From The Intercept, June 18, 2020
This is a transcript of an episode of the Deconstructed Podcast featuring Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy advisor Matt Duss with Mehdi Hasan.
THE UNITED STATES has by far the world’s largest military budget, accounting for 15 percent of all federal spending and nearly half of all discretionary spending. Presidents of both parties have repeatedly failed to bring the Pentagon budget under control. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has been one of the loudest voices in Congress arguing for substantial cuts; his senior foreign policy adviser, Matt Duss, joins Mehdi Hasan to make the case for defunding the Pentagon.
Matt Duss: This global War on Terror, keeping the United States on a global war footing, has corroded our own democracy, it has led to a politics of even more intense bigotry, and it has produced what we see in our streets—it produced Donald Trump!
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Mehdi Hasan.
Last week, we talked defunding the police. This week: Is it time to defund the military?
MD: Can we keep our people safe with less than we are spending now? Absolutely we can.
MH: That’s my guest today, Matt Duss, senior foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders.
But is cutting America’s bloated war budget, is taking on the all-powerful Pentagon, a progressive pipe dream or an idea whose time has finally come?
Let’s do a quick quiz.
Question 1: What is the biggest office building in the world?
Answer: The Pentagon. Six and a half million square feet of total floorspace — three times the size of the floor space of the Empire State Building. It’s big.
Question 2: Who or what is the biggest employer in the world?
Answer: Yet again, the Pentagon, with nearly three million employees. The Chinese military comes in at second place with just over two million employees, and Walmart is in third place.
Question 3: Which defense department has the biggest military budget in the world?
Answer: You guessed it, the U.S. Defense Department, the Pentagon!
Yes, it’s massive in almost every way you can think about it — beyond huge. The U.S. military budget now stands at $736 billion, which means the Pentagon spends as much money on defense as the next 10 countries in the world combined — combined! In fact, almost four out of every $10 spent on the military, globally, every year, is spent on the U.S. military. That’s kinda ridiculous!
Newscaster: “Defund the police” has gone from a protest chant to a serious topic of policy discussions.
MH: We talk a lot these days about defunding the police, and rightly so. So isn’t time we also talked about defunding the Pentagon, defunding the military?
As with police spending, the U.S. is in a military spending league of its own. And as with police spending, military spending deprives Americans of money that could be much better spent elsewhere.
The Washington Post reported last year that if the U.S. spent the same proportion of its GDP on defense as most European countries do, it “could fund a universal child-care policy, extend health insurance to the approximately 30 million Americans who lack it, or provide substantial investments in repairing the nation’s infrastructure.”
And this isn’t some sort of lefty, liberal social-democratic fantasy — the idea of cutting military spending and using the money to fund other, better, less violent things. Here’s how Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, a former top general, by the way, put it in his “Chance for Peace” speech in 1953:
President Dwight D. Eisenhower: 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.
MH: In his 1961 farewell address, Eisenhower also warned against the power and dominance of the U.S. military industrial complex, which is always pushing for more defense spending — and more war:
DDE: In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.
MH: But Ike’s warnings fell on deaf ears. The peace dividend that was supposed to result from the end of the Cold War never materialized. Under George W. Bush we got the global War on Terror. And Barack Obama may have brought in some modest cuts to the overall defense budget but as the Atlantic magazine pointed out in 2016: “Over the course of his presidency […] the U.S. military will have allocated more money to war-related initiatives than it did under Bush: $866 billion under Obama compared with $811 billion under Bush.”
Today, under Trump, the United States is spending more on its military than at any point since World War II, with the brief exception of the invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s. The Iraq war, by the way, has cost the U.S. more than $2 trillion, the War on Terror, as a whole, more than $6 trillion, and the Pentagon budget, over the next decade, is predicted to cost more than $7 trillion.
Why? Why spend so much on a department of government that can’t even be properly audited, that can’t account for billions and billions of dollars in spending, that’s responsible for so much violence and death around the world — especially the deaths of black and brown people in places like the Middle East or the Horn of Africa?
If you support defunding the police, and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors made the case for it pretty eloquently and convincingly — on this show, just last week. If you support defunding the police, as I do, then you should also support defunding the Pentagon, defunding the military. It’s a no-brainer.
And I say that not just because of the whole Tom Cotton, let’s send in the troops, The New York Times op-ed, or the fact that 30,000 National Guardsmen and 1,600 active-duty military police and infantry were brought in to help local law enforcement — often violently — push back against anti-racism protests across the country in recent weeks.
I say defund the military because this is a violent U.S. institution, with an out-of-control budget, plagued by institutional racism, and filled with armed men who are trained to see most of the black and brown people they encounter abroad as a threat.
Remember: The foreign wars that the U.S. military fights wouldn’t be possible without racism, without a racist view of the world. If you want to bomb or invade a foreign country filled with black- or brown-skinned people, as the United States military so often does, you have to first demonize those people, dehumanize them, suggest they’re backward people in need of saving or savage people in need of killing.
Racism is and always has been an integral part of U.S. foreign policy, a key driver of it. I remember this scathing line that did the rounds after Rodney King was infamously beaten on camera by LAPD officers in 1991: “If America is the world’s policeman, then the world is America’s Rodney King.”
Right now, you have 200,000 U.S. troops stationed overseas in more than 150 countries. You have 800 former U.S. military bases in 80 countries. Just for point of comparison, the other 11 countries in the world that also have bases in foreign countries, have 70 bases between them — between them!
And the United States military presence has, yes, brought peace and order to some parts of the world, I’ll concede that, of course. But it’s also brought a lot of death and destruction and chaos to many other parts of the world. According to a study by Brown University last year, more than 800,000 people have been killed as a direct result of the U.S.-led wars and bombing campaigns in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan since 9/11 — more than a third of them civilians. Many more hundreds of thousands more have been indirectly killed as a result of wars involving the U.S. military — from disease, sewage issues, damage to infrastructure.
Here in the U.S., on the Left at least, we rightly talk about brutal and inexcusable police shootings and killings of unarmed black me. We know the names of Walter Scott, and Eric Garner, and Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice, and, of course, now, George Floyd. Sadly, though, we don’t know the names of the men, women, and children, brutally and unlawfully killed by the U.S. military in massacres at places like Shinwar, Kandahar, and Maywand in Afghanistan; or places like Haditha, Mahmoudiya, and Balad in Iraq. We don’t know the names of the Afghans tortured at the Bagram Air Base prison in Afghanistan, or the Iraqis tortured at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
U.S. taxpayers paid for that torture and for those massacres; we pay for these ongoing, endless wars — for a bloated, corrupt yet endlessly-increasing military budget — and yet we ask very few questions about any of it. You could argue that defunding the military is a more urgent and necessary task than even defunding the police — and it’s an even more open and shut case. Either way, in my view, defunding the police and defunding the military should go hand in hand.
MH: Yet taking on the skyrocketing Pentagon budget, calling for cuts to U.S. military expenditure, is one of the great taboos in Washington DC; it’s saying the unsayable in a town where most Democrats line up behind Republicans and vote through massive increases in defense spending, year after year after year.
One politician has stood out from most of the rest on this issue: Bernie Sanders, independent senator from Vermont, runner-up in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in both 2016 and 2020, who is one of the few members of Congress to pretty consistently vote against increases to the defense budget.
Here he is speaking last year at a rally on precisely that issue:
Senator Bernie Sanders: But it’s not just Wall Street and the drug companies and the insurance companies. And let me say a word about something that very few people talk about, and that is: We need to take on the Military Industrial Complex. [Audience cheers and applauds.] We will not continue to spend $700 billion a year on the military [audience cheers]. We want and need a strong defense. But we do not have to spend more than the next 10 nations combined. [Audience cheers.]
MH: My guest today is Matt Duss, senior foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders. Matt has been credited with helping Senator Sanders bolster his foreign policy credentials and thinking between the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, and has been involved in pushing for tougher action against the Netanyahu government in Israel over the occupied Palestinian territories and the Saudi government in Yemen over their brutal bombing campaign. He’s a former president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a strong critic of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, and he joins me now from his home in Washington, D.C..
Matt, thanks for coming on Deconstructed.
MD: Glad to be here. Thanks, Mehdi.
MH: Do you think the average American voter is aware of the fact that defense spending accounts for nearly half of all discretionary spending in the United States, that the Pentagon spends more on defense than the next 10 countries in the world combined?
MD: I would probably say no, they’re not aware of those details. I think they’re aware of the fact that we spend a lot, but they — I think they’re also not aware, and this is something that Senator Sanders has done so much work on over the years is making clear what we could be spending, you know, a fraction of that amount to get for the American people, whether it’s housing, healthcare, jobs —
MD: — education.
And I think that’s the conversation he and many other progressives want to be having right now, especially, as we see, you know, just clearly over the past couple months, in the face of this pandemic, how our security investments over the past decades have just been so many of the wrong places.
MH: Sometimes I think Americans would pay more attention if the Defense Department went back to being the War Department, as it was known until 1947 and we had a secretary of war instead of a secretary of defense.
MD: No, I think there’s something to that. I mean, you know, defense is, obviously, yes, who doesn’t want to defend themselves? We should defend ourselves when we need to; war is a much more aggressive term.
But especially over the past several decades with the Global War on Terror, the continually rising defense budget, and, add to that, the overseas contingency operations which is essentially, you know, an ongoing annual slush fund that’s recharged to allow the Defense Department in the U.S. to essentially conduct these military interventions off the books, and just put this on the backs of our children and grandchildren to have to pay for.
MH: How much of America’s aggressive foreign policy, Matt, is driven by the militarization of foreign policy? And how much of that militarization is driven by racism, among other things?
MD: Well, I think there’s two parts of that question. They’re both extremely important.
I think, you know, going back to, at least President Eisenhower, when he was leaving office, famously warned against the rise of a “Military Industrial Complex,” the term that he coined. And the general idea was, as you saw these defense contractors becoming more powerful and influential, and this kind of, you know, policy infrastructure growing up around America’s, you know, growing global role, that these interests would come to exert dangerous influence over the creation of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. defense policy, and I would say that that has come true, you know, in far worse and more dangerous way than I think even Eisenhower himself feared.
MD: You know, the second piece of that — listen, America was founded on, you know, partially, you know, on the idea of white supremacy. This is a country that was founded on, with slavery — that was built on the backs of enslaved African human beings. We have dealt with this problem for a long time; we’re still dealing with it.
We’ve had advances, no doubt: the Civil Rights Movement, the right to vote, we’ve made improvements. But the fact of the matter is, this is deeply ingrained in American culture, American politics, and so it only makes sense that it would be reflected in our foreign policy, in our defense policy.
You know, having said that, it’s also worth recognizing that the U.S. military is one of the more successful and early examples of integration. But still, to answer your question, I think we do see a lot of racism reflected in American foreign policy and this is only become more apparent with the Global War on Terror, which is shot through with wild claims about Muslims, about Arabs, you know, fear mongering about — whatever, creeping Sharia, you can run down the list, you know, these, you know, these kinds of propaganda claims very well.
And I think this is something that Senator Sanders has also spoken about a lot. If you go back to his, the piece he wrote in Foreign Affairs a year ago, where he talked about ending endless war, not only ending these large military interventions that we’ve been engaged in over the past several decades, but understanding the way that the, you know, this Global War on Terror, keeping the United States on a global war footing, has corroded our own democracy; it has led to a politics of, of even more intense bigotry and marginalization, of underprivileged communities, and it has produced what we see in our streets, it produced Donald Trump.
MD: You know, so understanding that this is, he’s, Donald Trump is a product of these trends, he’s not the cause of them.
MH: And just to be clear, for our listeners, you mentioned Senator Sanders. As a member of the House, he was an outspoken leading opponent of the war in Iraq in 2003. But he did vote for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 —
MH: — which is still with us, the Afghan war is still not over, a lot of people lost their lives there, continue to lose their lives there, a lot of blood and treasure, as the phrase goes, lost there. I think he regrets that vote now, am I right in saying?
MD: Well, he did say that in one of the primary debates, where he says, now, looking back —
MH: Yes, he praised Barbara Lee for being the only vote against.
MD: Exactly. And she deserves enormous praise. She was a lone voice who had the foresight to recognize [that] by giving the Bush administration a blank check to conduct an endless war, that we were really moving into uncharted and dangerous territory. And she was absolutely correct about that; Senator Sanders has recognized that. I think, more and more, people are now recognizing that.
You can say, at the moment, after 9/11, I think there was, you know, certainly some justification for, for moving against al Qaeda, but creating this open-ended definition of, you know, War on Terror, and this —
MD: — authorization that was endless and defines no actual end state for when the authorization ends is, has been disastrous for our country and for so many communities around the world.
MH: Yeah, there was this time I remember when Afghanistan was the good war and Iraq was the bad war.
MH: And I think we now belatedly recognize, 19 years later, that they were both bad wars in their own ways. In your view, Matt, and you’ve been covering and working on this stuff in this town for a while now, who or what is mainly to blame for the militarization of U.S. foreign policy? Is it a hawkish ideology? Is it politicians just trying to look tough? Is it lobbying by the Military Industrial Complex that you mentioned, by the Lockheed Martin’s and Raytheon’s of this world?
MD: Well, I think it’s all of the above. I mean, each of those things plays its part. I mean, certainly, you know, we talked already about the Military Industrial Complex, you know, which we could expand to, you know, include the Military Industrial-Think Tank Complex; a lot of these think tanks are funded either by defense contractors, by large multinational corporations —
MD: — or, in some cases, by, you know, you know, foreign countries that want to keep us engaged in their region and doing their work for them. So that’s part of the challenge.
I think there’s definitely the political aspect of, you know, quite simply, politicians are deathly afraid of appearing weak on security or weak on terror. And you definitely have this kind of media infrastructure, this right-wing media infrastructure, that is created to press that, to constantly keep, you know, politicians, you know, on their, on their, on their heels, afraid to kind of offer any kind of alternative, less militaristic vision.
But I think you also have, and I think there was a couple of very, very good pieces recently written on this: one was by Jeremy Shapiro, just this week in The Boston Review, and another was by Emma Ashford, from the Cato Institute, in Foreign Affairs a couple weeks ago, dealing with this issue of, you know, what’s been called the blob. Ben Rhodes coined that term, but it’s a general term to say, you know, the conventional wisdom about America’s, you know, powerful global role. And I think those two pieces do a good job of laying out, you know, this is kind of a self-perpetuating ideology that creates certain incentives and rewards for people who kind of reproduce this idea without ever seriously challenging the basic premise that the United States needs to be present all over the world; we need to have troops stationed all over the world, or else the world will fall into chaos.
MH: And it’s a bipartisan argument, of course.
MD: Exactly right.
MH: As the War on Terror was bipartisan, too. When you see military helicopters buzzing protesters — like they do in war zones — low-flying over protesters in Washington, D.C., to try and disperse them on the orders of top officials at the Pentagon. Isn’t that just the War on Terror coming home, as some of us warned it inevitably would?
MD: No, I think that is absolutely correct. I mean, that—that is—we’ve been seeing this for a while, we’ve seen these programs that, you know, you’ve got, we’ve been spending so much in the military, the military has all this equipment, they then transfer it to these police departments, police departments want it, they want to use it.
We see policemen now dressed, you know, in just completely military garb, as if they were patrolling the streets of, you know, Fallujah. Not to say that we want them patrolling the streets of Fallujah. But yes, absolutely — we see this the War on Terror coming home, we saw the, you know, the helicopter buzzing protesters off [of] Lafayette Square.
And, you know, listen, American policing has had problems for a very long time. I mean, the problems that we’re seeing over, you know, the demonstrations in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, these are problems that are deep-seated and go back, you know, decades, if not centuries. But I think the way that the War on Terror has said this, has really brought it to a new and extremely dangerous level, and I think these activists and demonstrators —
MH: Yes, which is—
MD: — deserve an enormous amount of credit for surfacing these issues.
MH: And is, which is why I wanted to do the show on this topic today, and have you on, because you can’t just talk about the police in a vacuum.
MD: Yeah. Right.
MH: The military angle is absolutely crucial to understanding this.
I mean, we’ve had reports of troops on standby in recent weeks ready to intervene against the protesters, not just with bayonets, but with live ammunition. How is that not a bigger story, I wonder, a bigger scandal? Shouldn’t the likes of Senator Sanders and other senior Democrats in congress be demanding hearings on this? Whether American troops were going to fire on American citizens with live ammunition?
MD: No, I, I think they should. I think I mean, if we want to talk about the way that Congress is not responding to this moment in the way that it should, I mean, add this to the list of things.
MD: But I think we did see, I think a really important push back on this absolutely bonkers op-ed that Tom Cotton published in the New York Times, I think, there’s a really —
MH: “Send In The Troops.”
MD: “Send In The Troops” — a very valid debate about whether they should have published that in the first place. My own view is The New York Times should not give its imprimatur to those kinds of ideas; if you want to know what Tom Cotton thinks, there’s lots of places he can go and publish that. It’s no secret.
But I think the response to that, to understand what he was actually saying, to use the U.S. military against American civilians in American streets, I think you understand how this, this whole debate has gotten so far off the rails.
MH: I just wonder, is this a way to try and get Americans, ordinary Americans, to take the militarization of foreign policy, the endless wars, the crazy Pentagon budget more seriously, by tying it to what’s happening now, on their streets?
Matt, I was interviewing Jamaal Bowman the other day who’s running for congress against incumbent Eliot Engel, who’s Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, I know he’s been endorsed by your boss, by Senator Sanders, among others. And he and I were talking about how hard it is to get voters to take foreign policy issues — foreign wars, even — more seriously. A lot of Americans, understandably, are focused on domestic concerns. How do you get them to take foreign policy seriously?
MD: [Laughs.] You know, as someone who’s worked in foreign policy for over a decade, that’s — that is a challenge.
And I understand. The fact is, most people are — they’re concerned with issues that are more immediate to them. That’s entirely reasonable. So yes, finding ways to talk about foreign policy in a way that actually addresses, you know, people where they are, you know, it’s important. But at the same time, while I agree with you that we should try and use this moment and understand the way that our War on Terror has now come home to us in our streets, we also don’t want to distract from the, you know, the much more deep-seated problems of white supremacy and racism that are being reflected and, you know, that are driving this violence.
MH: Isn’t the problem, ironically, that for a lot of voters foreign policy is something distant and not immediate, as you say; for a lot of elected politicians, though, foreign and defense policy is seen mainly through a domestic prism, in the form of, you know, jobs, defense contracts, economic concerns in their home states?
Even your boss, Bernie Sanders, isn’t immune from that either. He’s been criticized by some on the Left for backing, over the years, military industrial investments in Vermont for the sake of jobs. He backed hosting Lockheed Martin’s controversial F-35 Fighter Jets, I think, which cost more than $1 trillion ,and a couple of them are hosted in Vermont, and he got criticized by lefties in Vermont for that.
That’s a problem for the messaging, isn’t it? For an elected politician who wants to go against the Pentagon budget, but also has to deal with jobs and economic concerns in their home state?
MD: Well, I think the way we, you know, that he has addressed this and I think the way we think about it is like: Listen, we need defense. Jobs are important, but that — that’s not the whole story. I mean, there is a, the budget is about priorities.
So do we need defense? Can we keep our people safe with less than we are spending now? Absolutely, we can. We do not need to be spending more than the next 11 or 12 countries in the world combined, most of whom happened to be our allies, in order to protect the security and prosperity of the American people.
MD: So I think it’s a question of what priorities are we setting, what are our actual strategic goals for the use of the military, and are we prioritizing the military more than we should be? And Senator Sanders believes clearly we have been.
MH: He has. And he’s been very clear on that, although many would argue the F-35 Fighter Jet is an example of complete wasteful spending by the Pentagon.
He has been very clear on the overall budget issue. You mentioned spending more than the next 10, 11, 12 countries. I mean, the spending increase in 2018, for example, the increase itself, I believe, was bigger than Russia’s entire defense budget — just the increase.
MD: Right. Right.
MH: So why won’t more Democrats, Matt, why don’t they vote against these constant, massive, unnecessary increases to the defense budget? Why do they, why do most of them tend to go along with it?
MD: Well, I think it’s for some of the reasons that, you know, we discussed earlier, I think there’s a concern about being painted as soft on defense. There’s an enormous kind of echo chamber out there that exists precisely to hammer politicians with that message, if — if they’re seen as not supporting the preferences of, you know, defense contractors or the military.
And again, there are some valid issues, certainly with regard to jobs, with making sure that, you know, American military personnel are taken care of. But yeah, I mean, it’s — it’s been a — it’s been a long challenge. It’s been something Senator Sanders has been in for a long time, sounding the alarm on this and trying to get more people together to kind of vote against these enormous and ever-growing defense budgets. But he feels that some are now paying more attention.
MH: It’s so weird to see Democrats, on the one hand, lambast Trump as an authoritarian, as a dictator in waiting, as someone who’s in cahoots with Putin, and then give him more and more money for the military, more and more money to start new wars. It’s just weird to see that happening, that kind of cognitive dissonance.
Just on the budget itself, what would be a good number for the U.S. defense budget. Right now, as we discussed, it’s much, it’s more than the next 10 countries combined. It’s nearly 40 percent of global defense spending. What would be a more appropriate figure? Because, as you say, Senator Sanders isn’t a pacifist. He believes in strong defense, he believes in a military. What’s the right size of a strong U.S. military, in your view, in his view?
MD: Well, right now he’s working on an amendment for the National Defense Authorization Act, which is in the process of being negotiated right now an amendment that would cut, for a start, the defense budget by 10 percent.
So that, that would be about $75 billion out of a, you know, $700 billion, or maybe, $78 billion, of a $780 billion budget, which is enormous. But as a way to start to say, we’re going to take 10 percent, and then we’re going to invest that, we’re going to create a grant program for support for education, for jobs, for housing, in communities that have — that have a large percentage of people living in poverty. And that’s a start, but it’s also a way of saying this is where we should be prioritizing. These are the communities that need this money.
MH: Well, I’m glad he’s doing that. And I hope we make some headway.
So he’s good at taking on military budgets, but Bernie seems less keen on defunding the police. He’s come out very strongly against any move to abolish the police. And while he told The New Yorker recently that, yes, he wants to, “redefine what police departments do,” which is a good thing, he doesn’t seem to want to reduce police budgets in any meaningful way.
MD: Yeah, I think the way he’s approached this is to say we really need to radically redefine the role of police in our communities. Certainly he has been extremely supportive of the demonstrations; he recognizes that these activists and demonstrators on the street have played an enormously important role in focusing the country’s attention on the very, very serious problem of police violence and racist violence and white supremacy that our country still is grappling with.
So he’s put out a series of proposals that would change the way our police operate in their community: much more civilian oversight in, you know, recognizing and rewarding communities and defunding, actually, police forces that have shown to have a real problem with abuse. So while he has not embraced the overall goal of defunding the police, I think he’s put it, he has put out one of the biggest and boldest proposals about how to radically redefine what the police do.
MH: You mentioned leaders. We’re a few months away from a historic presidential election. The Democratic nominee who Bernie Sanders endorsed, who Bernie Sanders calls a friend of his, Joe Biden, is one of the Democratic Party’s best-known and long-standing hawks. You talked about the blob earlier; I think Joe Biden is a card carrying member of the blob. Do you believe we’re going to see any change from a President Biden, when it comes to a militarized, Pentagon-first foreign policy when it comes to the sprawling U.S. military presence around the world?
MD: Well, I think we’ve seen some movement from Biden.
I mean, first of all, as you say, yes. I mean, Biden, you know, we know his views on foreign policy going back for many decades. He supported the Iraq War; Senator Sanders was critical of that. But I do think it’s worth noting that there were certain instances, especially during the Obama administration, where Biden was a voice of restraint, whether we’re talking about the Afghanistan surge in the early part of the Obama presidency, the Libya intervention — which turned into a regime-change operation, which created an enormous disaster in Libya, which is still impacting the region.
So yeah, I think — listen, I don’t — I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. I think Biden is more hawkish than a lot of progressives would like to see. But he’s also someone who I think is engaged with this discussion that’s happening in the party, and more broadly, in the country. His team has signaled both privately and publicly that they want to be talking to progressive voices on foreign policy. And so, you know, Senator Sanders —
MH: Have they reached out to you?
MD: We have talked, yes. We talk pretty regularly. And I appreciate that.
So again, I would love to see some more movement on some of these policies. I think we should recognize where Biden has moved. I think, for example, the commitment on Biden’s part — and on the part of all the Democratic candidates, by the way — to rejoin the Iran Nuclear Agreement and see broader diplomacy with Iran as a way of dialing down tensions in the region, instead of doing what Trump is doing, which is just backing the Saudis to the hilt in this regional conflict against Iran. I think we need to recognize that as really positive. But we need to continue working and continue pushing.
MH: There’s definitely been a shift from Biden on Saudi Arabia. I think he called him a pariah in one of the debates.
MD: Right. Right.
MH: And a lot of Democrats have moved on Saudi Arabia. And I think people like Bernie Sanders, your boss, and Chris Murphy, senator from Connecticut, have played a strong role in moving elected Democrats on Saudi Arabia — away from Saudi Arabia — which is a good thing.
Biden on his campaign website says “end forever wars” and he also talks about bringing the vast majority of troops home, which are good things in my view. But he also says on his website: “We have the strongest military in the world — and as president, Biden will ensure it stays that way. The Biden administration will make the investments necessary to equip our troops for the challenges of the next century, not the last one.”
Doesn’t sound like a President Biden really is going to do anything about this ballooning U.S. defense budget? Like you mentioned, Bernie Sanders calling for a 10 percent cut, iIs that the kind of thing Biden’s gonna get behind? I find that hard to believe.
MD: Well, I don’t know. But I think the only answer is to continue pressing them on it — talking to them, giving them ideas on this. But again, when Biden talks about the challenges of the 21st century, that’s the debate we need to be in. What are those challenges and what does the United States actually require to help advance the security and the prosperity of the American people as we move into this new era?
I mean, we’re in a moment, and I think this is really encouraging. I mean, for the first time in my lifetime, I think, the most energy — most of the energy we are seeing on questions about American foreign policy, and American national security, is coming from the Left.
We see an array of new groups and voices who are challenging some of these preconceptions, and saying: Listen, we need to radically rethink the way that we look that we seat our own security, and I think the pandemic has really underlined that in a really important way, as I said, to show that all the, you know, the hundreds of billions of dollars we’ve been spending on these, these weapon systems, have not kept the American people safe from this virus. And that’s going to require a radical reconception of what we mean by our own security.
MH: So on that note, Matt, last question. There was an old Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom bumper sticker, back in the Cold War back in the days before going viral, before memes, but it was a very popular sticker.
And it read and I quote, “it will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”
MD: [Laughs.] Yeah.
MH: Are we any closer to that day? Do you think — do you think we’ll see such a day during our lifetimes?
MD: Probably not a bake sale, although I would love to see some of what they would make. Maybe it would be very delicious.
MD: But no, but I think that general — that general sentiment is really important. It’s a sentiment, it talks about priorities: Are we investing enough in our children’s education? Are we investing enough in health care, housing, in jobs? Are we making sure that Americans don’t go into bankruptcy when, when they are hit with, you know, unforeseeable medical emergencies like cancer or other things like that?
So again, this is a really important debate we are now having about what are our actual priorities? Are we taking care of our own people, even as we see to the very real concerns about security?
MH: Matt, we’ll have to leave it there. Thanks so much for joining me on Deconstructed.
MD: Great to be here. Thanks, Mehdi.
MH: That was Matt Duss, senior foreign policy adviser to Bernie Sanders, talking about the Pentagon budget and the need to cut back both the endless wars and the funding for those endless wars. And look, if you support defunding the police, you really should support defunding the military. The two go hand in hand.
MH: That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice: iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much!
See you next week.