Will the Coronavirus Crisis Force America to Look in the Mirror and Reform?

Will the Coronavirus Crisis Force America to Look in the Mirror and Reform?

As the country confronts its new circumstances in the post-COVID-19 period, one of the most important questions it will face is whether the necessity for reform will be strong enough to overcome “the Blob’s” dedication to waging the senseless conflicts of the past rather than confronting the challenges of the present and the future.

Among the many things the global COVID-19 pandemic reveals is the tragic inadequacy of the assumptions and institutions of our national security policy over the past several decades. Despite having the largest military budget in the world, the most expensive health-care system in the world, and leadership of “greatest military alliance in history,” as Jacob Heilbrunn recently put it on these pages, “America is failing abysmally on its most basic moral responsibility: to safeguard the health and welfare of its citizens.”

This tragic failure, however, is an inevitable consequence of the national security establishment’s determination to ignore critical domestic problems for the sake of waging unending (but profitable) Global Wars on Terror and new Cold Wars. Instead of using the potential peace dividend provided by the fall of communism to deal with pressing domestic problems, Washington’s foreign policy nomenklatura adopted the chimerical pursuit of American global hegemony; for instance, in the twenty-six years between 1991–2017, U.S. foreign military interventions increased fourfold as compared to the forty-three year period between 1948-1991 (188 to 46, respectively).

During this time, Washington’s understanding of “national security”—in the sense of protecting and promoting the health, safety and welfare of the population of the United States—became distorted beyond recognition. Building roads and bridges in Anbar province, or schools and hospitals in Helmand, became more important than dealing with problems here at home. For Washington’s national security establishment, as Andrew Bacevich noted, “fixing Iraq or Afghanistan ends up taking precedence over fixing Cleveland and Detroit.”

What the advocates of American empire and permanent global war refuse to admit, however, is how such policies weaken U.S. national security rather than strengthen it. Even as Washington has been waging endless war around the world, life expectancy in the United States has been decreasing (a unique development in advanced industrial democracies); in 1998, for instance, life expectancy in the U.S. fell below the average level for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, and in 2014 US. life expectancy began to decline.

Similar negative societal dynamics and pathologies are visible across a range of issues. To name but a few: 

Kids who go to school hungry may suffer an inability to concentrate and often fall behind academically. Hungry kids are more likely to miss school because of illness, and more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and develop behavioral problems as teenagers. They are more liable to drop out before graduation, which leads to lower paying jobs and a greater probability of being food insecure adults . . . Underscoring the crucial impact a healthy breakfast can have, a 2013 study done by Deloitte for No Kid Hungry found that kids who have regular access to breakfast score 17.5 percent higher on standardized math tests. 

  • Income inequality: The same period that has seen a four-fold increase in U.S. military interventions abroad has also seen tremendous growth in income inequality. According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, between 1978 and 2014 CEO pay increased ninety times more than average workers’ salaries. Thus, whereas the average worker experienced a 10.9 percent increase in wages during this 34-year period, average CEO pay rose a remarkable 997 percent during the same period.

To put this obscene and immoral situation in a different perspective, the top one percent of the U.S. population has as much wealth as the bottom eighty percent. Meanwhile, a different one percent—our all-volunteer military—has been continuously at war for some nineteen years. This one percent has suffered some 7,000 dead and 50,000 wounded.  

  • Crumbling infrastructure: According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the infrastructure of what is supposed to be the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world gets a grade of D+. The poor state of the infrastructure that the American population uses every day is visible across the board, from the country’s airports, to its roads, bridges, highways, school buildings, and broadband internet networks. The ASCE estimates it would cost some $4.6 trillion to get this crumbling infrastructural base back to a satisfactory condition—but apparently our politicians decided that a better use of taxpayer dollars would be better to spend that money on Afghanistan and Iraq. 
  • Gun violence: Violent firearm-related deaths in the United States exceed those of most of the rest of the world, and far exceed those of any other advanced industrial democracy. If one were to factor out deaths due to war, the U.S. has a higher rate of gun violence than Afghanistan and Iraq. To understand the scale of this problem, consider the findings from a recent report: 

“The United States has the 28th-highest rate of deaths from gun violence in the world: 4.43 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017 — far greater than what is seen in other wealthy countries . . . even in conflict-ridden regions such as the Middle East, the U.S. rate is worse . . . U.S. gun violence death rate is higher than in nearly all countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including many that are among the world's poorest . . . the actual U.S. rate of 4.43 deaths per 100,000 is almost 10 times as high [as Canada’s]. And it is 29 times as high as in Denmark.” 

All of these societal pathologies—food insecurity, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, and crime-ridden neighborhoods—have a direct bearing on U.S. national security. According to a report by the blue-star Mission-Readiness Commission, 75 percent of Americans aged 17-24 cannot join the military because they cannot meet minimal educational standards, have a criminal history, or are physically unfit. As the report notes,

The best aircraft, ships, and satellite-guided weapon systems are only as effective as the personnel the military can recruit to operate them . . . But the trends are not encouraging. Too many young people are dropping out of school, getting involved in crime, and are physically unfit . . . Increased investments in high-quality early education are essential for our national security. 

  • National Debt: Finally, it is difficult to overstate the harm that the determination to wage endless war has caused to the country’s economic well-being. The post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere accounted for an estimated $6 trillion (financed through deficit spending) of our overall pre-COVID-19 national debt of some $22 trillion. The dangers of such enormous debt have long been obvious; in 2010, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, claimed that “the most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” 

In the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, we will urgently need to reconsider the moral and social consequences of Washington’s decades’ long determination to privilege the interests of the military-industrial complex and the profit margins of defense contractors over the health and welfare of our own citizens. As President Dwight Eisenhower noted in April 1953, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” And as Martin Luther King Jr. warned us some fifty years ago, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Unfortunately, there is little reason to hope that Washington is capable of the systemic reform needed to move the country in a more positive direction in the post-COVID-19 period. Former president Barack Obama himself implicitly admitted this in his 2012 State of the Union Address when he noted that “The divide between [Washington] and the rest of the country . . . seems to get worse every year,” and other Washington insiders are just as pessimistic. John Hamre, the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently claimed that, “Washington is a giant self-licking ice cream cone. It’s just enjoying itself. And I think it’s completely decoupled from where average Americans are.” Along similar lines, William J. Burns, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has noted “ . . . American citizens are (with some reason) losing faith in their own government. Many years of indiscipline and smugness have led to a yawning gap between the American public and the Washington establishment.”