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Candidates Take an Anti-Status Quo Stance on Defense

Words: Caroline Dorminey, Kate Kizer, and Sumaya Malas
Pictures: John Minchillo/AP

Recent surveys of potential Democratic nominees ahead of tonight’s debate show that many agree on a perspective long treated as a taboo in Washington: We spend too much money on the Pentagon. This perspective is a departure from the oft-cited scapegoat of “waste, fraud, and abuse” that has received bipartisan lashings but allowed the Pentagon to continue to grow. Instead, a broad base of support has begun to emerge in favor of reassessing, reducing, and restructuring the Department of Defense’s resources at a more fundamental level. The catch is that candidates disagree on how to make such a huge bureaucracy more sustainable. Tonight’s presidential debate presents an opportunity for candidates to separate themselves by sharing exactly how they would reduce the Pentagon’s budget to support American and global security.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has consistently critiqued the seemingly limitless funding to go to war and tweeted about saving trillions from ending endless wars overseas. Mayor Pete Buttigieg expressed the need to take a holistic approach to national security spending outside the military, and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) said he hopes to reduce defense spending to “appropriate” levels. Even Vice President Joe Biden commented that we need greater fiscal discipline in terms of defense spending.

And yet, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Andrew Yang are the only two candidates who have released specific plans to reduce and reprioritize military spending. Yang plans to divert $60 billion each year — roughly 10 percent of the Pentagon’s annual budget — to modernize domestic infrastructure and refocus defense priorities to emphasize cybersecurity and nonproliferation. Rather than provide a list of specific line items to divest of, Yang’s plan would defer to top Pentagon officials to come up with areas to cut back.

Measuring military readiness against unrealistic expectations for combat scenarios sets service members up to fail by, more often than not, asking them to solve political problems without clear military solutions.

Senator Warren’s Medicare for All plan includes the elimination of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding to help cover healthcare costs. As a staunch advocate of curtailing the power of defense contractors throughout her career in the Senate, it’s no wonder the Senator identified the Pentagon’s unaccountable slush fund as the place to start a conversation about right-sizing the Defense Department’s bloated coffers.

Policymakers created OCO as an emergency supplemental funding mechanism, meant to provide annual wartime-specific funding for the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — completely hived off from the traditional base budget. As those wars expanded to other countries around the world, so too did OCO funding. Cutting OCO thus fits perfectly with several candidates, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders’ stated goals of ending endless war and promoting diplomacy-first foreign policy.

Yet, any budget cuts made in isolation will not set the Pentagon on a path to sustainability – there must be a holistic approach to reform based on oversight, accountability, and strategic planning.

Careful consideration of our national security priorities illuminates clear areas to invest in and divest of moving forward. Measuring military readiness against unrealistic expectations for combat scenarios sets service members up to fail by, more often than not, asking them to solve political problems without clear military solutions. If specific mission sets are prioritized, then the appropriate funding can be allocated for personnel and systems with a clear return on investment, rather than a blank check rife with disparate expectations.

Moreover, the United States can no longer afford to use 20th-century solutions to address 21st-century problems. The existential threats the United States faces today – the climate crisis, global authoritarianism and nationalism, the misuse of data and technology, and mass inequality – do not have military solutions and cannot be resolved by building more aircraft carriers.

Strategic planning and recalibrating the budget accordingly would not only allow for investing some of the wasted billions at the Pentagon into other sectors of the economy, it would also generate more jobs domestically. For all the fear around cutting the Pentagon’s budget due to job loss, the fact is that the 6.9 jobs created by every $1 million of defense spending are dwarfed by the 19.2 jobs in elementary and secondary education, 14.3 jobs in health care, and 9.8 jobs in clean energy that actually serve human needs.

Democrats should go further toward a comprehensive approach to reforming spending at the Pentagon. Polling indicates that the American people support this type of approach and want policymakers to put people over the Pentagon. Yet to make domestic proposals like a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, or free public college education a reality, candidates must go further. Tonight, Democrats must tell the American people how they will reform the federal budget and national security policy to serve the needs of Americans and the communities around the world US foreign policy impacts.

Caroline Dorminey is the Policy Director at Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND), where she handles a portfolio of nuclear policy, arms control, and defense politics issues.

Kate Kizer is the Policy Director at Win Without War, where she works to establish a progressive foreign policy for the United States. Follow her @KateKizer.

Sumaya Malas is a 2019 Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND).

Caroline Dorminey, Kate Kizer, and Sumaya Malas

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