No matter who wins the upcoming presidential election, January 20, 2021 will mark a new beginning for the man that occupies the Oval Office as commander-in-chief. Either President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden will need to make immediate decisions that will affect the lives of troops and their families.
This column is not an endorsement of either Trump or Biden. I will never tell you whom to vote for, what your relationship with God should be, or what side of your bread to butter. The voters decide who occupies the Oval Office, not me.
Regardless of who wins the presidential election, events at home and across the world will mean changes for the Defense Department. Here are a few of the challenges Trump or Biden will have to face:
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic
The U.S. military’s role in helping states deal with the crush of sick people has been scaled back considerably since the spring, but the rising death toll currently stands at more than 120,000 Americans with record numbers of new daily cases reported in states such as California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida.
Right now, the Defense Department is taking part in Operation Warp Speed, which is supposed to produce millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine by January – but government officials say that is far from certain.
“There are no sure things in science,” a senior administration official said during a June 16 conference call with reporters on condition of anonymity. “We cannot promise a 100 percent chance of success. What we can tell Americans is that we’ve taken every possible step to maximize the probability of success.”
Biden said in March that he would use the military to build hospitals to treat coronavirus patients. As for Trump, the president recently said the increase in COVID-19 cases is due to more testing – a claim that does not stand up against the facts.
The war in Afghanistan
The U.S. government has agreed to withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan next year if the Taliban meet certain conditions. But instead of throttling back on violence, as the U.S. military expected it would, the Taliban has launched an offensive against Afghan troops and police. In late June, Afghan security forces suffered their deadliest week in 19 years, with 291 Afghan troops and police killed and another 550 wounded, Afghan National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal tweeted on June 22.
It’s clear the Taliban have no intention of seeking peace with the Afghan government or fighting Al Qaeda. Still, the next president will have to decide next year whether to go through the withdrawal anyway and finally end America’s longest war.
Trump has said several times that he wants to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan. Biden said in September that he favors moving U.S. troops from Afghanistan to Pakistan, but he did not elaborate on how such a move would make sense.
Cutting the Pentagon’s budget
Whether the Defense Department wants to admit it or not, the days of increasing budgets are about to end. The post-COVID-19 unemployment rate has already dwarfed the job losses during the Great Recession and the current depression has just started, with close to 20 million Americans now collecting jobless benefits and the civilian unemployment rate at 13.3 percent nationally as of May. With bailouts and stimulus measures exploding the deficit, the country simply can’t afford to keep spending three-quarters of a trillion dollars on its military each year.
The question is by how much defense spending will actually end up getting cut. Historically, Republicans have favored higher military budgets than Democrats, and Biden is being pressured by far-left elements of his party to cut $200 billion from the Pentagon’s budget each year.
If past is prologue, the Pentagon will likely reduce spending by involuntarily separating thousands of troops before they can retire with full benefits. That way, they can keep buying toys that don’t work, such as the F-35. The defense industry always wins.
Extremists in the ranks
If you haven’t read my colleague Jared Keller’s story about troops joining the anti-government “Boogaloo” movement, take a look at it now. Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other extremists are infiltrating the military. This is not a case of a few bad apples; it is a wave of far-right activity that shows no signs of cresting any time soon.
Politics be damned: It’s long past time for the military to admit it has an extremist problem. The only way to start addressing this issue is if Trump or Biden make it a priority for the next defense secretary. I’ll leave it to you to decide who would be more likely to do so.
In February 2019, Kim Jong Un — also known as “the only fat guy in North Korea” — failed to con Trump into a bad agreement that would have given the United States little to show for lifting all sanctions against the hermit kingdom. Since then, Kim has reverted back to threatening the United States, and most recently, blew up a liaison office with South Korea.
Even though Trump seems ready to ignore or forgive Kim with each new transgression, the North Korean dictator may be in declining health. His more frequent absences are constantly fueling rumors of his demise. If Kim dies, either Trump or Biden will be forced to reckon with a radically unstable and nuclear armed regime that seems to think it can get away with anything. Since Trump seems almost singularly focused on getting South Korea to pay more to keep U.S. troops there, the chances of a rupture between the two allies could increase in a second term.
Biden, whom Kim has called a “rabid dog,” said in January that he would not meet with the dictator without preconditions — in contrast to Trump. But it should be noted that former President Barack Obama listed conditions that North Korea would have to meet as a prerequisite for direct talks with the United States, and his administration got no further than Trump in reaching a nuclear agreement with Kim.
These are just a few of the crises that either Trump or Biden will have to face. To whoever wins the presidential election, I offer a quote from the immortal Leslie Nielsen: “Good luck. We're all counting on you.”
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Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for nearly 15 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.