Separating illusory threats from those that are real

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There are few spectacles in nature as beautiful as that of a herd of pronghorn antelope in full flight. Here’s an account of a day spent with pronghorns by Arthur Einarsen, a wildlife biologist who studied Oregon pronghorns 60 years ago.

“On August 14, 1936, I was with a group that paced many pronghorns (while driving a car) on the dried bed of Spanish Lake in Lake County, Oregon … five, led by a magnificent buck, ran parallel to us. As they closed in from the right, the buck took a lead of about fifty feet and Myers increased speed to keep even with the animal. The buck was now about 20 feet away and kept abreast of the car at 50 miles per hour. He gradually increased his gait, and with a tremendous burst of speed flattened out so that he appeared as lean and low as a greyhound. He had gained enough to cross our course as the speedometer registered 61 mph … when he reached a rounded knoll about 600 feet away, he stood snorting in graceful silhouette against the sky as though enjoying the satisfaction of beating us in a fair race.”

Pronghorns can reach 60 mph, and sustain such a pace for several minutes. They can run for prolonged periods at 30 mph. They’re the fastest land animal in North America, and perhaps in the world. No North American predator can threaten the pronghorn, other than man. So what are they running from?

They’re an ancient species which roamed the lush plains of Pleistocene Colorado. The mammoths, mastodons, camels, prehistoric horses, and ground sloths which once grazed beside the pronghorn have disappeared, as have their predators.

The dire wolves, saber-toothed tigers and cheetahs of 30,000 years ago are long gone, but the pronghorns are still running — running from ghosts.

Are we, like the pronghorns, running from ghosts? Is much of our vast military and military intelligence establishment focused on illusory threats, or upon threats that have long since disappeared? More to the point, will American politicians ever find the courage to exorcise the ghosts?

“As much as the U.S. Navy has shrunk since the end of the Cold War,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last year, “in terms of tonnage, its battle fleet is still larger than the next 13 navies combined — and 11 of those 13 navies are U.S. allies or partners.”

Although we only spend a little more than 4 percent of GDP on direct defense expenditures (compared to 37.8 percent at height of World War II), that’s still 23 percent of the federal budget, the largest single category. Social Security is next at 20 percent, followed by Medicare at 19 percent. Of the remaining 38 percent, other mandatory spending (e.g., military retirement) and interest on the national debt consume 22 percent, TARP 4 percent, and 12 percent goes to everything else.

With an aging population, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will take ever-larger bites out of the budget. Meanwhile, interest costs on the national debt may soar, and reduce even further the “wiggle room” in the budget. Something will have to give — and forced to choose between higher taxes and fewer services, or a scaled-down military — what do you think we’ll do?

In America, policy is driven not by a moderate consensus, but by the gradual infiltration of ideas from academicians, economists, and political theorists.

Usually, it’s a process driven by one side or the other — think of the gradual ascension of conservative supply-side economics and deregulation in the decades between 1960 and 1980.

But today theorists of both left and right are calling for a different strategic posture. Both Rep. Barney Frank and Dr. Ron Paul have called for drastic cuts in the military budget, and an end to global military interventionism.

The questions they pose are simple. Why do we have 60,000 troops stationed in Germany? Why do we persist with the interminable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why do we spend billions on complex weapons systems designed to counter threats that have long disappeared? Are we creating a world-wide Pax Americana, or making a world that is more chaotic, more dangerous and less secure?

These are scarcely new ideas, but it may be that their time has come. The great predators that once seemed to menace us — the Soviet Union, Red China, Japan and Germany — have vanished, replaced with ankle-biters such as Iran and North Korea.

Today’s “axis of evil” may be unemployment, underinvestment and declining productivity. Our principal economic rivals (China, Russia, Japan and Germany) advance their power through trade, investment and diplomacy, leaving us as the world’s unloved and unpaid policeman.

A good friend who spent 30 years with the LAPD neatly summarized our dilemma.

“Sometimes,” he said, “even the toughest cop has to retire.”

John Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 719-227-5861. Watch him at 7:45 a.m. every Tuesday and Friday on Channel 3, Fox Morning News.

One Response to Separating illusory threats from those that are real

  1. John, You bring up a lot of points worthy of a good discussion over coffee sometime. I do get a little concerned when there is a perception that thousand pound gorillas such as the Soviets and Red China have vanished. Those military capabiilities still exist (and in the case of China, getting stronger) and the militaries of both Russia and China are designed for one strategic purpose: to defeat the U.S. While Iran and N Korea may seem like ankle-biters, one is nuclear-equipped, the other is moving towards it, and both are developing long range delivery capabilities. If one of these ankle biters decides to lob a nuke at us what do you suppose our response should be, given that both are supported (somewhat) by the big guys? When we discuss tonnage of our navy, it’s inportant to note that since the end of the cold war, the navy has picked up additional missions – missile defense being but one of them. Those vast oceans on either coast were long thought to be our security blanket but 9/11 changed that. There is now a greater sense of urgency in idenifying those who enter our waters. And ten years ago, who would have thought our navy would be protecting shipping from Somali pirates? We still live in a dangerous world and are subject to events beyond our control. For instance, play out a scenario where the Taiwan Prime Minister wakes up one morning and thinks “this is a good day to start our drive for independence from the mainland”.

    I can tell you that there are a lot of good, smart people working to identify tomorrow’s threats and provide deterrence and/or countermeasures to those threats. Many of those people live and work right here in Colorado Springs, and much of the transfomation of our military capabilities is being planned and executed on our local installations. Stay tuned!

    Buddy Gilmore
    August 6, 2010 at 9:27 am