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At Nixon library, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. calls for cutting U.S. military budget in half

Presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr. speaks at the Nixon Library on June 12, 2024 in Yorba Linda, California. The speech is part of the Richard Nixon Foundation's 2024 Presidential Policy Perspective series.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told an Orange County audience Wednesday night that America faces an existential threat because of its insistence on behaving like an imperial power rather than the moral leader it should be in the world.

The independent presidential candidate said he would reverse the nation’s “decay” by cutting the U.S. military budget by half in his first three years in office — with additional reductions in the future — and using the savings to bolster domestic programs and the economy.

“In the end, we’re going to have a stronger, smarter, better-targeted national defense,” Kennedy said. “If we use those savings to rebuild our country in every way, we will reverse … spending that is a constant drain on our nation’s vitality.”

Kennedy spoke to a crowd of about 300 at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, the latest in a series of speakers — including former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson — to appear as part of the Presidential Policy Perspectives series.

Kennedy, 70, has previously bemoaned how the “peace dividend” — anticipated with the easing of tensions with the former Soviet Union in the 1980s — did not result in a bigger shift of government funding toward domestic affairs.

But the massive reduction in defense spending would be very difficult to get through Congress and is a far more radical change than suggested by the leading contenders for president.

“With Russia, North Korea, and the Chinese Communist Party all watching, RFK Jr. is more than eager to peddle Kremlin talking points,” Matt Corridoni, a Democratic National Committee spokesperson, said in response to Kennedy’s speech. “Just like Donald Trump, he can’t be trusted to stand up for allies and against totalitarianism.”

The candidate, an environmental lawyer, told the Orange County audience that the country should draw lessons from not only his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, but also from Nixon, JFK’s rival in the 1960 election.

Kennedy said both presidents understood that America made a better mark in the world when it projected its power not through force but through moral leadership, economic initiatives and programs like the Peace Corps.

Kennedy said China had a smarter approach to foreign affairs — spending money less on its armed forces and more building up the nations of Africa, South America and other regions.

“They spent $8 trillion on bridges, roads, airports and schools and hospitals. … They were projecting economic power, rather than military power,” he said. “Our forever wars across the globe made us enemies across the world and left us bankrupt. China’s investments, in contrast, [were] making friends around the globe and [winning] wider influence in every corner of the Earth.

“We cannot go on pretending we are running the globe,” he continued, suggesting that the United States’ status in the world will improve when it no longer tries to dictate to other nations. “Paradoxically, by releasing the ambition to dominate we will once again rise to a position of primacy in the world.”

Though Kennedy claimed last week that he has qualified for the ballot in enough states to win the presidency, at least 10 of the states have not certified his candidacy. He is still viewed by most analysts as a long-shot candidate, but one who could potentially tip the race to either President Biden or former President Trump.

Kennedy has been widely chastised in the past for his views — particularly on vaccines, which he previously has suggested might cause autism, a view debunked by mainstream science; and for saying that Jews in Nazi Germany had more freedom than Americans under COVID-19 mandates, a view for which he later apologized.

He opened the speech with a 20-minute excoriation of the country’s lockdown at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it had struck a crippling blow to civil liberties.

When he got to foreign affairs, he painted a grim picture of the nation’s impact on the rest of the world. Kennedy suggested that U.S. belligerence had triggered massive instability following wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We create ISIS,” he contended, using an acronym sometimes used for the Islamic State militant group. He said those conflicts had forced 4 million migrants into Europe, serving to “destabilize all Western democracies.”

Kennedy was greeted warmly by the audience, which included a number of his supporters who joined him at a reception before the hourlong speech. The crowd also included museum members and others from the general public who said they were curious to see a politician some said they knew little about.

“I want to see, does this guy have the moxie, the leadership?” said Bob Torrez, a steel company executive who lives in Orange. “Is this the guy I think could lead the United States to a better place. We obviously need to get better. We are weak.”

Defense Department data show that the share of gross domestic product devoted to defense has declined to a little more than 3% in recent years, off a high of more than 11% during the Korean War and about 4.5% during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to “The United States economy has tended to grow faster than military spending, so defense spending as a share of GDP has been decreasing.”

But the U.S. far outspends other nations, including other global powers. In 2023, the Pete G. Peterson Foundation found that America’s $877 billion in defense spending topped the next 10 countries’ combined expenditures of $849 billion.

“Even as its military technology has reigned supreme, America has been hollowing out from the inside,” Kennedy’s website says. “We cannot be a strong or secure nation when our infrastructure, industry, society, and economy are infirm.”

The candidate previously called for the United States to end its “imperial project” and to “attend to all that has been neglected: the crumbling cities, the antiquated railways, the failing water systems, the decaying infrastructure, the ailing economy.”

Kennedy told the audience that the U.S. suffers from “an epidemic of chronic disease, a plague of addiction and historic economic inequality.”

The candidate said the country needed to rebuild to lower out-of-control deficits and strengthen the dollar. While foreign nations have used dollars as their reserve currency, that could change if the U.S. does not adopt more sensible spending habits, he said.

“As long as America was the unchallenged global superpower … we were like a teenage bully on a playground of third-graders. We could make the rules for everyone else,” he said. “But now the third-graders are onto our bluster and no longer frightened.”


© 2024 Los Angeles Times

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