The 2020 presidential race is already well underway, and there is no lack of big ideas on the agenda for discussion, from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal to free tuition at public colleges. There will no doubt be intensive discussion of the cost, practicality, and effectiveness of these and other ambitious proposals, and that’s as it should be. But there is one huge policy and budgetary concern that has yet to rise on the agenda of items deserving a thorough debate: spending on war and preparation for war. Avoiding this issue would be a huge mistake, both for the candidates and for the country.
Even Donald Trump appears to be conflicted about the right level of Pentagon spending. Just last December, he tweeted that spending over $700 on the Pentagon was “crazy.” And he has periodically decried the multi-trillion-dollar price tag of America’s post-9/11 wars, suggesting that the funds would have been better spent rebuilding America. Of course, these concerns have yet to result in reductions in Pentagon spending – quite the contrary. The administration’s Fiscal Year 2020 proposal for the Pentagon and related agencies is a hefty $750 billion, one of the highest levels since World War II. Asking the president to explain the gap between his rhetoric and budgetary reality should be fair game in the run-up to 2020. One person who might gain more visibility from doing so is former Massachusetts governor William Weld, who has announced his intention to run for president on the Republican side.
It is the issue of how best to make America safe that will be the crux of the matter.
As for the crowded Democratic field, some way will need to be found to pay for proposals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, both of which will entail large up-front costs. There are proposals on the table to increase government revenues to accomplish these goals, but streamlining the Pentagon budget by as little as 15% from the department’s current, unrealistic plan to spend over $7 trillion over the next decade could ease the transition by generating a trillion dollars or more in resources that could be invested public purposes more worthy than overpriced weapons and unauthorized wars.
Of course, no candidate is likely to take a firm stand against Pentagon bloat and military overreach unless at least two conditions are met. First, the public must be convinced that America and its allies can be made safer for less. Second, candidates will need to be convinced that there is either a public appetite for reining in the Pentagon, or that such an attitude can be developed through strong advocacy and persistent public education.
Taking the second point first, a recent analysis by the Eurasia Group Foundation has shown that a large majority of Americans want a less aggressive foreign policy, and feel that there is no need to increase the Pentagon budget. And surveys that provide some basic information about how much the Pentagon actually spends show an even larger majority in favor of rolling back its budget.
It is the issue of how best to make America safe that will be the crux of the matter. We know what doesn’t work. A policy of perpetual war tied to a misguided diagnosis of the roots of terrorism has cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives in war zones, even as it has created a huge cohort of veterans plagued by severe physical and psychological injuries. And rather than reducing terrorism, it has helped spawn a proliferation of terrorist organizations. And a nascent nuclear arms race – backed up by a $1.2 trillion nuclear “modernization” plan – makes a future conflagration more likely even as it squanders precious resources that could be devoted to addressing urgent national needs.
A debate about how best to prevent wars rather than how best to fight them should be front and center in the presidential campaign. A hopeful sign in that regard is the fact that a growing number of Democratic candidates have pledged to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal if elected. The Iran deal is a model of what determined diplomacy can accomplish – a verifiable multi-lateral agreement that curbs Tehran’s nuclear ambitions while helping hold off a potential rush to war. This embrace of an effective nuclear agreement should be a first step towards crafting a larger, diplomacy first foreign policy platform that would save lives and money. After nearly two decades of war, and with a near-record budget, Pentagon spending is too important an issue not to debate.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.