It's Clear America Can Afford Biden's Investments at Home. Just Look at How Much It Spent on Wars.

Katrina vanden Heuvel / The Washington Post
It's Clear America Can Afford Biden's Investments at Home. Just Look at How Much It Spent on Wars. President Biden delivers remarks from the East Room of the White House on Aug. 26. (photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Here’s the price tag: $5.48 trillion. No, that’s not the cost of what President Biden is calling a “generational investment” to rebuild America. That’s the price of the so-called War on Terror since 2001, as detailed by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs — the cost to U.S. taxpayers of sending forces to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other countries in a continuing war that, as Biden implied last week, has metastasized more than it has succeeded.

Roughly half of that total — $2.3 trillion — went into Afghanistan. That total doesn’t include the priceless human cost of nearly 6,300 American lives lost, thousands more wounded, and the vast losses suffered by the Afghan people. Even as the foreign policy establishment savages Biden for ending a 20-year occupation in Afghanistan, one can only be outraged by the money and lives squandered on military adventures that have ended in disgraceful calamities.

Contrast that sum — and those lives — with the $3.5 trillion that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) correctly dubs the “most consequential piece of legislation” since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It would begin to address the existential threat posed by climate change, reduce childhood poverty by half, expand public education from pre-K to free community college, extend health care through Medicare while making drugs more affordable, support families with help for day care, paid family leave and a child allowance and more. It is not enough — but it is a start.

“This is the people’s budget,” Sanders notes. “This is the budget that will impact tens of millions of lives in this country: the elderly, the children, the working families, the middle class.”

Trillions of dollars for debacles abroad versus trillions of dollars for investments at home. Yet, appropriations for the former zip through the Congress while the Biden domestic investments must overcome a filibuster by a unified Republican opposition and posturing by a handful of centrist Democrats demanding cuts.

This isn’t because lawmakers are concerned about deficits. If nothing else, Republicans and hawks agree with what President George W. Bush’s vice president, Richard B. Cheney, said Ronald Reagan had taught us: “deficits don’t matter.” In fact, with the U.S. economy operating far from full capacity, with millions still available to be added to the labor force, and interest rates holding steady, America can afford to do what it needs to do.

Republicans don’t worry about “paying for” the tax cuts they lavish on the rich and corporations. And hawks don’t worry about “paying for” the money squandered on foreign misadventures. Yet, to this day, Republicans denounce domestic investments as “socialism,” and even Democrats — from Biden to Sanders — accept that they must be paid for with offsetting revenue.

The result is plain to see: a wealthy nation that squanders trillions of dollars on failure and folly abroad while its citizens, its economy, its democracy and its security are undermined at home. We are the only advanced country without paid family leave, without affordable day care, without public education pre-K to college. We are lagging, not leading, in the transition to renewable energy. Publicly funded research, earmarked for defense firms, lavishes money on weaponry while investment in civilian technology and in research and development fails to keep up with rivals such as China.

After the debacle in Afghanistan, we need a broad reckoning, a fundamental reassessment of our priorities and our direction. The nation’s security demands it. As the war in Afghanistan ends, the pandemic is spiking once more at home — Europe now moves to ban American visitors because of our rising infection rates. Thanks to climate change, extreme weather — hurricanes, wildfires, floods, droughts — wreaks an increasing toll in lives and destruction. The imperative of addressing these threats to our security could not be more compelling

Already, leading figures in the foreign policy establishment — the architects of past disasters — have concocted a new argument: that Biden was wrong to pull the plug on Afghanistan, that the United States’ security and credibility would be better served by maintaining a small number of troops in that country, backed by drones and air power. The retired generals and intelligence bureaucrats use the chaos and casualties of our exit from Afghanistan to prove their point.

As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told New York Times columnist Ezra Klein: “The pro-war crowd sees this as a mechanism by which they can absolve themselves of an accounting for the last 20 years.”

But now, the failure of the armchair experts is impossible to miss. We need a new generation of security experts and activists — versed in pandemics and in poverty, in climate change and alternative energy, in political economy and diplomacy. We need a new consensus to advocate a strategy of restraint that focuses on diplomatic and economic engagement over military intervention. We must address the security threats we now face rather than continue the vain effort to police the world.

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