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Democrats need to get specific on defense cuts

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In preparation for next week’s Democratic convention, it’s a good time to review the party’s draft platform. Platforms are rarely implemented in detail once a candidate is elected president. But they help shape the parameters of key policy debates and open up possibilities for new approaches to pressing problems. 

On an issue of primary concern – Pentagon spending – the draft platform has some promising rhetoric. But it needs to be backed up with specific commitments, whether in the final document, or on the campaign trail, or, if presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Biden is elected, in the early days of a new administration. That discussion needs to start now.

If taken to its logical conclusion, the platform as it now stands could set the stage for substantial cuts in Pentagon spending. It notes that the United States “can maintain a strong defense and protect our safety and security for less,” and it stresses the need to rebalance security spending to address emerging challenges like COVID-19, climate change and beefing up diplomacy. It underscores the latter by reminding us that the Pentagon budget is currently 13 times as large as spending on diplomacy. It also decries the trillions spent on America’s “forever wars” and notes that “we spend five times more in Afghanistan each year than we do on global public health and preventing the next pandemic.” Last but not least, it calls for a revival of arms control, which has been denigrated and severely damaged by the policies of the Trump administration. 

These are all positive signs, but they are just that — signs that could lead to dramatically different policies or be used to justify changes at the margin. It’s time to move to the next level by talking about precisely how this rhetoric will translate into concrete actions. 

There is no lack of ideas on how to rein in Pentagon spending and shift resources towards other urgent national needs, both foreign and domestic. And such a shift is clearly necessary. At $740 billion per year, current levels of spending on the Pentagon and related military activities are close to the highest levels since World War II, and well above peak spending during the Vietnam or Korean Wars. 

Equally importantly, the Pentagon budget consumes more than half of federal discretionary spending — which covers virtually everything the government does other than Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. That means that spending on public health, environmental protection, alternative energy, housing, transportation, job training, diplomacy and other essential functions receives less combined than the Department of Defense does. These calculations have been altered by the advent of large stimulus packages designed to head off a deeper recession or even an economic depression, but those emergency measures will not continue indefinitely. Cutting the Pentagon’s bloated budget should be a central component of a sustainable economic and security policy going forward.

 So, what is to be done? The Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force offers one blueprint. The task force is composed of former White House, congressional and Pentagon budget officials, retired military officers and independent defense experts from across the political spectrum. The blueprint lays out a plan that could save $1.2 trillion over the next decade by cutting the size of the armed forces in line with a less interventionist foreign policy; taking a more realistic view of the challenges posed by Russia and China; abandoning the Pentagon’s plan to build a new generation of nuclear weapons; and eliminating waste, most notably by cutting back on the hundreds of thousands of private contractors employed by the Pentagon, many of whom do jobs that could be done for less by civilian government employees.

There are other proposals that would cut the Pentagon budget even more. These initiatives are indicative of a growing public appetite for a shift in spending priorities. People Over Pentagon – a coalition of over two dozen groups working on peace, the environment, immigration and political reform – has called for Pentagon spending reductions of $200 billion per year. And both the Poor People’s Campaign and the Movement for Black Lives have demanded that the Department of Defense budget be cut in half. 

Meanwhile, a recent congressional vote on measures proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) that would have cut the Pentagon budget by 10 percent was the first time in years that Congress has seriously grappled with overspending at the Department of Defense. Although they did not pass, these amendments mark an important first step towards serious congressional oversight of runaway defense spending. 

The Democratic Party has a historic opportunity to rethink and revise our approach to security in a radically new era marked by challenges to public health and the environment that are far more threatening to human life than traditional military risks. It’s time to rise to the occasion and translate its words on this issue into action.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy and the co-director of the Center’s Sustainable Defense Task Force.

Tags 2020 Democratic convention Barbara Lee Bernie Sanders Discretionary spending Joe Biden Mark Pocan The Pentagon United States Department of Defense

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