In response to recent missile attacks, Syrian President Bashar Assad seems as defiant and determined as ever to pursue war to preserve his regime in power. Most analysts agree that given Russian and Iranian backing and the reality that most deaths and destruction have been caused by conventional weapons, attacks on the regime’s chemical war capacity will have little effect on, and may even further complicate, the already very complex dynamics of the conflict.
What is even more clear, as President Eisenhower wisely warned us, every missile fired robs children who are homeless or hungry and not fed. At a cost of $1 million for each missile, the attacks have added millions to the more than $4 trillion spent so far on wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. This is a staggeringly large spending which could have been allocated to reducing spiraling inequality and eliminating poverty.
It is morally outrageous and socially disastrous that the United States has the second highest overall poverty rate among rich countries and a significantly higher child poverty rate than 30 other industrialized nations, including Poland and Mexico. The poverty rate among children of color in the U.S. is three times the rate among white children.
To make a convincing case for a radical revision in national priorities requires addressing why avoiding war in favor of diplomacy and why spending at much higher levels to eliminate poverty make sense and are interdependent policies.
Taking up the poverty issue first, many conservatives argue that the U.S has spent a lot on safety net programs to reduce poverty, but they haven’t worked. That’s not true. Studies, including recently one by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, show that while benefits of an expanding economy and tightening labor market have gone disproportionately to the wealthy, government assistance programs — including Food Stamps, Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit — have made significant contributions to lowering the child poverty rate.
The lesson learned about eliminating poverty is that, in addition to advocating for workers’ rights, a much higher minimum wage, strict enforcement of federal housing anti-discrimination laws, increased spending on education, and some version of a guaranteed minimum income, safety net programs that are proven to work need to be substantially expanded.
That won’t happen without challenging the war economy and the grossly distorted federal budget, from which more than half of discretionary spending goes to the military. And that won’t happen without challenging our conceited, corporate, and fear-driven foreign policy, often marked more by ignorance and arrogance than by wisdom and sound strategy. Since the end of World War II, starting with Vietnam, our foreign policy has gotten us into wars — including Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria — that we later regret and that we could have and should have avoided. All these wars had the goal of regime change. Whether that goal was achieved or not, in addition to resulting in huge numbers of dead and wounded, and millions of refugees, the wars generated violent instability and often led to strengthening the very political forces they were supposed to defeat. An essential lesson from these wars, as President Trump may be learning, is that it’s much easier to get into a war than to get out of a war.
Beside the horrific human toll, in terms of economic costs, over a 15-year period from 2001 to 2016 the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are estimated to have cost more than $300 billion per year. That is more than the combined total amount allocated in any of these years for the federal departments of education, energy, labor, interior, and transportation. The need for a radical revision of our national priorities is clearer and more urgent than ever.
One important sign of hope is the emerging new version of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The Campaign is challenging the interconnected evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and the threat of ecological devastation. The Campaign is calling on participants to commit to a Covenant of Nonviolence. Recently, training sessions in nonviolence have been held in 46 cities in 30 states, including Olympia, Seattle, and Spokane here in Washington State. During 40 days in May and June, mass nonviolent actions are planned in state capitals in every region of the country to launch a multi-year-campaign, uniting people across communities, issues, and geography.
Much more than commemorating the campaign led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, this Poor People’s Campaign is carrying King’s vision forward with new determination, energy, and urgency. In his last Sunday sermon at the Washington National Cathedral, just days before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King prophetically warned, “America is going to hell if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.”