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Obey's Afghanistan: At Long Last, It's Guns vs. Butter

By Robert_Naiman - Posted on 19 June 2010

One of the many destructive legacies of the Reagan Era was the effective Washington consensus that wars and other military spending exist on their own fiscal planet. Reagan got a Dixiecrat Congress to double military spending at a time when the U.S. was not at war (unless you were a poor person in Central America.) Meanwhile, Reagan got the Dixiecrat Congress to cut domestic spending - we just couldn't afford those costly social programs. Reagan pretended the two things were totally unrelated, and the Dixiecrat Congress went along.

Ever since, the Democratic leadership and the big Democratic constituency groups have largely collaborated in maintaining the destructive fiction that we can shovel tax dollars to war and to corporate welfare called "defense spending" without having any impact on our ability to provide quality education, health care, effective enforcement of environmental, civil rights, and worker safety laws, and other basic services to our citizens that are taken for granted by the citizens of every other industrialized country.

But maybe - maybe - that destructive connivance is coming to an end.

This week, House Appropriations Committee Chair David Obey told the White House that he was going to sit on the Administration's request for $33 billion more for pointless killing in Afghanistan until the White House acted on House Democratic demands to unlock federal money to aid the states in averting a wave of layoffs of teachers and other public employees.

Obey didn't just link the two issues rhetorically; he linked them with the threat of effective action.

At last, at long last.

But why is David Obey standing alone?

Perhaps, behind the scenes, the big Democratic constituency groups are pulling for Obey.

But you wouldn't know it from any public manifestation. Why? This should be a "teachable moment," an opportunity to mobilize the majority of America's working families to push to redirect resources from futile wars of empire and the corporate welfare of the "base military budget" to human needs at home and abroad. Where is the public mobilization of the Democratic constituency groups?

If we could shorten the Afghanistan war by a month, that would free up the $10 billion that Obey is asking for domestic spending. Rep. Jim McGovern's bill requiring a timetable for military redeployment from Afghanistan currently has 94 co-sponsors in the House (act here.) If McGovern's bill became law, it would surely save the taxpayers at least $10 billion. Why aren't the big Democratic constituency groups aggressively backing the McGovern bill, demanding that it be attached to the war supplemental?

This isn't just a question of missing an opportunity. There is a freight train coming called "deficit reduction." If the big Democratic constituency groups continue to sit on their hands on the issue of military spending, then we can predict what the cargo of that freight train is likely to be: cut Social Security benefits, cut Medicare benefits, raise the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare, cut domestic spending for enforcing environmental regulations and civil rights and worker safety.

Ending the war in Afghanistan with a timetable for withdrawal would likely save hundreds of billions of dollars. That's money that could be used to prevent cuts from jobs and services at home.

And we can cut the "base military budget" - the money we are purportedly spending to prepare for wars in the future, whether those wars have any measurable probability of occurring or not - without having any impact on our security.

The Sustainable Defense Task Force - initiated by Rep. Barney Frank, Rep. Walter Jones, Rep. Ron Paul, and Sen. Ron Wyden - has modestly proposed a trillion dollars in cuts to the military budget over ten years, targeting long-derided weapons systems like F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and the V-22 Osprey. As Joshua Green notes in the Boston Globe, even Dick Cheney says the V-22 is "a turkey." As the current annual military expenditure of the U.S. is roughly $660 billion, this would roughly amount to a 15% cut. Note that the U.S. is currently spending about 4.3% of its GDP on the military, more than twice what China spends as a percentage of its economy (2%.) If we cut our military spending 15%, we'd still be spending far more as a percentage of our economy (3.7%) than China, and far more than Britain (2.5%) and France (2.3%). And in absolute terms, we'd still be spending more than the next ten countries combined - most of whom are our allies. Such a cut would free $100 billion a year for deficit reduction and protecting domestic spending from cuts.

The president's Deficit Reduction Commission will recommend a package of cuts to Congress in December for an up-or-down vote. Will the Deficit Reduction Commission recommend real cuts to military spending?

On June 26, the deficit reduction freight train may be coming to your town. The well-financed America Speaks is hosting a "national town hall" discussion in twenty cities on June 26 about ways to cut the deficit, promising that they will push the result into the Washington deficit-cutting decision. Check to see if the freight train is coming to your town. If it is, why not go and see if you can stow away some military spending cuts - like ending the war and cutting the V22 - on board the train?

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