Understandably, there is a lot of discussion this week about how the United States should operate as a global power. Political leaders and pundits recognize that the chaotic end of America’s longest war represents a critical juncture for foreign policy. But the increasingly crude, and often clueless, wrangling over the withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan is making it clear that Americans do not agree—even within the major parties and ideological camps of the country—on a direction forward.
Indeed, there are those on the right who propose a back-to-the-future turn that will repeat the mistakes of the past.
Neocon hawks like Wyoming Republican Representative Liz Cheney argue that the United States must remain a global police officer, occupying distant lands—including Afghanistan. Conservatives of a more isolationist bent, such as Tucker Carlson, are warning against welcoming refugees from Afghanistan. (“First we invade, then we’re invaded,” Carlson said.) And, stirring the pot with xenophobia, conservative talker Charlie Kirk, an ally of former president Trump, ranted, “Joe Biden wants a couple hundred thousand more Ilhan Omars to come into America to change the body politic permanently.”
Omar, the Democratic representative from Minnesota whom the right loves to hate, has responded with the wisdom and clarity of someone who, perhaps better than anyone else in Congress, understands the damage that misguided foreign policies do to the most vulnerable people in the world. “I agree with President Biden: an endless American military occupation of Afghanistan was unacceptable,” Omar said. “War and conflict never produce peace and stability. Violence and militarism, even when cloaked in the language of humanitarianism, are fundamentally at odds with human flourishing and opportunity.”
Omar dismissed the “fear-mongering,” and outlined a cogent case for the United States to welcome refugees from Afghanistan recognize the many contributions they will make. Striking the balance between supporting a necessary withdrawal of the US troops and welcoming Afghan citizens who are now, as Omar notes, “fleeing for their lives,” is not difficult. It is the realistic and humane response that this urgent moment demands.
But what of the next moment? It’s time to start shaping an new approach to foreign policy that moves the United States away from reactive militarism and toward the diplomatic and humanitarian responses that forge a safer and more secure world.
Representative Mark Pocan, the Wisconsin Democrat who has been Barbara Lee’s frequent ally in the struggle to reduce military spending, has a simple plan for getting started. The former Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair, who now cochairs the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus, has introduced the COVID Defense Act, a plan to transfer 1.3 percent of US military spending to global vaccination efforts.
The $9.6 billion shift in spending priorities, while small in the context of the Pentagon’s $740.5 billion budget, would more than double the amount of money available for vaccine production, procurement, and distribution internationally. This move, Pocan explains, could enable perhaps another 30 percent of the world’s vulnerable population to have access to a Covid vaccine. Doing that will curtail the spread of Covid-19 variants that threaten everyone.
“We can’t bomb our way out of a global pandemic,” the congressman said.
Right now, COVID is the greatest risk to our national security as well as the world’s security. Shifting funds from weaponry and military contractors to producing COVID vaccines will save hundreds of thousands–if not millions–of lives around the world. At a time when America spends more on its military than the next 11 closest nations combined, we should be able to sacrifice a little over 1 percent of that to save lives, build global goodwill, and actually make the world a safer, healthier place.
The building of global goodwill is no small matter. By signaling that the United States is prepared to help the planet’s most vulnerable countries to address a global crisis, US policy-makers can increase their influence with regard to the pandemic fight and other challenges—including the climate crisis, poverty, and regional conflicts.
“I can think of no effort that would do more to positively position the United States around the world,” Pocan said, “than distributing vaccines.”