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A good question

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congressional candidate from New York’s 14th District, who stunningly won her party’s nomination in the June primary, wondered in a CNN interview why the U.S. can afford trillions of dollars for “tax cuts and unlimited war” but not for Bernie Sanders-style “Medicare-for-all.”

It’s a great question that addresses the fundamentals of America: our values, traditions, culture, national security, obligations to our citizens, and indeed the very nature of our democracy. It’s also a question that many Democrats wrestle with.

Republicans, of course, are notorious for their dedication to spending on national defense and cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans. They have historically shown little or no interest whatsoever in issues involving healthcare or the environment. In this sense, Republicans are a very predictable party. They don’t seem to have any deep conflicts, in a philosophical or political sense. They want a few, simple things, and they talk about them, over and over.

Democrats are more complicated. We do have an idealism that is rooted in European-socialist or Democratic-socialist thinking, but we also recognize that national defense is vital. We’re generally opposed to cutting taxes on the rich, but any honest Democrat will admit that taxes are really high, especially when you combine federal, state and local taxes, which together take more than a third of my income.

So when Republicans make their anti-tax speeches, they find some receptivity in Democrats like me. Which leads to Ocasio-Cortez’s remark, and specifically to the question of how Democrats feel about “unlimited war.”

War has characterized American foreign policy from its beginnings. America has fought 12 major wars since the Revolution, but in addition we have been involved in countless smaller ones, from Teddy Roosevelt’s Panama conflict to the Iranian coup to Reagan’s invasions of Grenada and U.S. involvement in El Salvador. Speaking as a loyal Democrat, I believe that war is sometimes necessary. We can argue over just how necessary any particular war is, and we will seldom reach agreement. But the U.S. cannot unilaterally renounce war until everyone else does.

The distinction, though, between wars of necessity and wars of choice is vital. America is currently fighting in Yemen (through Special Forces and other means of support) and in Syria (ditto). Are these wars necessary to our national security, or are they discretionary? I don’t think one American out of twenty could tell you why we’re there, except to utter some vague generality about Israel’s security (what does that have to do with Yemen?), or oil (which both Yemen and Syria produce). Even more generally, supporters of our involvement might argue that we’re fighting to keep Iran (and its ally, Russia) from getting too strong in the Middle East.

These are intellectually acceptable reasons for war, but more and more Americans are wondering why we have to be the world’s policeman. To those of us of a certain age, we’ve grown up with warnings from American Presidents, Democratic and Republican, of threats that never happened. For instance, we fought in Vietnam for decades, but in the end, after the Communists won, nothing bad happened, and today Vietnam and the U.S. are trading partners. So why did 58,000 American soldiers have to die there?

I think this is what Ocasio-Cortez was hinting at in her remark. It seems to me that we can be more thoughtful and less reactive when it comes to committing American forces, equipment and money to overseas wars. Donald Trump certainly takes a classic Republican position in favoring a strong, assertive and sometimes violent American foreign policy, but Obama, and Clinton before him, also asserted American strength overseas; and we may be certain that any President’s foreign policy advisors and national security experts will push him in the direction of involvement. So was isn’t just a Democratic-Republican distinction.

The plain and simple fact is that we simply don’t know what would happen were we to cut the Pentagon’s budget somewhat and invest that money into domestic needs, like healthcare. Republicans love to terrify their base with stern lectures about foreigners invading us and turning the U.S. into a (pick your favorite) Communist, or Islamic, or Mexican, or Chinese, or European socialist, or North Korean colony. But there’s no evidence that the Pentagon needs the $700 billion Trump has given it.

That’s a lot of money—precisely the result of the “military-industrial complex” that Dwight Eisenhower, a solid Republican, warned us about 57 years ago. Yet such is the power of fear, and of Republicans’ skillful use in instigating it, that most Americans remain terrified of the prospect of being too weak to resist aggression. Implanted in our memories is the history of British-French appeasement of Hitler, with all the hideous consequences.

So I admit to being conflicted myself. Will Republicans be able to use Ocasio-Cortez (and Bernie Sanders) to scare enough swing voters to vote Republican? Will they be able to scare Americans that the cost of Medicare-for-all (estimated at $32.6 trillion over ten years by an outfit funded by the Koch Brothers) will bankrupt us? They’ll certainly try.

We need to have this discussion, but unfortunately, Democrats are more willing to have it than Republicans. Republicans resort to their standard litany of fear-mongering and accusing Democrats of hating America—a litany sadly accelerated by the current president, who appeals also to the under-education of his base. I never, ever heard of a Democrat who didn’t want to defend America vigorously, but almost every Republican nowadays seems to want to strip every social program to the bones and throw massive amounts of money at the Pentagon while cutting taxes on the rich—exactly as Ocasio-Cortez said.

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    “most Americans remain terrified of the prospect of being too weak to resist aggression.”
    Back during the run-up to the 1st Gulf War, I met with a real estate agent in California who said that we had to stop Hussein now, because we don’t want him “to come over here.” I wanted to ask her if she thought that Hussein was planning to make a tour of the US or something like that.
    As to our current military ventures, there seem to be so many in so many places that fly under the radar. And when I did a search for a list of all the countries in which we have military bases, I was astounded at the number (although I forget what it was).

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