Soldiers watch from a distance as illumination mortar rounds light up the night sky as part of a training exercise near At-Tanf Garrison, Syria, June 22, 2020.

Soldiers watch from a distance as illumination mortar rounds light up the night sky as part of a training exercise near At-Tanf Garrison, Syria, June 22, 2020. U.S. Army

Democrats, Be Bold on National Security

Even before the pandemic, it was clear that more money didn’t mean more real security.

On a recent fundraising call, former President Barack Obama implored presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to recognize the urgency of now: “To meet the moment, the Democratic Party will have to be bold.” Obama acknowledged that he didn’t always meet that standard during his tenure, but now, “the world is different. We have to look to the future.” 

Congressional Democrats also have a moment to meet on national security. The nation is racked by a pandemic, an economic collapse, a dysfunctional administration, and is now seized with a national uprising against police violence and systemic white supremacy. Democrats would be making a major mistake if they went about business as usual and failed to make the connection between the evils of racism and runaway militarism. 

This month, as a massive defense budget and policy bill is considered on both the Senate and House floors, Democrats are, with few exceptions, likely to rubber stamp Donald Trump’s request for three-quarters-of-a-trillion dollars for new weapons and endless wars.

They should seriously reconsider. The COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide uprisings have revealed a new path forward. Democrats must meet this moment by fundamentally rethinking national security at every level: morally, strategically, fiscally and, in the purest sense, politically.

Status quo national security policy has left the United States unprepared for the security challenges we now face. “America isn’t ready for this pandemic because our government has been spending money on the wrong things,” argue scholars Catherine Lutz and Neta Crawford of the Brown University Cost of War Project. “We have stockpiled thousands of nuclear weapons but not enough ventilators.” 

This is not just a liberal notion. Self-described defense hawk Max Boot writes, “Instead of simply pouring more money into the Pentagon, we need to develop new capacities to combat foreign disinformation, transition away from carbon fuels and stop the spread of pandemics.”

This is not what you hear when Congress discusses security, however. One reason is that the Washington foreign-policy establishment — which receives a great deal of its funding from the arms industry and foreign lobbies — passes its days writing reports about how to spend our way to “victory” over China and Russia, and imploring Congress to remain committed to endless war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and elsewhere. 

Even before the pandemic, it was clear that more money didn’t mean more real security. Today, no one can deny that while our leaders annually raid the national treasury in the name of security, Working class and poor communities – especially communities of color – struggle to put food on the table, die disproportionally from COVID-19 and live paycheck to paycheck. Abroad, that so-called security spending has slaughtered innocent black, brown, and Muslim communities at an unconscionable rate and failed to build lasting security.

The status quo national security and budget policies aren’t just strategically and morally misplaced, they’re politically problematic. Political leaders should take a close look at the 16th congressional district of New York, where voters overwhelmingly chose Jamaal Bowman over 16-term Congressman Eliot Engel, known for his pro-war foreign policy stances, including opposition to the Iran anti-nuclear agreement. Bowman unseated the powerful Foreign Relations Committee chairman, in part, by attacking Engel’s foreign policy record. “My opponent accepts donations from corporations and arms manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. He supports a hawkish and costly foreign policy agendainstead of focusing on the communities in our district that have been neglected for far too long,” Bowman said.

Democratic Party leaders may believe that they have no choice but to pass a $740 billion Pentagon budget because two years ago they agreed to topline federal spending levelsand cannot now go back on their word. But the world has fundamentally changed since that deal was cut, and Congressional Democrats must change with it.

They will soon have that chance. With Congress now taking up defense policy and budget legislation, Senators Bernie Sanders (Vermont) and Ed Markey (Massachusetts) and Representatives Barbara Lee (California) and Mark Pocan (Wisconsin) are asking their colleagues to support their amendment to cut the Pentagon budget by 10 percent (excluding defense health care and military personnel accounts) and redirect those funds to poverty-stricken communities experiencing a poverty rate of 25 percent or more. 

They know that a 10-percent Pentagon budget cut, or around $74 billion, is both a tall order, and just the beginning of a larger fight. That’s why Lee also has authored a resolution calling for a $350 billion reduction in the Pentagon budget – back to pre-9/11 levels – and why Senator Sanders wants a Green New Deal for the World. 

This is bold. They may not win this year, but they will set the terms of debate for the years to come.

Joe Cirincione is a national security analyst. 

Erica Fein is Advocacy Director at Win Without War.