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Commentary: Paying Down Credit Card Wars

Photo of U.S. soldiers by AFP/Getty Images.

In the months I have been plying the international think tank beat for the PBS NewsHour, I have attended scores of conferences and talks, many of them informative and stimulating, especially when the speakers have recently visited or are citizens of the countries they are talking about. But, every once in a while, a session will drift off into Washington-speak and an encounter with unreality.

That happened most recently during a panel discussion on “The Changing Nature of Warfare” at an Atlantic Council conference built around the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends outlook for 2030. That specific subject was not in the report but still seemed worthy of a discussion for an audience largely composed of attendees from the military-intelligence-industry universe.

But by the end of the hour-plus session, I felt as if I had just been visiting the Kelleys of Tampa, Florida, (yes, those Kelleys who achieved momentary celebrity as secondary players in the Petraeus affair) while they were planning one of their elegant soirees for some of the country’s top generals and admirals and Tampa society even as their million-dollar mansion was going into foreclosure and their credit card debt soaring well into six figures.

As the discussion unfolded between Thomas Enders, president of the European defense firm EADS, and former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, there was talk of cyber warfare, “a multiplicity of actors,” “stand-off weapons” and robotics, the strength of NATO and eventually of “resource constraints.”

Ah, the Washington euphemism for: we are running out of money.

Which led to my question: how is the United States going to pay for a future war? The last imperial venture of the British, at Suez in 1956, came to an abrupt close when Dwight D. Eisenhower, president of what was then the world’s leading creditor nation, threatened to cut off loans to a country already heavily indebted by two world wars. And if the U.S., now among the world’s leading debtor nations, is forced by its treaty commitments to help Japan in a conflict with China over the disputed islands, will China loan the U.S. more money to fight a war against China? As implausible as that may sound, it is a scenario being discussed by serious people at the growing spate of think tank sessions devoted to the increasingly tense China-Japan dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyou islands.

Flournoy acknowledged it was a mistake for the U.S. to wage its last two wars while cutting taxes and said any future war should be fought on a pay-as-you-go basis. As for China, she said the global financial system was so deeply intertwined that it would be doubtful if China would take any measure that would break it. Understandably, the former undersecretary who is on the rumor list to replace Leon Panetta in the top Pentagon job, would be loath in a public forum to draw out a worst-case scenario with China.

But I kept thinking of Jill Kelley, aspiring Tampa socialite and her surgeon husband Scott. Their parties were the most lavish, matching the guest lists that included David Petraeus. And the Champagne kept flowing. People who build lives and businesses on easy credit are incurable optimists and rarely foresee a coming credit crunch.

So like the Kelleys, the U.S., land of eternal optimists, will plow on with its defense planning, on equipment ever more sophisticated and costly, on attracting and retaining a better educated and trained volunteer force to use the new equipment and on ever more complex scenarios for future conflict.

The Kelleys put their party bills on their credit cards, just as the U.S. has done with its last two wars.

Which still leaves unanswered the question, if or when there is a next war, how are we going to pay for it?

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, will be watching wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he’ll write dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.

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