Irony and military spending

The challenge with reforming America’s armed services’ budget is managing a culture of dependence. Nearly 70 years after the beginning of the Cold War, what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” is more subtle and interwoven into the Northwest economy.

On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee underlined the regional hit from a reduction in forces, issuing a copy of his letter to the commander of the U.S. Army Environmental Command (compost that burger, soldier, or give me 20!) Inslee was responding to an environmental assessment, including the economic fallout of potentially losing 16,000 soldiers and civilian employees at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He rightly challenged the draft assessment’s finding of no significant impact.

“This isn’t a question about whether the Department of the Army and Department of Defense will make reductions, but about where and how much,” Inslee said in a statement. “JBLM is one of the largest military installations in the nation, so it’s likely we will see some reductions. But I want to make sure the (Environmental Command) has the right information and a full understanding of the mutual benefits of maintaining a strong JBLM presence and the significant impacts of removing 16,000 personnel off the base.”

Fifty years ago, no one could have imagined that Snohomish County’s second-largest employer would be a Navy base in Everett. From small businesses, to real estate, to service industries, the ripple effect is immense.

The acid test is how lawmakers harmonize the country’s broader national security interests with parochial realities. After DOD issued a new Defense Strategic Guidance Report in 2012 in anticipation of a leaner, post-Afghanistan/Iraq force structure, Washington state published its own report, “Retaining and Expanding Military Missions,” which (no surprise) aligned with the nation’s strategic goals, specifically the tilt toward Asia.

Self-interest notwithstanding, the state report wisely recommended preparing for potential base realignment and closure actions and creating a director of military affairs (Inslee established a “sector lead” for military and defense issues.) The governor also plans to revive the Washington Military Alliance, a coalition of base and military advocates.

The Cold War yielded benefits such as Title VI funding for international and foreign language studies as well science education. Yet billions of dollars were wasted. We live in a different era, with vastly different threats.

The U.S. won’t beat its swords into plowshares. With force reductions, even bending swords generates friction.