The peace dividend: The flip side of getting America on the right track

There's been a lot of talk here recently about income inequality, and with good reason. Without a solid and healthy middle class, America is sapped of its strength. That's why things like a minimum wage, fixing the nation's infrastructure, and a sensible energy strategy focused on increasing renewable fuels are so important. But there's a flip side of the equation that can help make these things happen: Right-sizing the American military -- and the footprint of American militarism around the world.

Here, there are hopeful signs of progress:

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup and eliminate an entire class of Air Force attack jets in a new spending proposal that officials describe as the first Pentagon budget to aggressively push the military off the war footing adopted after the terror attacks of 2001.

The proposal, released on Monday, takes into account the fiscal reality of government austerity and the political reality of a president who pledged to end two costly and exhausting land wars. A result, the officials argue, will be a military capable of defeating any adversary, but too small for protracted foreign occupations.

Not surprisingly, not all of the military-industrial complex is on board:

For example, some members of Congress, given advance notice of plans to retire air wings, have vowed legislative action to block the move, and the National Guard Association, an advocacy group for those part-time military personnel, is circulating talking points urging Congress to reject anticipated cuts. State governors are certain to weigh in, as well. And defense-industry officials and members of Congress in those port communities can be expected to oppose any initiatives to slow Navy shipbuilding.

Even so, officials said that despite budget reductions, the military would have the money to remain the most capable in the world and that Mr. Hagel’s proposals have the endorsement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Money saved by reducing the number of personnel, they said, would assure that those remaining in uniform would be well trained and supplied with the best weaponry.

That last part, of course, is logic, and Americans in modern times have never been too sensible when it comes to the military. As recently as 2011, the U.S. was spending as much on defense as the next 13 nations in the world combined. Could anyone give me the argument why that's not maybe a tad excessive? Do you think we'd still be safe if we only spent as much as, say, the next 9 nations?

Part of this is simply finishing the job that President Obama promised to do when he was elected: Ending the wars in Iraq and eventually in Afghanistan. He's still not quite there yet -- but if he can actually create the elusive "peace dividend" that Americans were prematurely promised a generation ago, that will be a crowning achievement for his second term, much as it was with Ronald Reagan and reducing nuclear tensions in the late 1980s.

It wasn't that long ago that a world superpower collapsed by spending too much on its military and moving too slowly on its broken economy -- there's no reason why we have to follow their example.