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Coronavirus? What Coronavirus?

Congress is setting national security priorities as if it's been living in a cave.

Words: Ben Freeman and William D. Hartung
Pictures: Robin Benzrihem

If you’ve been living in a cave the past six months — an extraordinarily effective way to social distance, by the way — you’re probably not aware that a global pandemic and the severe economic recession it has provoked have shattered our collective notions of what it means to keep America safe. Over 125,000 Americans have already died from the coronavirus. That is more American lives lost than in every American war since World War II, combined. It is also more than forty times the number of American lives tragically lost in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Given this devastation, the American public now sees “the spread of infectious diseases” as the top threat to the US, according to a Pew poll. This has led to a bipartisan consensus among defense analysts that we must rethink the way national security is defined and how the US government should protect its citizens.

Even many defense hawks have come around to the notion that money should be better spent to combat the real threats Americans are facing. For example, Max Boot, wrote that “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.” The director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Kori Schake, similarly argued that “we’re going to see enormous downward pressure on defense spending because of other urgent American national needs like health care.”

Over 125,000 Americans have already died from the coronavirus. That is more American lives lost than in every American war since World War II, combined.

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge a global pandemic has changed the very notion of what security means you’re probably thinking the government will respond to this dire situation by fundamentally reorienting the ways it thinks, acts, and spends money to protect the American people.

Think again.

If Congress’ current deliberations about the defense budget are any indication, you would be justified in believing that most Members of Congress have been living in the above-mentioned cave, oblivious to the plight and fears of their constituents. Despite the extraordinary and dire threat of the coronavirus, many Members of Congress are effectively ignoring it as they deliberate the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – the annual bill that decides the details of the Pentagon budget. They are now poised to authorize a near-record level of Pentagon spending that will do little to combat the threat of the coronavirus or future pandemics. In these unusual times, it is business as usual for Pentagon pork.

The Senate and House versions of the NDAA thus far are replete with unnecessary pork and bad policy decisions. If it gets its way, the Senate Armed Services Committee will add more than a dozen F-35 combat aircraft than the Pentagon even asked for, even though independent watchdogs like the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) have repeatedly demonstrated that the plane may never be ready for combat due to chronic performance problems. Both houses of Congress have so far signed off on the next down payment on the Pentagon’s unnecessary and dangerous $2 trillion nuclear weapons buildup, including a tripling of the budget for a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). There is also $10 million set aside to prepare the United States to resume nuclear testing on short notice, a potentially disastrous move that could spark an arms race and prod other nations to develop their own nuclear weapons.

In addition to this flagrantly wasteful spending, and instead of addressing the actual war hundreds of thousands of Americans are waging against the coronavirus, Republican hawks are committed to spending far more on warfighting than on pandemic prevention. To cite just one example, the House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry has proposed a $6 billion fund to combat China. Not to be outdone, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), proposed $43 billion to prepare for a war with China that should never come to pass.

And, it’s not just Republicans. Many Democrats in Congress seem more concerned with spending taxpayer money on the Pentagon than on preventing pandemics. For example, the Democratic Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith (D-WA), has also offered a proposal to counter China that calls for military spending of $3.6 billion. For comparison, this rounding error in the Pentagon’s massive $740 billion budget is nearly half of the Center for Disease Control’s entire budget.

There are, however, glimmers of hope that not all of Congress has its head in the sand when it comes to understanding and responding to the threats Americans are experiencing. Bernie Sanders, for example, is putting forward an amendment that would cut 10% from the Pentagon’s bloated budget and put the savings into jobs, health, housing and education in economically distressed communities. Representatives Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) are promoting a similar measure in the House. And Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) is seeking to freeze spending on the new ICBM project, saving $1 billion for other urgent national needs in the process.

In these unusual times, it can’t be business as usual for the Pentagon budget. The American people need to know the government is spending their money, not on wasteful programs or to incite another foreign war, but to protect them from the very real threats they are facing right here in America.

Ben Freeman is the Director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.

William D. Hartung is the Director of the Center’s Arms and Security Program.

Ben Freeman and William D. Hartung

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