take weapons away from people who need to defend themselves.

The blogosphere is currently aflame with debate over whether the Arizona shooter was a madman listening to voices in his head or a madman listening to the voices of the Tea Party. To a certain extent, this debate misses the point. There will always be crazy people who believe that somehow their violent actions are in defense of self, nation, or humanity. The real problem lies with the institutions that embrace such fictions and then, through repetition and money, transmute such madness into conventional wisdom.

The NRA and the Pentagon, with their unqualified support for Glock semiautomatics and Predator drones, are clinically psychotic: they’re detached from reality. That detachment is a mechanism that enables them to ignore the consequences of their craziness. It’s not “our” guns that kill people, say the Pentagon and the NRA, but “crazy” people (and terrorists) who kill people.

The very faint good news is that both the NRA and the Pentagon are digging in their heels because they realize they’re standing on slippery slopes. It’s our job to seize this moment – of tragedies at home and abroad – to push both organizations down their respective slopes. It’s really quite simple. We have to stop the guys with the guns from making their deranged rules – and fast.

The Next Forgotten War?

Google “Iraq” and “mess” and you get more than 8 million results, from left, right, and center of the political spectrum. In 2007, the National Intelligence Estimate conceded that “even if violence is diminished, given the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene, Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained reconciliation in the time frame of this Estimate.”

Politically, there’s been a reconciliation of sorts. But it’s not the kind that Washington applauds. Iraq now has a government, thanks to the support of Moqtada al-Sadr. The Shi’ite cleric led the resistance to U.S. forces in 2004 and continues to promise opposition to U.S. occupation.

Iraq’s economy, meanwhile, is in shambles. The infrastructure remains in ruins with only 20 percent of the population having access to sanitation, 45 percent to potable water, and 50 percent to 12 or more hours of electricity a day. Unemployment is high. The number of internally displaced people still hovers around 2.7 million, with a few million refugees living abroad.

The U.S. military has plowed truckloads of dollars into reconstruction, but with little tangible effect other than to encourage corruption. “Recently, even some U.S. commanders have begun voicing reservations,” writes Ernesto Londoño in a depressing Washington Post article, “saying there is little evidence that the millions pumped into the Iraqi economy during and after the U.S. troop surge in 2007 achieved the intended results. In a few cases, some commanders say, the money did more harm than good.”

And the levels of violence remain very high in the country. Consider just the killings of Iraqi academics. More than 500 have been targeted, and the number is growing. “The killing of academics did not follow any sectarian agenda since the murdered were Sunni and Shia,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst Adil Shamoo in Who Assassinated Iraqi Academics? “No one has taken responsibility for the killings, and no one has been arrested.” But given the WikiLeaks revelations about U.S. involvement in civilian killings in Iraq, Shamoo argues, Washington should support a full investigation of these murders in the academy.

With U.S. soldiers on their way out, the Iraq War is no longer in the headlines. Soon it will no longer be in our memories. The United States has a remarkable capacity to forget unsuccessful wars, like the “forgotten war” in Korea.

In 2009, performance artist Jeremy Deller dragged a bombed-out car from Iraq around the United States, along with a U.S. soldier and an Iraqi translator. They’ve now published a book, It Is What It Is, about the conversations and confrontations sparked by this experience. “In the shadow of the mangled car, a stark reminder of a conflict that for Iraqis remains very real, Deller offers ordinary Americans the chance to come to terms with a war they have increasingly struggled to forget,” writes FPIF contributor Peter Certo in his review.

Whither the Economy?

The one bright spot in the global economy, as the United States struggles with unemployment and Europe struggles to keep its head above water, has been Asia. With China in the lead, Asia has recovered lost ground more quickly after the global recession than other parts of the world.

FPIF columnist Walden Bello doesn’t see much to be enthusiastic about. Rather than decoupling from the transatlantic train wreck, China will soon revert to its traditional policies of pushing exports and keeping out imports. “The likely result of the competitive promotion of this volatile mix of export push and domestic protection by all three leading sectors of the global economy at a time of stagnant world trade will not be global expansion but global deflation,” writes Bello in Recovery Recedes, Convulsion Looms.

One sector of the U.S. economy that has been pushing exports with particular zeal has been the Farm Lobby. Indeed, agricultural producers have been pushing so hard that they’ve even broken the law. “For the past decade,” writes FPIF contributor Marc-William Palen in How the Farm Lobby Distorts U.S. Foreign Policy, “the Farm Lobby has ignored economic sanctions by using a Treasury Department legal loophole—a loophole the Farm Lobby helped craft—in order to trade with Iran and other countries listed as state sponsors of terror.”