Joe Biden Is Trying to Sell Endless War as an Economic Opportunity

With the war in Gaza raging, Joe Biden is attempting to pitch new military spending as a boon for the economy. Could he get more cynical?

US president Joe Biden at a news conference at the White House in Washington, DC, October 25, 2023. (Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In an interview with 60 Minutes earlier this month, President Joe Biden boasted of the United States’ ability to fight multiple wars at the same time: “We’re the United States of America for God’s sake. The most powerful nation in the history of the world,” he assured his interviewer. “We can take care of both of these [wars in the Middle East and Ukraine] and still maintain our overall international defense. We have the capacity to do this and we have an obligation to — we are the ‘essential nation,’ to paraphrase the former secretary of state. And if we don’t, then who does?”

Biden’s string of American exceptionalist cliches has since been given a vintage election-year chaser: What if more wars represents an invaluable economic opportunity? In an Oval Office address earlier this week, the president said just as much — dressing up new military spending in the language of economic nationalism and even name-dropping particular swing states where his advisers cynically expect the message to resonate:

Let me be clear about something. . . . We send Ukraine equipment sitting in our stockpiles. And when we use the money allocated by Congress, we use it to replenish our own stores, our own stockpiles with new equipment. . . . Equipment that defends America and is made in America. Patriot missiles for air defense batteries, made in Arizona. Artillery shells manufactured in twelve states across the country, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas. And so much more. . . . You know, just as in World War II, today patriotic American workers are building the arsenal of democracy and serving the cause of freedom.

Last Friday, the White House sent a letter to Congress outlining what it called “critical national security funding needs” and tabling a proposal worth nearly $106 billion. According to an analysis by Stephen Semler, much of that money represents little more than stimulus to the US military itself: subsidies to weapons plants and shipyards, the stockpiling of weaponry, etc. There are $25 billion apportioned to Ukraine, $8.7 billion to Israel, and another $8.2 billion to border enforcement. As Semler notes, the request is among other things completely devoid of relief funds for existing childcare provider grants and nutrition program benefits that expired this month.

There’s also a strong case that some of the requested funding violates the administration’s own stated policy regarding arms transfers. Last February, it announced a series of new criteria for green-lighting such transfers — the crux being that they should not be approved in cases where the State Department concludes that military support is “more likely than not” to be used to commit or facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity, breaches of the Geneva conventions, or other serious violations of international law. (Under the previous policy, Washington was required to have “actual knowledge” that arms would be used for these purposes.)

In announcing his resignation last week, State Department official Josh Paul acknowledged that his job had not been “without moral compromise” and went on to call the current effort to send more arms to Israel “shortsighted, destructive, and unjust.” Paul further explained how it contravenes the Biden administration’s own policy:

What we have seen with Israel repeatedly in operations in government is that the US Gaza in 2009, in 2014, in 2021 is massive civilian casualties, thousands of Palestinians killed through a relatively indiscriminate use of bombs to destroy buildings.

And yet, in this context of this conflict today, where we have already seen, again, thousands of Palestinian casualties, there has been no policy debate. Indeed, there’s been a rush to provide arms, where, normally, there is discussion, consideration and thought.

Paul says he raised the issue within the State Department in the days following Hamas’s October 7 attack and noted that the decades-long flood of military assistance to the country has “not led to peace.” The comment has a wider valence given the United States’ long-standing bipartisan consensus on military spending in general. As Pennsylvania representative Summer Lee remarked this week, the deluge of post–September 2001 expenditure not only incurred a cosmic cost to the public but made the world less safe in the process:

Post 9/11, our federal government’s decision to fund endless wars cost 4.5 million lives, including over 7,000 US Service Members and displaced tens of millions in a time of deep pain after 3,000 beloved American lives were brutally stolen by Al Qaeda on September 11th. These endless wars cost US taxpayers 8 trillion dollars.

Lee went on to note that a mere $267 billion of this amount could have ended global hunger by 2030 with enough to spare for universal pre-K, universal family and medical leave, and the eradication of student debt.

No matter. The system of militarized Keynesianism that ungirds the United States’ military-industrial complex has always been incredibly effective at appropriating public funds for its own purposes, ever indulged by politicians like Joe Biden who are willing to put aside concern for civilian life and look upon horrific violence as just another opportunity to make inroads in the Electoral College.