Biden Gets Push From Left-Leaning Groups to Slash Pentagon Budget

Some groups haven’t had luck getting through the door, sources tell Foreign Policy.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden addresses the crowd during a campaign launch party in Columbia, South Carolina, on Feb. 11.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden addresses the crowd during a campaign launch party in Columbia, South Carolina, on Feb. 11. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

A month after Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed his rival Joe Biden as the Democratic Party’s candidate to take on President Donald Trump in November, the former U.S. vice president is getting a strong push from progressive groups to swiftly move his foreign-policy platform to the left.

In a letter shared exclusively with Foreign Policy organized by Demand Progress, more than 50 groups, including Code Pink, Greenpeace, and MoveOn, are asking Biden to shift his priorities further to the left by slashing the Defense Department’s budget by $200 billion each year and to reverse some of Trump’s biggest military priorities, such as refurbishing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and shelving the creation of the Space Force as the sixth branch of the military.  

“For decades, U.S. foreign policy has been overly focused on confrontation with perceived adversaries and the global projection of U.S. military power,” the groups say in the letter, set to be sent to the Biden campaign on Monday. “Doing so has militarized our response to global challenges, distorted our national security spending priorities, toxified our political discourse, and left us woefully ill-prepared to confront the growing transnational threats to human security we face today that do not have military solutions.”

“The American people are looking for a leader who will turn the page on 9/11 policies that have resulted in an endless cycle of war,” the letter states. The groups are also asking Biden to curb the Trump administration’s campaign of sanctions and military pressure against Iran if elected and to reengage diplomatically with Russia, China, and North Korea.

Advocates say Monday’s letter is likely to be the only salvo pushing Biden toward the left on foreign policy during the 2020 campaign. But as the coronavirus pandemic has emptied Washington’s proverbially smoke-filled rooms in favor of Zoom conferences, there are mixed assessments from Democrats about whether Sanders’s message is breaking through.  

“It’s been challenging getting specific commitments on many of these issues from the Biden campaign,” Yasmine Taeb, a senior policy counsel at Demand Progress and an organizer of the letter, told Foreign Policy. “We also wanted to ensure Biden’s campaign understands how important these foreign-policy issues are to the grassroots.”
Taeb said the signatories are hoping to get a meeting with Biden’s staff as a follow-up to the letter to discuss their concerns, which also include sunsetting the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force used as a legal justification for the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, admitting more refugees into the United States, and opposing interventions and sanctions aimed at regime change.

For its part, Biden’s team—comprising mostly centrists who staffed the Obama administration—has showed a willingness to engage with the Sanders campaign in recent weeks, Foreign Policy recently reported, touching base with members of the Vermont senator’s team in attempts to develop a unified foreign-policy platform. Matt Duss, Sanders’s foreign-policy advisor in the Senate, said the talks have been “encouraging.”

But a source familiar with the talks between the two camps told Foreign Policy that the conversations had not advanced beyond informal dialogues despite the amicable ending to the primary season, as the Sanders campaign was not populated by former Clinton and Obama administration officials, who staffed up with his Democratic rivals.  

Sanders supporters need to be able to make the case to Biden that leaning left on foreign-policy issues can be a winner in a general election campaign, experts said, just as Barack Obama used his opposition to the Iraq War and willingness to talk to Iran without preconditions to catapult himself to the White House in 2008.

“The defining difference for Obama with Hillary [Clinton] and [John] McCain was his Iraq position,” Joel Rubin, the former director for Jewish outreach on the Sanders campaign, told Foreign Policy. “That differentiation issue for Biden versus Trump has not yet been defined, but Iran could be one.”

“The political value of these positions needs to be demonstrated to the Biden team,” said Rubin, who also served as a deputy assistant secretary of state during the Obama administration. Duss, the Sanders advisor, said staffers for the senator “hope and expect” Biden will fill key roles in his administration with progressives if he’s able to defeat Trump in November.

Biden has supported key progressive priorities mentioned in the letter in the past, such as the closure of the Guantánamo Bay prison facility that stalled under the Obama administration and that signatories of the letter are pushing for him to shutter. He also backed a War Powers Resolution that passed both houses of Congress in 2019 to end U.S. backing for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. 

But despite being a foreign-policy outlier in some respects, the former vice president, who helped oversee an expansion of U.S. troop involvement in Afghanistan and the start of a six-year U.S.-led effort to drive the Islamic State out of Iraq and Syria, has been reticent to uproot U.S. forces from the post-9/11 wars. 

The Delaware Democrat supports what he calls a “counterterrorism-plus” strategy that would leave small contingents of U.S. special operations forces stationed abroad to train up and provide extra firepower for local troops fighting the Islamic State and al Qaeda, similar to the Pentagon’s “by, with, and through” strategy that took shape under the Obama and Trump administrations.

Progressives may seek to push back against Biden’s insistence on keeping residual forces abroad if he takes the White House in November.

“Progressives just need to keep organizing and mobilizing behind the goal of ending the forever wars and strengthening nonmilitary elements of our foreign policy,” said Duss, the Sanders advisor. “I think we already had a strong case, but the pandemic has shown as clearly as possible that so many of our country’s security priorities and investments over the past two decades have been not just wrong but counterproductive, and it’s time for a major shift.” 

But the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has frozen most of the 200,000 U.S. troops stationed overseas in place as the Pentagon explores how to safely resume operations, is already creating downward pressure on the Defense Department budget and leading to calls from high-ranking Democrats for further cuts.

“Of all the needs that we face in this country, [my priority is not] to spend more money on basic DoD to go buy more planes or ships or boats or anything like that,” Rep. Adam Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters on a call last month.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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