How About an "Adult Conversation" About Trimming our Bloated Military Budgets?

“I think we have started an adult conversation” about the federal deficit, mused Deficit Commission co-chairman Erskine Bowles last year. Well then. Let’s have it.

By now, the commission’s more regressive recommendations have been sufficiently excoriated that we can safely sense where the battle lines have been drawn on domestic issues. Paul Krugman memorably referred to the proposed package as “a major transfer of income upward,” while Nancy Pelosi called its cuts to Social Security and Medicare “simply unacceptable.”

But a comparatively less mentioned aspect of the panel’s recommendations, the proposed $100 billion in cuts to the Pentagon budget, has proven surprisingly resilient under such public scrutiny. While few congressional Republicans have spoken publicly in favor of such defense cuts, the new Congress’ Majority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), has allowed that such cuts are at least “on the table.” Even the hawkish Senator John McCain conceded that the bloated defense budget should hardly be considered “sacrosanct” while popular social programs find themselves under the ax. Meanwhile, mainstream progressive groups have concocted their own alternatives to the Bowles-Simpson panel’s recommendations, virtually all of which seek even deeper defense cuts than the ones already proposed.

Earlier this month, President Obama surprised even the Pentagon by ordering $78 billion in cuts to its budget over the next five years. This comes in addition to $100 billion in “savings” that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has set aside to “reallocate to combat-related projects.” While some Republican lawmakers have made clear their strenuous objections to cutting the military budget in an era of unnecessary wars, they can take some solace in noting that even with the cuts, the Pentagon’s budget will continue to increase over that same five years.

So this is where we come in. Long the lonely purview of frustrated civil society activists, defense cuts are now finally part of that “adult conversation” our Washington elders are holding on the deficit. But it would be a regrettable mistake for us to surrender this policy conversation on the very cusp of its mainstream debut. Now is the time to make clear that trimming the Pentagon budget must not precipitate a scramble to find faster, sleeker, or cheaper ways to fight our wars. Rather, we should correlate a reevaluation of our budget priorities to a similar reevaluation of our global priorities.

In early April of this year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) will release its calculations of global military spending for 2010. We estimate that this figure could reach $1.6 trillion. Already we’ve tried to show what this means in terms of what we’re not investing in public health, education, and the environment:

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Even humbly illustrated by our cut paper flags, the disparity is astounding.

So on April 12, 2011, the Institute for Policy Studies and the International Peace Bureau will host a Global Day of Action on Military Spending. Peace groups, budget priority activists, arms control advocates, and concerned citizens the world over will hold public demonstrations calling attention to the disparity between bountiful global investments in war-making and the worldwide neglect of social priorities. When newspapers cover the SIPRI numbers, perhaps they will illustrate their coverage with photographs of their own readers demonstrating against everything those numbers entail -- rather than reaching for a stock photo of a desert tank.

Budget deficits may have given us an audience, but decades of failed militarist policies have given us a cause. We need public pressure to ensure that these cuts actually happen and that our money is reinvested in the public interest.

Scores of event organizers from some two-dozen countries have already joined us. Don’t let Erskine Bowles or Alan Simpson be the strongest voice you have. If you have ever suspected that your government’s relentless pursuit of military technology has negatively impacted your planet or your community, we hope you will visit us at and get involved.


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