The United States may have the best opportunity in decades to persuade Congress to fund the peaceful prevention of deadly conflict.
Skeptical? That’s understandable, considering Congress’s continued financial support for the Iraq war and its long-standing penchant for funding war and ignoring programs that could prevent violence before it starts. As we write this article, the U.S. has 160,000 troops in Iraq, and even after a planned drawdown of forces, at least 100,000 U.S. troops will almost certainly remain in Iraq at the end of 2008. And rather than cutting the military budget, most of Congress is talking about how to "rebuild" the U.S. military, which has been so run down by the war in Iraq.
Persuading Congress to invest in peace might seem unlikely, but the next two years may provide a historic opportunity to change the debate in this country and convince Congress to invest in nonmilitary conflict response and prevention tools. At no time since September 11, 2001, have people in the United States been so receptive to a real shift away from a pattern of ever-increasing military expenditures.
The Iraq war has exhausted the patience of the U.S. public, and bipartisan majorities are now calling for a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and opposing any increase in overall military spending. According to a December 2006 poll conducted by the Program on Peace and International Affairs at University of Maryland, 83 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans believe government spending on the military should either be capped at current levels or cut. A February 2008 Gallup poll found that the percentage of people in the U.S. who believe the government is spending too much on the military is the highest it has been in more than 15 years. In that poll, 44 percent of respondents said the U.S. is spending too much on the military; another 30 percent said defense spending was about right; and only 22 percent of those questioned supported increasing the military budget.
Despite this shift in public opinion, U.S. military expenditures keep increasing. Using figures from the White House Office of Management and Budget, FCNL estimates that for fiscal year 2008 (FY08), 94 percent of the funds requested for U.S. engagement in the world are for the military, and only 6 percent are for diplomacy, development assistance, and support for institutions that could prevent future wars before they break out and halt the spread of armed conflict. And the war chest just keeps growing. If Congress approves the President’s FY09 budget request, for the first time in history the total U.S. military budget will exceed $1 trillion. Even without including Iraq war spending, the military budget has increased by 70 percent since President George W. Bush took office—and that’s according to White House figures. FCNL estimates that the budget may have grown by more than that.
The glaring failure of the war in Iraq to establish a peaceful, democratic state demonstrated to the world the limits of military force. The United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars to prepare for wars, but it is woefully unprepared and underequipped to mitigate or eliminate the root causes of violent conflict through effective and well-funded civilian peacekeeping and conflict prevention programs. Without developing new civilian capabilities and strengthening existing nonmilitary tools, the U.S. government will continue to resort to its massive war machine for solutions to all problems.
One doesn’t have to be Quaker to understand the importance of nonmilitary engagement to national security. Some of the strongest advocates of better funding for diplomatic initiatives and nonmilitary international support programs have been Defense Department and military officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. "What is clear to me is that there is a need for a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security—diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development," Gates said in November 2007.
Currently, the United States is ill-equipped for active and sustained engagement with other nations on the civilian level. As of January 2008, the U.S. State Department has 1,000 unfilled diplomatic positions, leaving empty desks at U.S. Embassies around the world. Too often, functions necessary for reconstruction in post-conflict zones are performed by the U.S. army, despite a lack of training.
Since President Bush took office, the relationship between the United States and the UN has continued to erode, with the U.S. increasingly taking unilateral action against perceived threats since the start of the administration’s Global War on Terror. The United States has accrued millions of dollars in debt to the UN by failing to pay the full amount of its assessed dues for both the regular and peacekeeping budgets. The U.S. has also been slow to cooperate in multinational UN peacekeeping efforts, despite a government study showing that U.S. peacekeeping missions are approximately twice as expensive as similar initiatives undertaken by the UN.
Despite voters’ growing wariness of the bloated military budget, too few candidates in the 2008 elections have endorsed a shift in spending priorities away from the military and toward programs that promote diplomacy and prevent violent conflict. As we write this, all of the major presidential candidates and a large number of candidates for Congressional seats still state that they want to increase military spending and grow the size of the military by tens of thousands of troops.
With public opinion calling for an alternative to military solutions, voters have a clear opportunity to demand a priorities shift from their elected officials . . . who will be listening especially closely from now until November. The 2008 elections offer a platform to convince members of Congress and the next President that the world is better served when the U.S. invests in peace, not war.
The U.S. public has made peace, not endless military spending, a top priority. We encourage you to ask the candidates the hard questions this election season—and keep asking until they, too, have made peace their top priority.