One of my long-standing suspicions about Barack Obama has been that he thinks our spending on defense is excessive, and could be restrained so that we’d have more money to spend domestic social programs. Of course, a lot of Democrats make this argument explicitly regarding Iraq, but with Obama, it seems more sweeping.
Yesterday, I was reading about Obama’s losing primary race against Rep. Bobby Rush, and I came across another indication that this is the case. A March 12, 2000 Chicago Tribune account of a debate featuring Rush, Obama, and fellow state senator Donne Trotter, reported on the following telling exchange:
One wonders what Obama must have said to Rush that would have prompted such an absurd declaration. Keep in mind that Obama was making these criticisms prior to Iraq and Afghanistan, prior to to the post 9/11 defense buildup, and after a decade long “peace dividend” that had gutted the military. Unfortunately, it may be impossible to know the full context of the exchange, because it doesn’t appear that a record of the debate exists. I called the League of Women Voters, which sponsored the debate, and they said they don’t keep any transcripts or tapes, and as far as I can tell the debate wasn’t broadcast.
Either way, the Tribune account is consistent with other statements Obama has made in the recent past regarding defense spending. In a December 2003 interview he gave while seeking the endorsement of the staunch liberal group IVI-IPO, he was asked, “Do you agree with the current proposed level of funding for the military? If you agree, explain. If you disagree, how would you distribute the funds?”
Here was Obama’s response:
It clearly sounds here as if his critique of defense spending is broader than Iraq. It isn’t merely a matter of reallocating our resources from Iraq to the broader War on Terror, but the ultimate goal is to reduce military spending overall to focus on his domestic priorities
During his current campaign, he has tried to have it both ways. Here’s how I reported things from an Obama town hall meeting I attended in New Hampshire in May of last year:
Before the Rye, New Hampshire town hall meeting I attended, a woman handed out cookies decorated with a pie chart representing the size of the Pentagon budget, suggesting that money wasted on outdated weapons could be diverted to health care and education. (She was with the group PrioritiesNH, which claims to be nonpartisan, but is run by liberal activist Ben Cohen, co-founder of ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s.)
During the question and answer session, Obama was asked about withdrawing all of our troops based throughout the world. Responding, he held up the cookie and noted the disproportionate amount of money America spends on defense relative to the rest of the world. “We spend more money on defense than the next 30 nations combined, “he stressed. “Combined.” Obama acknowledged that “we have very real enemies out there, “but argued that we could be spending money more wisely, and lamented the cost of the Iraq war. Instead of proposing that money saved by pulling out from Iraq be spent to improve national security in other ways, he said we could use the money for early child education, or to expand access to health care. This was quite a different tone from the major foreign policy address he gave a few weeks earlier. In that speech (which got good reviews from neoconservative Robert Kagan), he called for adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines.
The idea that we should be reducing our military expenditures to help fund domestic social programs is popular within the progressive circles that Obama has emerged from, and if he shares that view, it would be nice for him to be clear about it so that he and John McCain can have an honest debate about the proper role of government. But as it stands now, it’s hard to accept as sincere his commitment to strengthening the military when there’s a lot to suggest that he really wants to downsize it.
At the end of the day, this gets to the heart of the problem with Obama. If you want to find out where McCain stands on a given issue, you can go back decades, look at floor speeches, interviews, debates, and votes, to get an idea of whether or not you’re comfortable with him on that issue. But with Obama, if we don’t want to accept uncritically what he is currently saying, all we have to go on to assess his record are scraps of information that provide us with clues, but no firm answers.