Russell Freedman and William D. Hartung: Iran must not sidetrack defense spending debate

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LANESBOROUGH — Despite hopes to the contrary, the $738 billion Pentagon spending bill that sailed through Congress in December missed a number of key opportunities to make America and the world safer. And now the threat of war with Iran could derail serious discussion about how much we actually need to defend the country.

The extraordinary levels of Pentagon spending authorized for this year will have a direct impact on Massachusetts taxpayers. According to the National Priorities Project, the residents of the state paid over $23 billion towards the Pentagon's bloated budget in 2018. The figure for 2019 will be even higher. Devoting even a portion of this funding to domestic needs could have created hundreds of thousands of jobs in teaching, green energy, and infrastructure in the state.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can have both better defense policies and more rational spending priorities. The House version of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) had crucial provisions that would have reduced the prospects of war with Iran; ended U.S. support for the brutal Saudi-led war in Yemen; and stopped the Pentagon from building a dangerous new "low-yield" nuclear warhead. All of these initiatives were stripped out in the final legislation in the face of staunch opposition by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Not only was the Pentagon budget bill bad policy, it was also bad budgeting. The $738 billion figure is far higher than what is needed to defend the country. It is higher than the levels that prevailed during the Korean or Vietnam Wars, or at the height of the Reagan buildup of the 1980s.

SAVE MONEY, END CHAOS

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There is a better way. The Center for International Policy's Sustainable Defense Task Force (which Willam Hartung co-directed) has created a blueprint for defense that would save $1.25 trillion from current Pentagon plans over the next decade while providing a greater measure of security. It would do so by cutting the size of the active military by about 10 percent, in line with a policy that forgoes nation building and large-scale counterinsurgency operations of the kind undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan; takes a more realistic view of the challenges posed by Russia and China; rolls back the Pentagon's $1.7 trillion, three-decades long nuclear weapons buildup; and eliminates excess Pentagon bureaucracy, including its massive force of over 600,000 private contractors.

There's more than money involved. The chaos induced by the U.S. intervention in Iraq created conditions conducive to the rise of ISIS and the increase in Iranian influence within Iraq, as did the corruption and sectarianism of a series of U.S.-backed regimes in that nation. A nuclear buildup of the kind envisioned by the Pentagon will simply stoke a new nuclear arms race at a time when a fraction of the current U.S. arsenal is more than adequate to deter any nation from attacking the United States. And a failure to seek areas of cooperation with Russia and China, from arms control to joint efforts to mitigate climate change, will make war, or at a minimum a new Cold War, more likely. Meanwhile, Congress and the public should do everything possible to head off a new war with Iran, which could cost trillions of dollars and further destabilize an already war-torn region.

With the primary season fast approaching, it's time for the candidates for president to step up and address the issue of a failed strategy that has led to overspending on the Pentagon at the expense of other urgent national needs. There have been some efforts made to raise the issue, but much more needs to be done. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has called for the elimination of the Pentagon's war budget — formally known as the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, or OCO — at a savings of up to $800 billion over the next decade. Sen. Bernie Sanders has pointed to the important domestic investments that could occur if Pentagon spending was reduced. And Joe Biden's calls for an end to "forever wars" and a return to nuclear arms control could be consistent with reduced Pentagon outlays, if appropriately implemented.

These positions should be just the beginning of a conversation on the future of American national security strategy and spending that needs to begin as soon as possible.

Russell Freedman lives in Lanesborough and is the state coordinator for Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts. William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy in New York.


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