Presidents and congresses come and go, but one thing stays the same in Washington: there’s one rule when it comes military spending, and a completely different one for every other urgent need.
For a week now, political observers have been watching what seem like two parallel realities playing out in the US capital. In one, despite the staggering fact that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to kill more than a thousand Americans per day, and a new subvariant on its way could take that number even higher, the federal government is running out of money to deal with it.
After requesting $22.5 billion in emergency money to fund testing, treatment, and vaccines in advance of a coming virus surge, twenty-five Republican senators came out in opposition, saying they wanted a “full accounting of how the government has already spent the first $6 trillion.” Democratic leaders tried to get $15.6 billion passed instead, partly by plundering state aid that already been passed in previous legislation, but governors and rank-and-file Democrats understandably opposed that, calling for new spending instead. The White House is now warning it will have to ration treatments and make cutbacks to testing and vaccination as early as this week, and that testing capacity could collapse by the middle of the year.
In the other reality, Congress and the White House are almost effortlessly finding billions upon billions of dollars under the couch cushions to send weapons and other military assistance to Ukraine and finance a military buildup in Europe. Between Moscow’s invasion in late February and mid-March, the administration authorized $550 million worth of military aid to the country. Another $13.6 billion package signed into law just last week throws another $1 billion of military assistance its way, and puts roughly $4.5 billion toward replenishing US equipment stocks, paying for foreign military financing for Ukraine and affected countries, and funding other security programs. (The rest of it will go to a variety of other programs, including humanitarian assistance).
There’s nothing outrageous about sending military aid to Ukrainians who are trying to fight off an invasion. The trouble is the long-term consequences of pouring weapons into one of Europe’s biggest arms-trafficking markets, and one filled with far-right militias that spent the years leading up to this war derailing peace efforts through anti-government violence and threats of a coup. At the same time, nonmilitary solutions to help Ukrainians, like forgiving their foreign debt or a political settlement that could’ve prevented the war from happening in the first place, are not even considered.
More to the point, wherever you stand on the wisdom of this military assistance, the urgency involved in getting it authorized and sent overseas is striking when put next to the lethargic indifference to more public health funding for Americans in the middle of an ongoing pandemic.
This is part of a wider trend under President Joe Biden, whose tenure has been defined by a depressing continuity with his hard-right predecessor. In spite of a cluster of crises making US lives miserable on the home front — from the pandemic and deepening poverty to worker exploitation and increasingly ruinous climate-change effects — Biden’s domestic agenda aimed at alleviating these has been all but buried thanks to spending concerns that simply cease to exist when it comes to funneling federal dollars to military contractors.
Biden has in the past mystifyingly parroted the right-wing attacks on his own agenda, blaming the world’s pandemic-driven inflation woes on his own anti-poverty programs, and generally fearmongering about the deficit when talking about his now stalled social-spending plans. Yet at the same time, he’s managed to deliver record-breaking military budgets in line with the Pentagon’s military spending plans under Donald Trump without tipping the hat to these deficit concerns, over-delivering on his military spending promises while delivering less than a tenth of the social spending he pledged. The latest spending bill — a $1.5 trillion package in which Republicans refused to include $22 billion for the pandemic — saw 52 percent of its funding diverted to the Pentagon.
Of course, he’s been pressured and abetted in all this by a political elite that, by passing into law these gargantuan sums of military spending that will be recycled into private military companies, are effectively authorizing their own campaign donations. There’s no better example than Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), who (aside from the president) is the individual most responsible for killing Biden’s agenda, supposedly over his concerns about too much government spending.
Manchin, of course, has cheerfully voted for every colossal military budget in the last decade, including joining eighty-seven of his colleagues to pass the record $768 billion put forward last December, which was $24 billion more than the White House had even requested. Incidentally, that $24 billion is roughly the same as the figure that was considered simply too expensive when it came to protecting the US public from the pandemic.
The administration’s response to Moscow’s war on Ukraine has only made this worse. Intelligence officials recently told the Intercept that Russian president Vladimir Putin had only decided to invade at the last minute, suggesting that, as a group of former diplomats and experts had urged in January, the war could have been headed off by negotiating with Moscow over Ukraine’s status in NATO and other defense matters.
For whatever reason, the administration declined to do this, and instead took a reactive approach, punishing Putin once he launched the war with unprecedented, indiscriminate sanctions aimed at collapsing the Russian economy, and not seriously pursuing a more targeted sanctions regime putting pressure on its elite. Unfortunately, these sanctions have rebounded on the average working American, with a Western buyers’ embargo sending inflation skyrocketing, exacerbating the economic impacts of the invasion itself, and potentially leading the United States, Europe, and the entire world into a severe recession.
What all of this signals is the death of Biden’s much-vaunted “foreign policy for the middle class,” meant to reorient US foreign policy for the first time in a century away from reckless adventurism and instead put the interests of working Americans back home front and center. This has now gone out the window, with Biden attempting to sell the sanctions-driven inflation as “Putin’s price hike,” and top-ranking Democrats and wealthy liberals telling US consumers they should accept higher gas prices as a “sacrifice” for upholding the international order.
Whatever your position on the sanctions, this state of affairs reads uncannily like the conditions that led to the political rupture of Donald Trump’s election in 2016. That shock event was made possible in large part by the perception — right, wrong, or a little of both — among US voters that their political leaders had ritually sold them out over the decades for the sake of the rest of the world. It’s not even been six years since that happened, and neither Trump nor Biden has brought a return to prioritizing the average American in that time that might have staved off this disillusionment.
As Washington’s perennial double standard around government spending reminds us, they have plenty to remain disillusioned about. It’s too bad you can’t fight a pandemic with stinger missiles. There’s no doubt Congress would find a few billion dollars rummaging through the drawers if you could.