Where’s Our Money?

I have a simple question for Robert Gibbs, the outspoken press secretary of the Obama administration who recently told the “professional left” to quit criticizing the president. Yes, the president has successfully pushed through some major legislation on health care and financial reform, has negotiated an important arms control treaty with Russia, and has brought a measure of intelligence back to the White House. Still, I have a question.

Robert, where’s our money?

The Obama administration has bailed out the banks. It has bailed out a couple too-big-to-fail corporations. It has bailed out the insurance companies with the generous provisions of the health care reform.

And it has bailed out the biggest barrel of pork of them all: the Pentagon. Sure, Pentagon chief Robert Gates wants to cut $100 billion in overhead costs over five years. And the defense sector is bracing for thousands of job cuts. But the Pentagon won’t actually cut its overall spending. It will simply use those savings for its other missions, namely fighting wars. Pentagon spending for 2011 is projected to rise 3.4 percent. And that doesn’t even include the $159 billion to cover the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.

With all those dollars for “defense,” where’s our money? Let’s put it in starker terms. The money we need to create jobs at home is going to fund a war in Afghanistan where just as many U.S. soldiers have now died under Obama as under Bush and civilian casualties have surged by 30 percent in the first six months of 2010. The money we need to repair our infrastructure is being used to build Cold War weapons systems that are so unnecessary even the Pentagon opposes a number of them. The money we need to deal with climate change and the energy crisis is going to secret military missions like the one in Yemen where an air strike in May killed a provincial governor who was trying to convince al-Qaeda members to surrender.

We’ve bailed out the big boys. We’ve bailed out the Pentagon. We’ve even bailed out the people the Pentagon is fighting! The Taliban is skimming off as much as $1 billion a year in protection money from the shipments we send to the troops in Afghanistan. For the last several years, we’ve been bailing out our previous enemies, the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, to the tune of $300 a month (though al-Qaeda is now reportedly offering better rates).

So, where’s our money? Where’s the money that is supposed to put people to work and rebuild the U.S. economy?

The United States is still in the middle of a major economic crisis, with the unemployment rate at just under 10 percent. The Obama administration pushed through an $800 billion-plus economic stimulus package, but half of the infrastructure investment hasn’t been paid out yet. Although most economists agree that the government should provide more stimulus money to avoid a double-dip crisis, there is no political support in Washington for a serious jobs bill. Instead, deficit-reduction fever has descended on Washington, and the Obama administration is willing to put almost everything on the cutting table, including Social Security.

And yet the Obama administration refuses to put the largest source of discretionary spending – the military – on the chopping block. Robert Gibbs accused the “professional left” of not being happy until the Pentagon is abolished. Actually, if he would simply read our latest Unified Security Budget, he would see that we are calling for a sensible reduction in military spending. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. We call for $75 billion in reductions in military spending and redirecting those funds to diplomacy and economic development abroad, short-term investments into education and infrastructure improvements at home, and long-term deficit reduction.

Where’s our money – that’s not a question just from the “professional left.” The American public’s number one concern is the economy, and the vast majority of citizens have become pessimistic about the war in Afghanistan. Shifting money out of the Pentagon and into human needs, out of Afghanistan and into job creation at home, is a popular position. “Where’s our money” is the cry of a new populism that, unfortunately, is represented at the moment by the “professional right,” the organizations that are funding and framing the tea-party rage, the birthers, the anti-gun-control crowd, the Palinites, and all the other fringe elements that see government as an elite conspiracy against the little guy.

All of Obama’s legislative victories, all the fine rhetoric about improving U.S. standing in the world – this will mean nothing at the polls. If the Obama administration doesn’t turn around the economy fast and extract our soldiers from overseas quagmires, it will lose its congressional mandate and then, in 2012, its hold on the White House. If Robert Gibbs can’t answer the simple question – where’s our money – voters will do what they usually do in elections and let their pocketbooks determine their choices.

The result, like the U.S. economy at the moment, will not be pretty. In a word: refudiation.

Pentagon Follies

Among the weapon systems that the Pentagon refuses to let go of is missile defense. Worse, it’s trying to institutionalize the system as part of NATO’s mission. “Obama rejected Bush’s plan to install 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Tom Sauer in Missile Defense: Pie in the Sky. “However, Obama’s replacement plan does not significantly differ in magnitude from the Bush vision. The Obama administration plans to put into place SM-3 interceptors on Aegis ships in the Mediterranean, two of which have already arrived. In the next stage, the administration plans next year to build an X-band radar station either in Bulgaria or in Turkey and a warning center in the Czech Republic. In 2015, the United States would then station interceptors on land, probably in Romania.”

At our Focal Points blog, Russ Wellen also challenges the U.S. addiction to missile defense.

Meanwhile, the Senate is holding up ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. Because the old treaty ran out in December, the United States no longer can inspect Russian nuclear bases. Among other criticisms, Republican Senators have argued that the verification measures in the new START are not strong enough. So, because of their delay, the United States now has no verification measures whatsoever. The other objection, of course, is that Obama has conceded too much on missile defense when, in fact, he has conceded virtually nothing at all.

And, in the meantime, the Republicans have squeezed money out of the administration for nuclear modernization. “The exact number (so far) is $80 billion over the next decade, but to some that is not enough,” writes FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan in START Now. “Senate minority whip Jon Kyl from Arizona, where a number of nuclear facilities are located, is pushing for at least $10 billion more.”

Virtues of Engagement

The United States has maintained an embargo on Cuba for six decades. Has the small island become a prosperous democracy in that time? Not exactly. Congress is now considering a bill that would lift restrictions on travel and agricultural exports to Cuba.

“On both sides of the embargo debate, people are eager to see Cuba change,” writes FPIF contributor Anna Kalinina in Cuba and Congress: Who Will Change First? “Even Cuban dissidents are ready for the United States to adopt a new policy. The question remains: Is Congress ready to change?” You can also read a short version of the article.

U.S. policy toward North Korea has followed the same punitive approach, interspersed with a few spells of half-hearted engagement. In North Korea: Why Engagement Now?, I argue that the Obama administration should take a hint from Nixon and Kissinger’s détente with China.

“In the 1970s, the Nixon administration didn’t wait for the Chinese to work out their internal political squabbles before extending the olive branch,” I write. “Nor did Washington wait for some sign that Beijing was committed to economic reform, rapprochement with Taiwan, or a repudiation of its support for leftist national liberation movements overseas. To the extent that Nixon or Kissinger considered such variables, they assumed that change would come after engagement or as a result of engagement, not prior to engagement.”

At the moment, the United States and Iran have very few ties. So, when the Tehran holds three U.S. hikers, Washington has few levers to pull to resolve the situation. Disengagement leaves us largely disempowered.

Moreover, as FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes points out, the hikers have long been involved in progressive movements. “After months of working unsuccessfully through official channels, some of the friends and family members of the detainees have decided to publicize their plight — along with their history of activism — in the hopes that global civil society, particularly the progressive activist community, can take the kind of initiative not yet coming from Washington,” Zunes writes in Hikers in Iran. Click on the link to find out how you can help.

From El Salvador to Kyrgyzstan

Salvadoran activists have successfully persuaded their government to stop issuing permits to gold mining companies that are polluting villages in the country. But the companies have taken the case to Washington where they’ve won the first round at a trade tribunal. “The tribunal’s decision to give the green light to this controversial case should send shudders down the spines of advocates for the environment, community rights, and democracy,” writes FPIF contributor Manuel Perez Rocha in Mining for El Salvador’s Gold – in Washington. “The investment rules employed by Pacific Rim to mine for gold in international tribunals are contained in thousands of bilateral investment treaties around the world and more than a dozen existing and pending U.S. trade agreements. What’s happening to El Salvador could happen almost anywhere, despite the struggles of activists to defend their environmental rights.”

In Africa, the Obama administration has launched the Feed the Future initiative to build up food security on the content. “Food security, however, does not equal food sovereignty, nor does it ensure that the roots of hunger in the world’s poorest countries will be addressed,” writes FPIF contributor Beth Tuckey in Starving Africa’s Future? “Feed the Future is likely to be yet another program that benefits large corporations and does little to address the real issues hindering agricultural growth in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.”

Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, has been engulfed in ethnic violence that has killed hundreds and sent hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks fleeing the country. “Two things are urgently needed to ensure that the region does not erupt yet again: the quick deployment of an international police force for southern Kyrgyzstan with strong political backing, and an international investigation into the June violence and its aftermath,” writes FPIF contributor Ole Solvang in An Urgent Need to Stabilize Kyrgyzstan.

Finally, in a dispatch from the frontiers of rendition, FPIF contributor M. Junaid Levesque-Alam writes about The Curious Case of Omar Khadr, the boy that U.S. forces seized in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old. “At a time when the United States is trying to court elements of the Taliban insurgency — the same group that has ruthlessly killed civilians — the prosecution of a child who was surely exploited by militants and mistreated by interrogators, and who less surely tossed a grenade in regular combat, stands out as an egregious example of cruel political theater,” he writes.