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Thursday, March 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

The real threat to U.S. security

Special to The Times

The greatest risk to our society today is not Islamo-fascist terrorism, but the people who use that term to scare us. As the human, fiscal and ecological damage caused by our nation's economic priorities grows, it's becoming clear that we're addicted to more than oil — we're addicted to military spending, too.

The United States spends as much on its military as the rest of humanity combined: more than $400 billion annually (not including the hundreds of billions of dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). These military expenses are "off limits" as we sharpen our collective pencils to find $39 billion to cut from domestic programs. And yet, despite our already huge military expenditures, these days it's hard to get elected without promising even more military spending.

Recently, San Francisco Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval appeared on the Fox News program "Hannity & Colmes." Frustrated by our government's budget priorities, Sandoval suggested America would be better off without a military. Instead, he said, "we should invest our money in our kids." Right-wing pundits pounced on these statements, and even many prominent Democrats distanced themselves from Sandoval.

Should we abolish the American military altogether? Of course not. But daydream with me for just a moment: What if we gradually scaled down military spending, chose not to rush off to foreign wars based on questionable motives, and began to take the name of our "Department of Defense" literally?

Let's be honest: Is there anyone out there who would actually want to — or, more importantly, be able to — invade the United States? Consider today's biggest perceived threat, al-Qaida. Do Osama bin Laden and his gang want to ride into Washington, D.C., take over our government, and turn us into an Islamo-fascist nation? Or — as his recent offer of a "truce" suggests — do they instead want dignity for the Palestinians, Christian armies out of sacred Muslim territory, and freedom for the Arab world to control its own natural resources?

"We do not negotiate with terrorists," our administration gravely informs us. But forcing our interests on the ever-more-volatile Middle East doesn't seem to be helping much, either. Isn't it ironic that this planet's most overtly "Christian" nation is feverishly pounding plowshares into swords?

So let's try something different. Imagine if we required our military to manage with a budget no bigger than all the militaries of our hemisphere combined: That's Canada — $15 billion; Mexico — $6 billion; everyone from there to Tierra del Fuego — about $16 billion. Round the total up to $40 billion. Add to that a healthy sum to support the United Nations and our allies in their peacekeeping work (say $60 billion a year). Grand total: $100 billion.

That saves more than $300 billion a year ($400 billion less $100 billion), which we could use to tackle not "Islamo-fascism," but more-fundamental concerns: dependence on oil, both foreign and domestic; a skyrocketing debt that allows other nations (such as China and Saudi Arabia) to gain economic and political leverage over our homeland; progressively violent weather and a rising sea caused by global warming; and a lower class that's chronically in need of affordable housing, good education and reliable health care. We could even let the wealthy keep their tax cuts.

And what if we decided that, rather than being outvoted routinely in the U.N. 140-4 on Cuba, Israel, torture, the international court, and issues of desperate importance to the developing world (such as global warming, land mines, debt relief and AIDS), we believed it was good for our "homeland security" interests to be supported by the U.N. 140-4? Instead of being at odds with the rest of the world, we could join the family of nations in dealing with the pressing problems that confront us all.

I have many friends in Europe named "Frankie" or "Johnny" who were born in the late 1940s. Every time I see them, I'm reminded that there was a time when our allies in Europe gave their children Yankee names in gratitude for what America meant to them. This can happen once again across the world: America can become a superpower in a positive sense — so appreciated that other nations would fund their militaries to protect us.

The prospect of al-Qaida attacks is frightening. But America is being held hostage not by a man in a cave, but by clever people with a different agenda. They use Osama bin Laden to scare us — even terrorize us — into funding an agenda that's weakening our country.

It's time for patriots to stand up to fear-mongering and broaden our definition of "sanctity of life" and "homeland security." It's time for some courage and eloquence on the left. And it's time for our electorate to wake up and see the real threats to our for-the-time-being-still-great nation. If we rose to this challenge, I think we could report that "the state of our union is strong" — and it would be true.

Edmonds-based travel writer Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) produces and hosts the public-television series "Rick Steves' Europe" and the public-radio show "Travel with Rick Steves."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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