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Catherine Lutz: Obama cuts to military are minor and do not change doctrine of overwhelming military superiority

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

According to the American Defense Department, the mission of the American military is something they call “full spectrum superiority”. Some people call [it] “full spectrum dominance”. Here’s how the military defines that term: the cumulative effect of dominance in the air, land, maritime, and space domains, and information environment, that permits the conduct of joint operations without effective opposition or prohibitive interference. On January 5, President Obama announced some cuts to the American military budget. But do those cuts question this underlying assumption of full spectrum dominance? How meaningful are these cuts?

Now joining us to talk about all of this is Catherine Lutz. Catherine is an anthropologist who is currently the chair of anthropology at Brown University. She’s also a director of the Watson Institute’s Cost of War study. Her recent book is The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle against U.S. Military Posts. Thanks for joining us, Catherine.


JAY: So before we dig into the numbers, let’s just look at the big picture. Do these cuts in any way take away from this mission of being able to fight at least two wars at the same time, and more importantly this idea of overwhelming military global superiority?

LUTZ: No, the big picture hasn’t changed strategically. They’re still—the Pentagon and the Obama administration are still trying to position the U.S. military as the force which can do it all and be everywhere 24-7 to try and monitor and manage or control events. And so I think that hasn’t changed. The budget itself has some decrease that’s going to occur, but this is quite small. When you control for inflation, it will be on the order of 4 percent over the next five years in comparison with last five. And this is the estimate of Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives.

JAY: Now, you’ve done a lot of work on the issue of bases, and that’s certainly one of the major pieces of this full-spectrum superiority strategy. Is this—how is this going to affect basing in terms of overall cost, but also in terms of where the bases are going to be? And does—again, does this in any way change the basic strategy?

LUTZ: No, the basic strategy remains to have U.S. service members and equipment out and around many places around the world. And there’s going to be a slight reconfiguring, where the bases in Europe are going to be drawn down, and bases in Asia, the Asia Pacific region, are going to be built up. And that’s really, you know, again, a part of this World War II / post-World War II strategy of, again, keeping, at this point, about 1,000 military bases open and running around the world.

JAY: And in terms of the strategy, what is the objective of so many bases? I mean, one of the things we’ve seen is how you can say ineffective all of this is when an actual struggle breaks out. For example, if one of the objectives of these bases is to defend regimes, friendly regimes, it’s not much you can do when a population decides they want a regime gone. On the other hand, if you do want to change a regime, you’re going to have to have troops on the ground the way they did in Iraq, and apparently some of these cuts is to move away from the Army more to Navy and Air Force. How do they rationalize all this?

LUTZ: Well, I think one of the problems here is that we have grown so used to thinking of the world’s problems in military terms that we can’t imagine any other way to accomplish a set of national and global goods or aims. So—and it’s kind of like the old saw about the hammer and a nail: if all you buy for yourself are hammers, everything looks like a nail. So we’ve been buying military equipment, military—setting up military bases, and hoping that this is the route to security. But, of course, as we saw over the last ten years, a massive investment in military might and, again, drawing on all this basing structure from around the Middle East and Europe to do the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we still did not accomplish what was—the aim was. And there, too, again, even the CIA had estimated that the war in Iraq made Americans less secure in—again, in security terms, in physical military terms. But certainly a lot of Americans feel that there is, again, another kind of security that the government should be providing in the form of safe food and employment, unemployment benefits, and so on. So that’s where the trade-offs have obviously been made in great degree.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, I guess the critics of the social safety net don’t mind the stimulus if the stimulus is coming through the military. They don’t like it on the other side. But if you go back to what they hope to accomplish, I guess their argument—”their” being those people including the leadership of the Democratic Party, and certainly the leadership of the Republican Party (not the Ron Paul wing of it, but the leadership)—their argument will be: if America doesn’t project this power around the world, then regimes which they consider, quote-unquote, “democratic” would be subject to pressure from other powers (and I guess the unspoken word these days is China—or maybe it is now being more spoken), that without this projection of American military power, these regimes won’t last. Is there any evidence that’s true? And is that still their thinking?

LUTZ: I think, you know, the idea that American military power is something that shapes the political world of states and that—you know, really, where is the evidence of that? If it were the case, then we would be asking ourselves right—we wouldn’t be talking about Iran right now, we wouldn’t be talking about North Korea. The U.S. has massed for decades military force south of the border in South Korea, and yet you have, again, the North Korean situation the way it is. So I think we really don’t have a lot of evidence that the projection of power, the image of power is as effective as lots of other methods of achieving things like nonproliferation and regime changes, which we’ve seen happen across the Middle East in nonmilitary grassroots ways.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, I know the neocons try to say or look at Iraq as a sort of success story, but certainly they didn’t achieve any of the real objectives they wanted in Iraq, and if anything they’ve created more space for Iran, not only in Iraq but in the entire region. But they don’t—President Obama talked that way during the 2008 election campaign. But since he’s been elected, do you see anything in Obama policy that questions any of the underlying assumptions of any of the previous administrations?

LUTZ: No, absolutely not. And that’s a great question, because when you look back at the last ten years, it’s really been a tragedy of the highest magnitude: over 250,000 people killed directly by the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and probably orders of magnitude larger than that if you have—if we were able to really get the body count and the indirect deaths of the war. And the Costs of War project team estimates over $4 trillion cost for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And what they accomplished, again, are two regimes which are quite autocratic, lots of human rights abuses, down in the bottom half or bottom fifth of all of the world’s countries in terms of democratic freedoms.

So, again, these claims haven’t been evaluated, haven’t been questioned by the administration for what these wars supposedly accomplished. We know that it has really done a number on the American reputation around the world, and as well as on our—again, our finances and on the lives and well-being of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

JAY: With the Republican campaign on for the nomination for the Republican Party for president, what do you make of the different candidates in terms of this context of do we see anything different in terms of policy on these issues of militarization and these costs?

LUTZ: No. Unfortunately, I think this is—there’s often been a race to the bottom among politicians around these questions of who is the most willing to rattle sabers and spend money for the Pentagon. For example, over the last ten years, if you look at the base budget of the Pentagon, it grew by leaps and bounds. And, again, this is not including the war spending. So the Congress has not really—neither of the parties has really distinguished itself as able to question some of this sort of standard way of thinking about what makes for human security.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, however, has a sustainable defense task force that came up with an estimated, an approximate 25 percent set of cuts in the military budget. And this would bring it back to a level that was—it was at at, again, various points through the last—through the Cold War.

But these—the Obama cuts and the complaints on the part of the Republicans that these cuts are draconian is really quite ludicrous when you look at the numbers. Four percent decline in the Pentagon budget will occur over the next five years. But if you look back to 2001, that budget was almost half of what it is today. So that gargantuan growth has not been peeled back at all, and so we have to ask ourselves about those numbers.

JAY: What do you make of Ron Paul, who’s—of all these national voices on the political scene right now, you’d have to say is coming out. I mean, he’s in favor of closing all the foreign military bases, he’s for massive cuts in the budget, he wants—he talks openly about the issue of empire, and getting significant support in the Republican Party, you know, in the primaries. It’s very interesting.

LUTZ: No, absolutely. The difference between the people and the politicians on these issues is really striking, and Ron Paul taps into a lot of popular discontent with the size of the Pentagon budget and with all of the foreign military adventures. So, I think, you know, he’s obviously articulating something that is quite unusual on the political spectrum, and he gets, obviously, not—he doesn’t get a lot of respect from others in the media or elsewhere, I think, for those positions. But they’re ones that are, again, more in sync with the way the rest of the world, as well as some Americans think the American military ought to be postured, which is more domestic and much smaller.

JAY: When President Obama was elected, people had some hopes that there’d be some change in his approach on the issue of military and foreign policy, although I’m not sure why people did, because when he campaigned, he was often asked about his foreign policy views, and he said his foreign-policy roots are in Truman, and he went on to name all the various presidents he agreed with, and it included Reagan and George Bush senior. So he was actually pretty open that he was not going to depart from the basic strategy of full spectrum dominance, if you will. But that’s—that doesn’t get talked about very much, how deeply rooted this is in the Democratic Party, the idea that projecting U.S. power is somehow linked to democracy, in their mind, and how deeply that belief is held in the Democratic Party—it’s not just hawks in the Republicans. Have you worked on that at all?

LUTZ: Well, yeah, I’m very interested to follow the way in which people talk about the military and talk about the wars. As an anthropologist, I’m interested in cultural ideas that circulate and things that get taken for normal, things that go without saying, and this is the kind of thing that does go without saying, that American military force is a benevolent force the world, that it has been on the side of right and justice. And, you know, it doesn’t—that doesn’t mesh well with some of our history. And I think that’s—it’s really important to keep returning to this question of what is the history of the use of force globally and in the United States, and to question some of these kind of [incompr.] some of the myths about what the military’s out there doing.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Catherine.

LUTZ: Sure. Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Catherine Lutz is an anthropologist who is currently the Chair of Anthropology and International Studies at Brown University. She is also a director of the Watson Institute's Costs of War study. Her most recent book includes, "The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle against U.S. Military Posts."