There is wide political agreement that we need to do more to support our veterans and their families. A recent spectacular demonstration was the 326-90 vote in the House and 95-3 vote in the Senate to repeal the military pension cuts to veterans and active service members that were in the Ryan-Murray budget deal. A key question in the current federal budget environment is how we are going to pay for increased veterans' benefits, given broad Republican resistance to raising revenue or increasing the deficit.
Just over a week ago, the Senate fell one vote short of overcoming a Republican filibuster to pass a three-month extension of assistance for the long-term unemployed.
In mid-November, the Christian Science Monitor reports, a loya jirga in Afghanistan - a national meeting of tribal leaders and other notable Afghans - will vote on whether to meet the Obama administration's terms for keeping U.S. troops in the country beyond the end of 2014.
If you care about democracy in Afghanistan, you should be happy for the Afghans. Whether or not - and if so, under what conditions - they want to have thousands of U.S. troops in their country after 2014 is obviously a very big deal for them. Why shouldn't they have full deliberation and debate?
But if you also care about democracy in the United States, you should be a bit troubled. Because Congress has never approved keeping thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the end of 2014.
The closest Congress has come to considering this question is in language passed by the House in June, 2013. Offered by Democratic Representative Jim McGovern, this language - which passed the House 305-121, with a majority of both Democrats and Republicans voting yes- said [my emphasis]:
If the Pope Called for a Christmas Ceasefire in Afghanistan, Could "Ceasefire!" Enter Mainstream Debate?
When the Israeli military sharply escalated its attacks on Gaza and threatened a ground invasion in late October, the demand for ceasefire entered mainstream public and media discourse in relation to the conflict immediately. The same thing happened when the Israeli military attacked Gaza in late 2008, as it did when the Israeli military invaded Lebanon in the summer of 2006.
Since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, the demand for ceasefire has never been able to maintain a strong foothold in mainstream public and media discourse. This is particularly striking now that the war has clearly entered its zombie, autopilot phase. Western leaders have largely given up trying to explain or justify why Western troops are still in Afghanistan and why they are still killing and being killed. Why are we there? What do we realistically hope to accomplish through further killing and dying? Who knows? Who cares? We're there today because we were there yesterday. We'll be there tomorrow because we were there today.
Osama bin Laden is dead, but the war in Afghanistan is alive.
This week, a series of showdowns is expected in the House over the Pentagon budget, when House Members vote on amendments to the Defense Appropriations Bill to cut the overall level of military spending, end or limit the war in Afghanistan, and draw down troops permanently stationed in Europe.
What happens in these votes will have a big influence on the expected negotiations over replacing the impending "sequester" automatic cuts of the Budget Control Act with a package of revenue increases and spending cuts. If you want cuts in military spending to be on the table, now is the time to speak up.
Until now, the bigfoot military contractors and their most stalwart allies in Congress have fought with great success to keep real cuts in military spending away from the table. What has mostly happened until now is that most of the previously projected increases in spending have been cut, so that under the President's plan military spending would rise roughly with inflation. It's an important start, certainly, to stop the previously projected increase, but it's not a real cut from past spending levels. If the automatic cuts were to go through, that would cause a real cut in military spending, although military spending would still be above what it was during the Cold War. But the conventional wisdom is that the automatic cuts won't happen; at the end of the day, they will be replaced by a package of revenue increases and spending cuts.
The question is what is going to be in that package.
Until now, the GOP leadership position has been that cuts in military spending are off the table.
"I can't let this be a war without end, and I can't lose the whole Democratic Party." That was President Obama, describing his Afghan war policy, according to Bob Woodward's 2010 book. But until this moment the Administration is still letting it be a war without end, and the Afghan war policy has lost not only the whole Democratic Party, but a substantial part of the Republican Party as well: the majority of Republican voters, for example.
One thing the Afghan war policy hasn't lost: the GOP leadership. That was demonstrated Wednesday night when the GOP leadership blocked consideration in the House of a bipartisan amendment offered by Democrat Jim McGovern and Republican Walter Jones that would have nailed to the wall the current slippery "timetable" for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
House Republicans pulled the plug on a vote Thursday on a bipartisan amendment to a defense bill that would force the Obama administration to stick firmly to its timetable for getting U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
Republicans were concerned the amendment could pass, according to two GOP congressional sources.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the House is expected to take up consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act. Amendments will be offered to expedite military withdrawal from Afghanistan, to oppose war with Iran, to cut the military budget, and to stop "signature" drone strikes that target people without knowing who will be killed.
According to the way the House operates, the authorization bill is the most open opportunity to challenge current policy. When the House considers the appropriations bill, amendments can be offered to cut money for specific programs. But it is difficult to otherwise alter policy when the appropriation is considered, according to the rules of the House. On the authorization bill, there is much more scope to try to direct policy.
Every American who cares about war and peace ought to be calling Congress. The Friends Committee on National Legislation has established a toll-free number that connects you to the Capitol Switchboard: 1-877-429-0678. Then you can ask to be transferred to your Representative's office. [If you can't call, you can write here.]
What should you tell your Representative's office? Whatever else you do, you should tell them that you are a constituent and give them your address to document that fact.
Then you have some choices to make about what to emphasize. Many amendments have been offered. At this writing, we don't know which amendments will be allowed on the floor by the Rules Committee. Once the Rules Committee has decided which amendments it will allow, there might not be much time before voting begins. So it's better to call when you can and emphasize broad themes.
Newly elected French President François Hollande is coming to the White House next week to meet with President Obama ahead of the G8 and NATO summits. Two items are sure to be on the agenda: Hollande's call for a "New Deal" (as it were) in European economic policy that would restore growth rather than continue budget austerity, and Hollande's promise to speed up the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan.
Press reports suggest that Obama's agenda for the meeting will include trying to induce Hollande to renege on his pledge to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan. That would be a terrible mistake, a terrible waste of a unique opportunity for Obama to agree with Hollande on a common position for speeding up the withdrawal of all foreign forces that they can announce at the NATO summit in Chicago.
The fact is, at the level of rhetoric, Obama and Hollande already agree on ending the war, as they already agree that the European austerity policy has failed and should be replaced by a policy of restoring economic growth. A common Obama-Hollande front on ending the war and ending European austerity would be in the interest of the American 99%, the European 99%, and the Afghan 99%. (As the Obama Administration has correctly pointed out, austerity in Europe hurts Americans too, because when Europe is in recession, Europeans buy fewer American goods and services.)
In a front page exposé on January 4, the Washington Post revealed that sneaky Persian agitators are conspiring to thwart the Pentagon's noble aim of keeping 10,000-30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan on "non-permanent," "non-U.S." bases after "all foreign troops are supposed to be withdrawn" in 2014, just as these sneaky Persians conspired to thwart the Pentagon's noble aim of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq.
The Post story is quite instructive, even if it is not exactly "news" in the common sense of the term. It presents the world from the point of view of diehard Pentagon revanchists who want to keep US troops in Muslim countries forever against the will of the majority of Americans and against the will of the majority of people who live in these countries. It presents this diehard Pentagon revanchist view as if there were no interests in the world besides those of Pentagon revanchists and wily Persian agitators, such as the interests of the majority of people who happen to live in the United States, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Of course, in the world view of the diehard Pentagon revanchist, the concerns of these mere residents are largely irrelevant, if they have no military implications. How many divisions do these mere residents control? These mere residents are just pawns in a game of Pentagon-sneaky Persian chess.
It is a story, moreover, that is spectacularly contradicted by the Post's own previous reporting, as well as that of other major American newspapers.
The story informs us:
Shouldn't Americans of every faith tradition band together to stop the war on Christmas? Let us call on President Obama to announce that on December 24th and 25th, the United States will observe an offensive cease-fire in Afghanistan, and urge others to join the cease-fire, as a goodwill gesture to promote peace talks.
Far from being utopian, I claim that this is a pragmatic political proposal, with little cost and significant potential benefits; indeed, according to recent press reports, a US-initiated Christmas truce would complement peace efforts that the Obama Administration is already pursuing.
The political cost would be negligible. Would Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and John McCain denounce President Obama for announcing that US forces in Afghanistan will stand down to mark the birth of the Prince of Peace? If they did, would anyone take them seriously?
This is a decision that President Obama can make unilaterally as Commander-in-Chief. He does not need the permission of Lindsay Graham, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, or the Washington Post editorial board. If President Obama decides that US forces in Afghanistan will not take offensive military actions on Christmas, so shall it be.
Already, Reuters reports, the Obama Administration is contemplating confidence-building measures to promote peace talks with the Afghan Taliban, including transferring Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo to Afghan government custody and supporting the establishment by the Afghan Taliban of a political office in Qatar for the purpose of participating in peace talks.