Crumbling Infrastructure a National Security Concern, Experts Say

By Matthew Harwood

The Northeast Blackout of 2003; the breached levees of New Orleans in 2005; and the Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse of 2007 are all perilous signals that U.S. infrastructure is crumbling and jeopardizing our national security, a prominent homeland security expert warned Thursday.

Yet despite these warning signs, Americans don’t want to invest in its maintenance, let alone spend money to upgrade it, said Dr. Stephen Flynn, the new president of the Center for National Policy (CNP), a bipartisan national security think tank that hosted the discussion about U.S. crumbling infrastructure.

“We are a generation that is arguably like grandkids who have inherited a mansion and most of us decide we’re not going to do the upkeep,” he said. “People drive by and say ‘nice house,’ but the plumbing’s gone to hell, the wiring’s shot.”

Flynn was joined by writer James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, whose January cover article for the magazine explores how to keep the United States the envy of the world after the financial crisis. National Public Radio’s national security correspondent Tom Gjelten moderated the event.

The discussion was made timelier by the devastation wrought by a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti on Tuesday, a society whose infrastructure is “broken,” according to Flynn. While no one tried to compare U.S. infrastructure to Haiti’s, the message was clear: no part of America ever wants to approximate that level of helplessness if disaster strikes.

The discussion centered around how to convince the American public, representatives in Congress, and the national security community that investing and upgrading our infrastructure is not only good national security policy, it’s also good economic and social policy.

But there's a prevailing pessimism infrastructure advocates must overcome if the argument is going to gain traction with the American public, Flynn said. 

The first perception is that United States cannot afford it. Second, Americans do not believe in the political process to complete massive projects. Rather they note “bridges to nowhere,” emblematic of Congress' corruption. Finally, Flynn said, Americans no longer have the faith in themselves to build an infrastructure necessary for 21st century America to retain its economic power.

And even if proponents can get over those hurdles, they still have to sell why the U.S. should spend scarce resources on infrastructure and not other things. Fortunately there’s a national security argument from the past for infrastructure advocates, said Flynn. 

During the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former general explained to the American public that the country needed to build the interstate highway system, which he called the "National Defense Highway System," to move resources quickly around the country and possibly evacuate cities if the Cold War ever turned hot.

Fallows similarly argued that the only way to gain the American public’s attention is to evoke national security and emergency.

“We have tremendous rebound capacity, but in terms of directing public attention, we seem to have only the military as a legitimate vehicle,” he said, adding “We seem to need an electric cattle prod of an emergency to do things and that’s a cause for worry.”

But that’s a tricky proposition, both Flynn and Fallows observed, noting the hysteria following the botched terrorist attack on Christmas Day. Politicians and government can’t overreact, Flynn explains, because that’s what the terrorists hope to achieve.

“If we say that the unofficial doctrine of this country is we will overreact every time something goes wrong, you’re actually motivating our adversaries to say ‘Let’s keep trying,’” he said.

And because the United States is the world’s dominant military power, the only real way for enemies to attack the country is through its infrastructure, including cyberspace, making infrastructure resilience critical. “If [an attack] does happen, and very little of consequence happens, we get a national security benefit,” Flynn argued. “There’s a deterrent value to investing in this.”

But if on the other hand adversaries can repeatedly attack a brittle critical infrastructure, Americans will lose faith in the everyday services and networks that are the source of U.S. prosperity and see them as a weaknesses.

Fallows agreed, adding that the antiterrorism cure is usually worse than the disease.

“To oversimplify this, it’s not the bombers that are destroying the U.S. aviation industry, it’s the TSA,” he said, using the Transportation Security Administration as symbolic of the U.S. government's approach to antiterrorism.

Flynn also argued that proponents of building new critical infrastructure have to emphasize that it’s an investment into the U.S.’s future and not a cost, while focusing in on its immediate and long-term benefits.

Infrastructure spending would generate jobs, boost U.S. productivity and competitiveness, and improve the average citizen’s quality of life. “There’s really no down-side to making the investment,” he said. And in the long term, the United States would be able to export its knowledge creating a hybrid infrastructure that’s efficient and environmentally sustainable to the rest of the world.

China, the U.S.’s main foreseeable rival in the future, understands this, said Fallows, who just returned to the United States after living in China for three years. Day by day China builds new highways, subways, and other modern infrastructures, he said.

Infrastructure investment, however, is expensive. The American Society of Civil Engineers in 2009 released a report card grading U.S. infrastructure. It’s average grade: D. The organization advocates spending $2.2 trillion dollars over the next five years to repair U.S. infrastructure and get it into “good condition.”

But Flynn says we have the wealth and civil engineering expertise to meet such investment needs, considering what the U.S. spends waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously rebuilding each society's infrastructure.

"Every single day since March 2003, [ the U.S. spends] on average $330 million dollars a day on supporting our military in Iraq and now in Afghanistan," he said. "The total amount of investment we've spent on security related to the Port of Los Angeles since 9-11: $200 million."

♦ From left to right: Dr. Stephen Flynn, Tom Gjelten, and James Fallows; Photo by Wills Bretz, Center for National Policy

♦Photo from top of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback surveying the damage of the I-35W bridge collapse by Kevin Rofidal, United States Coast Guard/WikiMediaCommons


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