In July, Politico ran two opinion articles making the conservative and liberal cases to “Defund the Pentagon.” Both agreed on a fundamental premise to justify defense cuts: The United States military did not protect the American people from COVID-19.
The ongoing pandemic is increasing calls from all sides to spend more on public health infrastructure, infectious disease prevention, and health science research. These priorities do warrant more investment, but in Washington some want the military to be a partial billpayer. That would be a mistake.
The truth is that public safety and national security are equally important. That is because the military only supports the former mission while it helps lead the latter, just as it should be. Unfortunately, the prominence of the military as part of the federal government’s response to the pandemic may have muddied the waters. The Department of Defense is supporting Operation Warp Speed, for example, to develop and deliver a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the year.
However, ensuring both the safety and security of our citizenry is essential. Such important responsibilities should not be formulated as a binary choice. One should not come at the literal expense of the other. These priorities require comprehensive and equitable financial support from policymakers.
In Washington, however, there is a growing divide over safety versus security. Regular people wouldn’t be able to spot a difference, but language matters Inside the Beltway.
The 2020 Democratic Party Platform highlights with certainty that America “can maintain a strong defense and protect our safety and security for less.” Meanwhile, it calls for increased spending on global public health and law enforcement.
The document explicitly makes the case for a zero-sum approach, stating “Rather than occupy countries and overthrow regimes to prevent terrorist attacks, Democrats will prioritize more effective and less costly diplomatic, intelligence, and law enforcement tools.”
Even though US armed forces are regularly called upon to support the safety of citizens here at home — whether from wildfires, hurricane disaster response and relief, processing border crossers, policing protests, bolstering the medical profession in their COVID-19 response, and potentially helping with mail-in voting this November — this domestic work is not their primary responsibility, nor their core expertise.
One could be forgiven for thinking the military is the answer to most of America’s “safety” challenges. But the main job of those in the armed forces is to keep Americans protected from foreign threats reaching our shores, our communities, and our families. Dangers to our wellbeing here at home are handled by organizations like law enforcement, health providers, state and local authorities, non-profit and civic organizations, and more.
Foreign policy and the provision of national security help ensure our domestic peace and tranquility; our way of life. Government spending to defend the nation from problems abroad should cost what it costs. Defense budgets should not be based upon arbitrary finger-in-the-wind targets.
Failing to prepare for the pandemic has led to the deaths of over 180,000 Americans. Yet the weaknesses revealed in our public health systems and facilities, domestic supply chains, and more should not be used as a justification to sabotage the profession of arms.
Security is what the military does best, so let’s leave safety to the professionals here at home.
This article was first published by the American Enterprise Institute in September.