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Empire Watch

A Meat-Axe to Grind

Leon Panetta
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

American military might is so great, and it has been expanding for so long, that orders of magnitude often obscures those of necessity in discussions of U.S. national security policy.

Take The Economist, that weekly ministration of sober-mindedness. In an article this week, it took up the question in Washington of “sequestration,” a legislative procedure under which some $1.2 trillion in budget reductions would unilaterally kick in by January if lawmakers are unable negotiate deeper targets on their own. Such draconian cuts would almost certainly send the U.S. economy into a second recession, though The Economist piece focuses specifically on sequestration’s impact on the Defense Department.

“The Pentagon,” according to the article, has become a “hostage in the war over the deficit.” Defense secretary Leon Panetta “has called sequestration a ‘meat-axe’ while the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff … says that the cuts will be catastrophic, leaving the armed forces ‘hollowed-out.’” Weapons producers, it reports, are bracing themselves for the prospect that billions of Defense Department contracts may have to be renegotiated if sequestration is carried out. In a bi-partisan effort to “concentrate minds,” Senators John McCain and Patti Murray are mounting a bipartisan bid to save the Defense Department by appealing to the Office of Management and Budget and the White House to produce details of sequestration’s impact.

Whew. Readers could be forgiven for thinking American’s national security was at stake.

It is true the Pentagon is facing the prospect of real budget cuts for the first time in a decade. Should Congress pull the sequestration trigger, the Pentagon would have to find another $55 billion in spending cuts each hear for the next nine years, in addition to already-committed cuts of $487 billion over ten years. But a sense of proportion is needed. For one thing, the Defense budget, at nearly $700 billion, has more than doubled since Washington declared perpetual war in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is high time to slow defense-spending growth while parsing outlays for extravagant waste and corruption. Each year, the Defense Department acknowledges it cannot account for billions of dollars in outlays. It duly receives plaintive appeals from Congress for tighter reporting standards and then ignores them.

The militarists howling for the Pentagon’s exemption from sequestration’s fury may be forgiven if, say, the Warsaw Pact was reactivating itself. In fact, China’s regional ambitions notwithstanding, America faces no existential threat and its global military hegemony will go unchallenged for generations.

Rather than lamenting the apparent end of untrammeled growth in U.S. defense spending, heralds like The Economist should welcome this long-overdue, if roughly imposed, occasion of restraint.

Meanwhile in Egypt…

In a recent story in the International Herald Tribune, I wrote of a long-running property dispute between itinerate Egyptian farmers and the country’s established landlords. In the course of the reporting I was able to interview many small-scale farmers who spoke on the record about how they were forcibly evicted from their plots, in particular parcels of land in Fayoum district claimed by the Wally family, the patriarch of which, Youssef Wally, is a former minister of Egypt’s agriculture ministry.

An Egyptian farmer collecting the cotton harvest

Regrettably, despite many attempts, I was unable to reach Wally or his lawyer for comment. Since the story was published, however, I have been in contact with a Wally family spokesman who in an email account says that the family claim to the disputed land is guaranteed through legal documents that date back to the 1930s. No farmers were forced from their land, he said, which tenants worked peaceably until the revolution last year that deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak.

“What is happening in Fayoum is happening everywhere in the country in an unfair, illegal uprising,” the spokesman wrote. As agriculture minister, “Wally set policies that improved land management, introduced new technologies and enhanced production. An evaluation of his performance should come out of professional reports, not from word-of-mouth by others who may simply dislike him.”

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Stephen Glain
Stephen Glain is a freelance journalist and author based in Paris. For two decades, as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, he covered Asia, the Middle East and the policy sausage factories of Washington, D.C. He is the author of two books: Mullahs, Merchants, and Militants: The Economic Collapse of the Arab World (St. Martin’s Press, 2004) and State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire (Crown Books, 2011).

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