It’s hard to overestimate the change Nov. 4 has brought in its wake. We have entered a new era, with a new political dynamic calling for new tactics to advance the agenda shaped in the course of the campaign to elect Barack Obama.
The election of Obama was, among other things, a massive demonstration for peace and an end to the Iraq occupation. For those in the organized peace movement who were part of this victory, what role will they now play? Some peace activists who were not part of the broad Obama-led coalition for change ironically are now saying they feel betrayed by some of his Cabinet appointments. But regardless of the personalities, the new Obama administration cannot be “Clinton’s third term.” Times have changed and the job of the peace movement is to seize the new opportunities.
New tactics needed for new realities
In any case, rushing to gloom-and-doom conclusions about Obama’s nominees ignores new political realities.
First, the elections were an expression of a huge shift in public opinion. Voters rejected the neo-con policy of a new “American Century” that sought to reverse eroding U.S. influence at the barrel of a gun. They desire a new type of foreign policy. The new administration was elected with this mandate.
Second, it ignores new global realities — declining U.S. power and emergence of a multipolar world. Military aggression is not a sustainable foreign policy in these circumstances. A sizeable section of U.S. monopoly capital recognizes this.
Third, the United States is in a profound economic crisis affecting its ability to conduct costly new military missions or even sustain its military might at present levels.
Fourth, the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” an ultra-right ideological prop which exploited the public’s real fears of terrorism and fueled a massive military buildup, has lost its effectiveness.
Finally, the powerful movement to change domestic and foreign policy is putting its stamp on the course of events. Every elected official must acknowledge it; many are products of it, were elected by it and interact with it.
Funding a progressive agenda means cutting Pentagon spending
The incoming Obama administration is launching an ambitious agenda including a massive economic recovery program, creation of millions of jobs to “green” the economy, universal health care and more funding for cities and public education. These policies are popular and will be tremendously costly. But with the economic crisis and its severe budgetary constraints, everyone is asking: how will they be paid for?
Aside from continued deficit spending and taxing the rich, the obvious answer is the military budget. And the Nov. 4 victory created new opportunities for a change in policy here.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) unleashed a firestorm before the election by calling for a 25 percent cut in military spending — about $150 billion annually.
“If we are going to get the deficit under control without slashing every domestic program, [cutting the military budget] is a necessity,” declared Frank. “The Pentagon is probably the most wasteful organization in the federal government and people have given it a pass for years.”
The U.S. spends more on the military than the rest of the world combined. U.S. military spending is $1 trillion a year — $825 billion in direct expenses, including on the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, and $230 billion to pay interest on past borrowing for military expenditures. This accounts for an astonishing 57 percent of federal discretionary spending, doubling since 2000.
This is clearly unsustainable. Even leading military strategists recognize there will be a paring of expensive weapons systems and other cutbacks. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, among others, is planning a new campaign on this issue.
Mass grassroots campaign needed
There are new possibilities to build a majority “bottom up” movement to demilitarize the economy. Such a movement will require broad, flexible tactics and will need to embrace mainstream political forces, including moderate Democrats and Republicans and elements of the military itself. Unity will be needed to defeat a powerful military industrial complex, a support base of the ultra-right. This should be seen as a central task of this new era and will fit with the expansive reform agenda Obama has signaled he will initiate.
A first step to building broad unity is maintaining and broadening the peace majority to make sure we end our occupation of Iraq and help Iraq get back on its feet. A second initial step could be to press for the elimination of expensive weapons systems carried over from the Cold War that many agree are unnecessary boondoggles. Obama has indicated he wants to increase troop strength but also wants to review weaponry.
Peace activists need to keep in mind that the public holds contradictory attitudes toward military spending. A 2005 Program on International Policy Attitudes survey showed 65 percent of Americans were open to cutting the Pentagon’s budget. When the full extent of military spending is understood, they are willing to cut deeply. Large majorities support scrapping space-based and nuclear weapons altogether. Seventy percent desire a new non-confrontational, multilateral foreign policy that promotes action through international institutions and economic assistance.
On the other hand, a majority supports a strong, internationally engaged military, which maintains bases overseas especially on the soil of U.S. allies. This majority needs to be convinced that cuts will not sacrifice the nation’s security.
People can be won when the full waste, corruption and profiteering of the military budget is exposed. A 2008 General Accounting Office audit documented the enormous and scandalous waste involved in every advanced weapons system, with hundreds of billions in mushrooming cost overruns, aggravated by Bush’s privatization policy.
The Institute for Policy Studies has crafted an alternative military budget of $213 billion that eliminates needless weapons systems and mountains of waste, corruption and super-profiteering by military contractors. Such a military budget is defense-oriented instead of offense-oriented, based on a foreign policy that emphasizes diplomacy and multilateralism.
Military spending hurts the economy
The public is more supportive of military spending cuts when the money is redirected to social needs. This could be effectively tied to jobs creation demands for funding specific local infrastructure projects. Broad alliances can be built with states and municipalities who are drowning in debt, delaying needed construction projects and cutting essential services.
And military spending on non-productive weapons retards economic development. A 2007 Center for Economic and Policy Research report shows in the long run, higher military spending has a negative effect on economic growth, and fuels inflation and higher interest rates.
“It is often believed that wars and military spending increases are good for the economy,” said Dean Baker, an author of the study. “In fact, most economic models show that military spending diverts resources from productive uses, such as consumption and investment, and ultimately slows economic growth and reduces employment.”
Military spending supports roughly 5 million jobs. Therefore well-planned conversion to non-military-related jobs will need to take place in areas that depend on military spending, as the fight on domestic base closings showed. A 2007 study by Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier at the University of Massachusetts showed more jobs are created with $1 billion spent on health care (+50 percent), education (+106 percent), mass transit (+131 percent), construction (+49 percent) and even tax cuts (+26 percent) compared to the same $1 billion spent on the military.
Create political backing for the administration to move
A campaign for a new type of foreign policy and to slash the military budget will inevitably confront the same powerful military industrial complex and ultra-right forces that drove the Iraq war policy, military buildup and aggression. These forces will place tremendous pressure on the Obama administration and Congress. Public opinion must be mobilized to create the political climate necessary for the new administration and Congress to carry out new policies.
The peace movement was a major factor in changing public opinion on the Iraq war and must play the same role if we are to convert to a peace economy. Only a majority united movement for demilitarization will make it happen.
John Bachtell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is district organizer of the Communist Party in Illinois and active in the peace movement there.