Real National Security Begins at Home, Say Women Leaders

Times are tough. Wall Street has tumbled, and Main Street is squeezed. As housing values plummet and people lose income, governments are also feeling the pinch. Despite it all, there's one area of the federal budget that continues to grow: defense spending.

A growing chorus of women leaders are rising in protest, seeking to educate voters on the perils of a dangerously unbalanced set of priorities. From spending cuts in state budgets in such bread-and-butter areas as public health and sheltering the homeless, to a dangerous underfunding of port security and an exodus of first responders to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, women are seeing the Pentagon's growing share of the federal budget take a toll on the well-being of their own families. Yet an absence of women in the halls of power helps maintain the status quo, say activists, and a failure to enlist military women as allies in the cause of national security reform has held back the progressive funding agenda.

Women are paying attention to who's getting federal dollars, says Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster who leads Lake Research Associates. In focus groups, says Lake, "we do have women volunteering ?that they wonder how we could find overnight all the money to fight a war and to bail out Wall Street, but we can't find enough money to provide national health care reform. And there's a lot of anecdotal evidence of that."

Meanwhile, in Washington, a consensus is building among defense experts that something needs to be done to straighten out those priorities for the very sake of what all that spending is supposed to buy us: real national security. While tax dollars are poured into the pockets of defense contractors for projects of debatable value or documentable waste, homeland security budgets are starved, leaving the nation vulnerable in the face of attack. Yet defense spending sops up more than half of the federal discretionary budget.

What's pie got to do with it?

At Women's Action for New Directions, field director Bobbie Wrenn Banks has taken to the road with a victual demonstration of the classic pie chart that WAND calls the Great American Pie project.

"We actually use a pumpkin pie ? literally, a pumpkin pie," Banks explains. "And we go into groups and we slice the pie; it represents the discretionary budget." The discretionary budget is the piece of the federal budget that gets negotiated between the president and Congress (unlike such programs as Social Security and Medicare, whose costs are mandatory expenditures). "And over half of that pie ? 54 percent of that pie ? that slice goes to the Pentagon," says Banks. "Then we have very small little slivers of pie that go to environmental concerns, income security, affordable housing..." And that doesn't even cover the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Banks says. Add in the nearly $200 billion that taxpayers have anted up for the wars in this year alone, and "we're spending nearly $700 billion a year on the military," she says.

Banks' pie show is headed this week to Mississippi, where she'll visit the district offices of Sen. Thad Cochran, the Republican ranking member of the appropriations committee.

Absent a pie-bearing visit from Banks herself, she advises women to take a look at an effort at reform outlined in the Unified Security Budget proposed by the left-leaning group, Foreign Policy in Focus (part of the Institute for Policy Studies), which looks at how the budget is divided among various security needs. "[W]hen you look at the overall security spending pie, it's just so staggeringly lopsided, because 90 percent of our security money goes to the offense, with a 6 percent slice of that pie going to? homeland security, and only a 4 percent slice going to (conflict) prevention." Prevention includes diplomacy, foreign assistance in the form of infrastructure-building, and activities such as those done by the Peace Corps.

States starved for security

As president of the Women Legislators' Lobby, Nan Grogan Orrock, a state senator in Georgia, knows all too well how the dearth of homeland security funding plays out on the ground. "You've got an array of issues around homeland security, around the railroads, and the freight containers, you know, the ports and the whole baggage and cargo screening," says Orrock. "They need another $ 1.25 billion just to meet what are considered appropriate standards for cargo and baggage screening."

Earlier this year, 339 women state legislators signed WiLL's letter [PDF file] to members of Congress, asking them not to increase the Pentagon's budget. "At least 22 states in the country have budget gaps, and 29 states?have had to cut their budgets to try to balance them," Orrock says. "We have seen cuts to rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, cut anywhere from 38 to 42 percent of their state funding...and yet, under these Bush military budgets, we're spending more than at any time on the military since World War II."

But Lorelei Kelly, policy director for the White House Project's Real Security Initiative and a member of the task force that put together the Unified Security Budget, cautions against riding roughshod on the military itself. "The first thing you shouldn't say, always, is 'Cut the military's budget, cut the military's budget,'" asserts Kelly, who co-authored, with Army Reserve Lt. Col. Dana Eyre, A Woman's Guide to Talking About War and Peace. "Talk about the need for national security reform, and within that, that military's budget has to change. And let's not just go in with a bunch of hacksaws and blindly start whacking away at things."

Members of the military, Kelly contends, can be progressives' best allies when trying to enact reform. Too often, she says, progressives have lumped in with the institutional military everything bad about the military-industrial complex, alienating potential partners. Among the real culprits in the budget dilemma are the procurement process and the contracting out of work that used to be done by soldiers. "It's appalling, the level of privatization that's happened within the military budget, and of the service," Kelly explains. "The institution itself has been very badly damaged in many ways."

Service members, especially women, are often less than happy with the ways in which contracting and privatization affect their mission, and can be helpful to the cause of reform if asked the right questions in a respectful way, says Kelly. She notes a 2005 House hearing on possible exit strategies for the Iraq war at which former Air Force Under Secretary Antonia Chayse testified. In hearings convened by Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, Bunnatine Greenhouse, the highest-ranking civilian in the Army Corps of Engineers, blew the whistle on waste and fraud committed by contractors to the military in Iraq. In fact, if you scroll through the report issued by Dorgan's committee, you'll find that in the course of the last three years, many of the the whistleblowers on abuses by military contractors have been women,

Women could change the national security equation

One could argue that the lopsidedness in the federal budget that favors defense contractors exists in inverse relationship to the number of women in the halls of power. (Among the 188 countries listed in the International Parliamentary Union's index of Women in National Parliaments, the U.S. ranks number 69 in its representation of women in the national legislature; Afghanistan's rank is 27.) "While there's nothing being biologically special about women being able to champion peace, I do believe that the life experiences and perspectives that women bring serve these issues well," Banks says. When it comes to domestic spending, she says, women tend to lean to the progressive side.

Then there's the matter of Iraq itself. "You have a pretty big gender gap on the war," Lake explains, who co-authored, with Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, the book, What Women Really Want. "You have men thinking it was worth it to go in, women thinking it wasn't -- which is interesting, given that both men and women are against the war?"

In an August Lake Research Partners/Tarrance Group Battleground poll, likely voters were asked the question: "All in all, do you think the war in Iraq is worth fighting, or not?" Among men, 50 percent said the war was worth fighting, 45 percent said it was not. However, only 35 percent of women said it was worth fighting, while 57 percent said it was not ? a double-digit spread on either side of the equation.

Even women in the military see the war differently from their male counterparts. As early as 2005, a poll by Military Times found that 63 percent of men among the active service members they surveyed "said they believe(d) the United States should have gone to war in Iraq, but only 42 percent of the women believe(d) that." Less than half of the women service members said they approved of the way President Bush was "handling the war," while 65 percent of the servicemen did.

If more women were in Congress, says Banks, you'd see a difference in the ordering of priorities. "Women in Congress vote more progressively on many issues," Banks says. In the 109th Congress, WAND reports, women voted for progressive policies in 67 percent of those votes, compared to 48 percent for men. The votes WAND examined fell within the categories of national security, and legislation affecting children, women, and the environment.

Women are naturals at the sort of skills required to effect real security, Kelly asserts. In Afghanistan, the U.S. counterinsurgency plan calls for the creation of constituencies that have a stake in seeing democracy succeed, she explains. "Women are really good at creating stakeholder constituencies in the public," Kelly says. "Doesn't everybody know a woman who holds the neighborhood together? That's a strategic security skill in today's world."

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This article is part of The Media Consortium's Live From Main Street series, and is published in conjunction with the Live From Main Street program, "Beyond Hockey Moms and Palin Politics: Women on Real National Security."

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