The conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza are different in kind and require different approaches. But debating the purpose and impact of U.S. arms supplies to Ukraine and Israel could not be more urgent. This is especially true in the case of Israel, given the immense human devastation its attack on Gaza is causing and the real danger of a wider Mideast war.
Yet the Biden administration is striking a common theme in its efforts to persuade Congress to pass a $100 billion-plus emergency package that consists largely of military aid and arms transfers to Ukraine and Israel, as well as Taiwan: U.S. weapons supplies to war zones and regions of tension support U.S. jobs.
President Biden kicked off this line of thinking in his Oval Office speech in which he announced the new emergency aid proposal, referring to the U.S. arms industry as the “arsenal of democracy” and making a not-too-subtle pitch for the economic benefits of U.S. military aid:
“We send Ukraine equipment sitting in our stockpiles. And when we use the money allocated by Congress, we use it to replenish our own stores, our own stockpiles, with new equipment. Equipment that defends America and is made in America. Patriot missiles for air defense batteries, made in Arizona. Artillery shells manufactured in 12 states across the country, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas. And so much more.”
As if that were not enough, Politico has reported that administration officials are now circulating talking points in Congress that argue that providing military aid is “good for American jobs.”
Using the jobs argument to sell weapons transfers is precisely backwards. Selling arms to combatant nations must be justified on the basis of their security and human rights consequences, not the jobs and profits they generate. Former President Donald Trump used the jobs card in touting arms deals with Saudi Arabia at the height of its brutal war in Yemen, even going so far as hailing the benefits of those sales as a reason not to hold the regime accountable for its murder of the U.S.-resident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This tactic was wrong then and it’s wrong now.
In the case of Ukraine, it is essential to keep supporting its ability to defend itself from Russia’s invasion, although sending arms without an accompanying diplomatic strategy runs the risk of enabling a long grinding war that could even lead to escalation to a direct U.S.-Russian confrontation.
Even given these risks, there’s a strong argument to be made for supporting Kyiv’s military effort. But the suggestion that this support should continue because it creates American jobs is misguided and dangerous. It can be applied to support any kind of conflict or any variety of weapons program, whether it is necessary or not, as indicated by Trump’s use of it to enable the Saudi war in Yemen.
Military aid to Israel for its war on Gaza, launched in response to Hamas’s horrific attacks on Israeli civilians, is another matter. The assault has resulted in the deaths of 7,000 Gazans so far, including over 2,000 children, mostly due to an unprecedented campaign of air strikes. A ground war would have even more devastating consequences, and would increase the real and growing danger of a wider Mideast war. Providing an emergency arms package in this context while opposing a ceasefire is a far different matter than providing support for Ukraine.
It’s not clear that the jobs argument has come into play to the same degree in promoting U.S. policy towards Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, given current, widespread support in Congress. But it could well enter the picture as opposition to public support for the slaughter in Gaza continues. A recent poll indicates that roughly two-thirds of Americans support a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict, and those numbers may grow as heart-rending scenes of death and destruction continue to make their way back to America.
While the jobs argument should take a back seat to strategic and human rights concerns, it’s worth exploring its validity, since it has been introduced into the debate. There are many ways to create more and better jobs without resorting to increased weapons spending. Virtually any other form of government outlay, or even a tax cut, yields greater employment than military spending.
Forging a less militarized foreign policy and rolling back a Pentagon budget that is soaring towards $1 trillion per year would open the way to building a more peaceful and sustainable economy. But the first priority — especially with respect to Israel/Gaza — must be to stop the killing and end the war, not debate the economic effects of arms spending. The jobs argument should have no place in this hugely consequential discussion.
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