Now that candidate Bernie Sanders is drawing crowds in the tens of thousands, it’s time to recognize that what he says will have an influence in the 2016 presidential campaign. On defense and national security, Bernie needs help. And I’m here to give it.
And here’s the ironic thing: Though national security isn’t exactly the senator’s strong suit, he is credible precisely because he has been dependable and clear: He’s been almost 100 percent consistent in his opposition to America’s wars. For the past decade he’s even voted against every defense budget. His only yea vote was to authorize the use of military force against al Qaeda after 9/11. And in the weird ways of Washington (and our nation), Democrats and Republicans have a hard time attacking Sanders for being “soft” on defense despite his consistency in opposing war. That’s because he has made a huge part of his career ensuring that America’s veterans get the care they need and deserve. So label him what you want—isolationist, socialist, peacenik—this man doesn’t pray at the orthodox national security altar.
The hawks are already circling, though. It’s only a matter of time before Hillary’s attack dogs raise Sanders’s “credentials” and experience—and then question his wisdom. “What would Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy look like?” one opening salvo reads, as much an homage to how great Hillary was at the State Department as an attempt to raise the ominous specter that Pentagon people might find saluting President Sanders “difficult.” That sounds as much an insult against the professionalism of the military as it is an effective attack on the only national politician with the guts to truly take on the bloated national security state.
But go after how much? And cut what? Consistent with Sanders’s singular focus on the billionaire class, his campaign website says absolutely nothing about defense. Yet based upon what Sanders has said and done, and consistent with his consistency, here are my recommendations for a Sanders-friendly defense policy. It’s just the outlines, the principles, but maybe it can influence what will be the eventual platform of the two automaton parties:
- End the war against terrorism, period: The closest we’ve ever seen to any kind of worldview from Sanders came earlier this year when the Saudi Foreign Minister called for U.S. boots on the ground in the fight against ISIS. “Ultimately, this is a profound struggle for the soul of Islam, and the anti-ISIS Muslim nations must lead that fight,” Sanders responded. “I find it remarkable that Saudi Arabia, which borders Iraq and is controlled by a multi-billion dollar family, is demanding that U.S. combat troops have ‘boots on the ground’ against ISIS. Where are the Saudi troops?” he said. His principle was clear: Those in the region “must accept its full responsibility for stability in their own region of the world.” Sure the United States needs credible and competent border control and airport security, and even dare I say, domestic policing that is focused and lawful, but a “war” against terrorism? After more than two decades of warring, we are doing more harm than good.
- Cut the defense and national security budgets, but more importantly, change course: The federal budget should not perpetually stay at wartime levels, because (see principle one above), we should not be at war. The typical position staked out by liberals and leftists, but not necessarily Bernie, is just slash. Chris Hedges, for instance, says that: “We must slash our obscene spending on defense...and cut the size of our armed forces by more than half...” But why just half and how much is the right amount? The evasive answer is the legs of the table should be long enough to reach the floor and no longer. But here are some ideas:
- Abandon the World War II model of a massive ground army being supported for a sustained land war — set the ceiling at no more than two or three mixed Corps formations and downsize the industrial and sustaining tail accordingly.
- Adopt the best model for what a 21st Century military force might look like, something more akin to the coherence and spryness of the Marine Corps or Coast Guard rather than the behemoth Army.
- Completely integrate investments in airpower, space, and intelligence to match national requirements and end the era of five different forces and supporting establishments.
- Make all federal government training specific to the task and not duplicative across literally dozens if not hundreds of organizations.
- Eliminate redundant service organizations — medical, police, transportation, etc. The Marines have already proven it: They are shockingly treated by Navy doctors. Does it really matter what military service someone’s from to guard a base?
- Cut the number of combatant commands to four (Asia, Europe, Middle East/Africa, and Western Hemisphere) and make one coherent Strategic Command that controls nuclear weapons, missile defenses, etc., eliminating agencies that spend money.
- Create one coherent defense research establishment, get the Pentagon out of civil science (see below) and focus priorities.
- Reduce the headquarters of the Department of Defense to State Department size.
- Get serious about reducing the cost of nuclear deterrence — start by eliminating the land-based nuclear missile force. Forget a new bomber; build a smaller ballistic missile submarine (and build more of them). That is, if we are going to have nukes.
- End the profit-model for the national security industry: National security should be non-profit (or at least minimal profit). Private companies can (and must) work on defense and intelligence technologies, particularly in the information age, but just as Sanders has proposed a minimum wage for all employees paid under government contract, there should be a maximum wage (and profit) as well. Take out profit motives and we’ll see how quickly a sane national security strategy emerges. And while we’re at it, stop already with the rhetorical cry against “waste, fraud and abuse” in the defense budget. It is little more than a non-strategy based, non-ideological stance salute to Washington culture. No one wants fraud and abuse; just get serious about it. But waste in particular has enormous value judgments attached to it, so there have to be principles and new standards to determine what is more and less important. And focusing too much on expense or even technological perfection more often than not focuses us on the wrong systems or traps us into accepting government machines that are otherwise repugnant or ridiculous merely because they evade an auditor’s condemnation. Want to argue that the F-35 fighter jet doesn’t work? It’s a trap — the answer will almost always be: check us another check and we’ll make it work. Decide what we want and need first.
- Eliminate the Department of Homeland Security: The creation of this Nazi-sounding domestic security department was a post 9/11 panic and has proven that it is worse than useless. From Hurricane Katrina through the TSA’s bloat to today’s endless border control issues, the Department has actually unfocused rather than focused. Organizations like FEMA have weirdly bifurcated missions and other agencies (such as ICE) have police powers that should be properly under the Attorney General. In intelligence terms, there is nothing unique that DHS brings to the table, not even after a decade; and the homeland security slush funds created for the States are serving to skew priorities towards the militarization of everything, actually ignoring community building and local needs.
- Create a Department of Science and the Environment: The only “issue” other than income equality and corporate influence candidate Sanders focuses on in his Presidential articulation is climate change and the environment. As President, Sanders could undertake a long-needed 21st Century reorganization that would focus government attention (and power) in an important way. It is obscene that everyone in society, from the medical community to entrepreneurs look to the Pentagon for buy-in and “support,” but there is a simple reason: They have all of the money. So in addition to combining the basic science and technology elements of government — energy, EPA, advanced research, NOAA, CDC — to get more bang for the buck, billions should be shifted from the Defense Department to a new powerful civil agency to drive technological investment and change for civilian good. Only a shift in who owns the money (see principle two above) will give voice to alternate non-national security ways of looking at problems we face. It is time to end the era of where the military ends up doing things merely because no one else has the money to do so.
- Develop a Magna Carta for the information era. Sanders, who voted against the USA Freedom Act, has called for a commission on “privacy rights in the digital age.” Though a commission is hardly what is needed, we do need some deep thinking regarding what the government’s role is in protecting the inalienable privacy rights of all Americans; and we do need a post-Snowden evaluation of what the intelligence community collects and why. Big brother is an illusion. It is big, even bigger than most imagine, and the ratio of intelligence to warfighters is ridiculously skewed, but there’s no brother in big brother. It’s completely incoherent how much America collects and where information ends. So let’s be father to brother and tell it what to do.
These are just some of the broad principles, each working in unison, each building on the other.
One has to ask at the end whether Sanders’ most audacious proposal, that of calling for a “war tax” on millionaires, is purely rhetoric or a tangible proposal. Daniel J. Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Libertarian Cato Institute, writes that Sanders’ falls into neither camp of the guns-versus-butter debate that has raged since World War II. He is not a Roosevelt, Truman or Reagan ideologue who would increase military spending while reducing domestic spending. And he is not a Johnson or Bush big spender who would conduct a war and throw money at domestic programs. Sanders’ anti-war stance while also focusing on tax increases seems thusly contradictory. Still, maybe that Sanders doesn’t quite align with either historical practice means that a third way can also be a true debate about priorities.
Barack Obama came into office promising national security change but also buying into Washington’s warring ways. Hillary, since she served as Obama’s Secretary of State, has fundamentally the same worldview with just more hawkish or decisive flourishes around the edge. And though Obama has been miserable in reforming or reigning in the national security state, it wasn’t expertise that stymied him. In the end he had no vision. So the question isn’t whether Sanders can be elected; it is more whether some other vision — a grand strategy and a tangible program of change — has a place in American politics. I’m not arguing for Sanders, but what I like is that his consistency and non-conformity makes a different debate possible. In that, he should put some meats on the bones of his own positions.
[All images courtesy of AP.]