By WILLIAM S. SMITH
There was a poignant scene chronicled by the New York Post recently in which hundreds of New Yorkers rushed out to take pictures of the USNS Comfort arriving in New York Harbor. Americans rightly love their military, and finally their leaders have given them a mission that will avail their own nation. I’ll bet the medical personnel aboard the Comfort are very proud of their orders.
It has not been this way for decades. The United States will spend $1.5 trillion on the F-35 fighter plane while our health care workers do not have enough masks. We spent billions to build the health care infrastructure of Iraq and Afghanistan, but U.S. hospitals may not have enough ventilators for critically ill Americans. As a viral tsunami crashes over us, many leaders are still stuck in the past, with the secretary of state using his time to plot against Iran. In light of our scramble to find the resources to fight the pandemic, does anyone still think it was a good idea to spend more than $6 trillion on a “global war on terror?” Do you feel safer?
We should finally admit that many in the national security establishment are emperors with no clothes, willing to spend trillions in other places while doing very little to actually protect us here at home. I am sure the patriotic rank-and-file service members want desperately to help when their homeland is dealing with a pandemic. Yet this is hard to do from Afghanistan or when you are refueling Saudi bombers over Yemen.
The possibility of a viral pandemic here in America is not some wild, out-of-the-box scenario that no one could foresee. Bill Gates has been warning of the possibility for years. The Nation is now reporting that in January of 2017, the military intelligence community issued a report warning specifically about the threat of a novel influenza pandemic and the likely shortages of ventilators, masks and hospital beds that such a pandemic would generate. The Nation article goes on to quote the retired head of Infectious Diseases and Countermeasures Division at the Defense Intelligence Agency as saying, “The Intelligence Community has warned about the threat from highly pathogenic influenza viruses for two decades at least. They have warned about coronaviruses for at least five years.”
Later in 2018, The Atlantic sagaciously concluded that the United States was not prepared for a flu pandemic and, in the same otherwise excellent article, made the laughable claim that our vulnerability is due to one person: Donald Trump. “The science-minded Barack Obama” could calmly wrestle any pandemic to the ground, The Atlantic told us.
One can argue about the adequacy of Trump’s response, but our lack of preparation is clearly a decades-long, bipartisan failing. Only a hack would dump responsibility for the pandemic at Donald Trump’s doorstep.
When Ebola surged in West Africa, Obama reassured Americans: “In the unlikely event that someone with Ebola reaches our shores, we’ve taken new measures so that we’re prepared at home.” A couple weeks later, two Dallas nurses contracted Ebola because there were no protocols in place to protect them when a Liberian showed up at their hospital. When the swine flu depleted the nation’s stockpile of masks, Obama failed to replenish it, then proceeded to “surge” thousands of troops into Afghanistan. As this existential crisis escalates, can we stop the partisan finger-pointing and finally admit that our “grand strategy” on the world stage has wasted trillions of dollars and failed to protect us?
Some on the left may nod and say: “yes, let’s not spend all this money on the Pentagon; let’s have Medicare-for-All.” There is a one-word reply to that argument: Italy. Tragically, the wonderful Italian people have been let down by their Medicare-for-All health system, which is now telling doctors not to treat any COVID-19 patients older than 60. According to the Commonwealth Fund, “The Italian National Health Service (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale) was set up in 1978, with universal coverage, solidarity, human dignity, and health needs as its guiding principles.” The problem is that, to paraphrase Edmund Burke, when you are sick, you need the aid of a physician, not a metaphysician.
Back here at home, the government bureaucracy charged with alerting the nation to pandemics, the Centers for Disease Control, sent faulty COVID-19 tests to state laboratories back in February. If we could have put a widespread testing regime in place, we could have kept sick people at home while healthy people went to work. But the government did not spend any of those war-on-terror trillions to improve our surveillance for a pandemic, and when it arrived, they fumbled the ball. We still do not have a good idea of who is sick and who is not, so we have shut down the country.
Meanwhile, the nation has endured decades of bipartisan attacks on private-sector life science companies because they are “too profitable.” Pharmaceutical companies have made many mistakes in recent decades, such as aggressively marketing opioids and offshoring their manufacturing. But as a former executive at one of these companies, I can tell you that they’ve likely solved the government’s fumbled COVID-19 testing problem and will also bring to market treatments that will mitigate the pandemic.
The biopharmaceutical sector—this includes our great research universities—is one of the crown jewels of the American landscape. It possesses an absolutely awe-inspiring level of scientific prowess. Just read the FDA’s list of drug approvals for 2019 and tell me you want to drain those companies of revenue to pay for a global war on terror.
In the midst of this pandemic, let’s step back and consider what our political leaders have been doing in recent years to protect us: spending trillions of dollars on Middle East wars and “nation-building,” demagogically attacking drug companies that will likely provide the therapies that beat COVID-19, and neglecting basic and inexpensive homeland protection measures such as stockpiling masks. As the pandemic raged in China, senior members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, actually balked at a Pentagon plan to withdraw troops from Africa.
After 9/11, our politicians decided to spend a trillion dollars each year on overseas war. Given our obvious vulnerabilities at home, do we really need to keep doing this?
William S. Smith is research fellow and managing director at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. His recent book is Democracy and Imperialism from the University of Michigan Press.
Article originally published at The American Conservative.