If you've ever spent quality time trying to move an agenda through Congress, you know that moving an agenda isn't just about lobbying individual Members. You need a "champion" for your issue. The champion introduces your bill. The champion recruits other offices to sign up. The champion introduces an amendment that carries the same idea as the bill and lobbies other Members to vote for it. The champion circulates letters to other offices. The champion raises the profile of your issue in the media.
When Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold lost his bid for re-election, advocates working to end the war in Afghanistan lost their champion in the Senate. It was Feingold's office that introduced the bill, introduced the amendment, circulated the letter, led the lobbying of other offices, led the charge in the media.
Now California Senator Barbara Boxer has re-introduced Feingold's bill requiring the President to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan - a timetable with an end date. So far, Senators Dick Durbin, Tom Harkin, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Sherrod Brown have signed on as co-sponsors of Senator Boxer's bill.
The re-introduction of this bill is extremely timely and important, for two reasons.
The House of Representatives is expected to vote soon, perhaps by tomorrow morning, on the People's Budget put forward by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
A vote in favor of the People's Budget is a vote against the endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, because the People's Budget would end the wars.
In particular, the People's Budget would end emergency war funding beginning in FY 2013:
End emergency war funding beginning in FY 2013 The CBO baseline assumes that all discretionary funding--including emergency war funding--grows with inflation (from a starting point of $159 billion in 2011) when projecting future discretionary spending. Eliminating all emergency defense funding starting in 2012 would save $674 billion over 2012-16 and $1.6 trillion over 2012-21 relative to this baseline.
Furthermore, the People's Budget would cut the "base" military budget (that is, the "not for the current wars" or "future wars" military budget.) It would:
Middle East historian and blogger Juan Cole recently wrote a polemic against progressive U.S. critics of the new U.S. war in Libya. In his polemic, he wrote, "I hope we can have a calm and civilized discussion of the rights and wrongs here."
I strongly agree with Juan that it is important for progressive critics of U.S. foreign policy to try to have a calm and civilized discussion about the issues that have been raised by the U.S. military intervention in Libya. In general, it's important to try to have calm and civilized discussions about all issues of public policy, even when - especially when - the underlying issues are matters of life and death. The alternative is nasty polemics, and a principal effect of nasty polemics is to exclude people from discussion who don't want to engage in nasty polemics. In this way the effect of nasty polemics is anti-democratic; nasty polemics tend to demobilize people and cause them to disengage, when what we need is the opposite: more engagement and more mobilization.
In this particular case, the decision of the Obama Administration to engage the country in a new Middle East war without Congressional authorization represents a long-term threat to the U.S. peace movement, because the U.S. peace movement is engaged in a long struggle to try to influence U.S. policy in the direction of less war, and Congress is a key arena in which the peace movement tries to assert influence over U.S. policy. If you take away power from Congress to determine issues of war and peace, you substantially reduce the power of the U.S. peace movement to influence issues of war and peace. Taking away Congressional war powers is to the peace movement like taking away collective bargaining is to the labor movement: a direct threat to our ability to move our agenda on behalf of our constituents.
When a Member of Congress dies, sometimes other Members name a bill after that Member that advances some cause identified with the Member. So, for example, we had the "Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act" - Kennedy was a champion of volunteer service.
Such naming has multiple effects. Of course it honors the departed. But, like the Spanish hero El Cid, whose companions suited him up and placed him on his horse to drive off their foes, it also gives the departed one last ride into battle. When you name something the "Our esteemed colleague who just passed" Act, you're laying down a challenge - don't leave this one on the cutting room floor. And everyone gets to cheat death a little by giving the departed one last accomplishment associated with that person's name.
The uncompleted challenge of Richard Holbrooke's diplomatic career was a peace deal in Afghanistan. It was the hope of many that Holbrooke would help broker a peace deal between the warring factions in Afghanistan and between their regional patrons that would end the war. This hope was encouraged by Holbrooke's role in negotiating the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia.
This unfinished business was apparently very much on Holbrooke's mind as they prepared him for surgery from which, presumably, he had some inkling that he might not return.
"You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan," Holbrooke said, according to family members.
Are peace talks to end the war a pipe dream? Not according to many Afghanistan experts with decades of experience in the country.
Press reports have suggested that Administration officials are trying to make Democratic voters forget that the Administration promised to start drawing down troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 by "pivoting" to the "aspirational goal" that "most" U.S. "combat troops" will be withdrawn by 2014. The Administration still says it will withdraw some troops in July 2011, but press reports suggest that the Administration may try to make this a "symbolic" withdrawal, not the "serious drawdown" (as Speaker Pelosi put it) involving "a whole lot of people" (as Vice-President Biden put it) that Democrats were led to expect.
But if these press reports about Administration strategy are correct, Administration political strategists may have another think coming. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg suggests that continued escalation of the war in Afghanistan would be likely to draw a primary challenge, the Christian Science Monitor reports:
As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg was leaving a Monitor breakfast last week, he was asked about the possibility that President Obama might face a Democratic primary challenge in 2012.
Mr. Greenberg's two-word answer: "Watch Afghanistan."
As the Monitor notes, a recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 62 percent of Democrats say US troops should not be in Afghanistan.
Pop quiz on the news: who said this week, referring to the dispute between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. military commander David Petraeus over U.S. Special Forces "night raids" that break into Afghans' homes in the middle of the night:
Many Afghans see the raids as a ... humiliating symbol of American power.
a) Afghan President Hamid Karzai b) Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich c) U.S. peace activist Kathy Kelly d) The New York Times
The correct answer is d, the New York Times. Here is the full quote:
Many Afghans see the raids as a flagrant, even humiliating symbol of American power, especially when women and children are rousted in the middle of the night. And protests have increased this year as the tempo has increased.
It is a striking symptom of the moral depravity of the US war in Afghanistan that the policy of night raids, which press reports have suggested is one of the most hated aspects of the U.S. military occupation among the Afghan population, has been the subject of almost no public debate in the United States. Newspaper columnists aren't inveighing against the night raids. Members of Congress aren't demanding that the night raids stop.
The only thing that has occasioned any public debate about them in the U.S. at all is that President Karzai denounced them in an interview with the Washington Post ahead of the NATO summit. And the response of U.S. officials is: wow, this guy Karzai is really an unreliable partner. Is he off his meds? He has some nerve complaining about something that Western press reports suggest is among the aspects of the U.S. military occupation most hated by Afghans.
Everybody knows that the recent election was all about the economy, right?
Nobody would claim that American voters just gave Republicans a mandate for more war, would they?
Republican Senator John McCain said on Tuesday in the wake of big Republican victories in Congress that he hopes President Barack Obama will take a fresh look at U.S. war policy in Afghanistan. McCain won re-election to his Arizona Senate seat by a large margin, ensuring he will retain have a strong voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee as its ranking Republican member.
In an interview, McCain told Reuters he was looking forward to a December review the Obama administration is preparing to give an update on the U.S. troop increase Obama ordered a year ago to try to repulse a strengthened Taliban.
McCain, who is expected to visit Afghanistan soon, said he would like to see a change in Obama's decision to begin withdrawing some U.S. troops from Afghanistan next August.
The world would be a better place if one could just ignore things like this. But as Reuters points out, McCain is ranking member on Senate Armed Services, in addition to being the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Two axioms of politics in America are: 1) you can't ignore a dangerous political claim, just because it's nonsensical, and 2) you can't wait for a nonsensical and dangerous political claim to gain momentum before moving to quash it, because it's like a highly infectious disease: you have to stamp it out immediately before it takes root in the population.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post carried a remarkable article reporting that according to U.S. government assessments, the U.S. military escalation in Afghanistan has failed.
The Post's Greg Miller reported that
An intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban has so far failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks on the insurgency
Miller explains why this is so:
Escalated airstrikes and special operations raids have disrupted Taliban movements and damaged local cells. But officials said that insurgents have been adept at absorbing the blows and that they appear confident that they can outlast an American troop buildup set to subside beginning next July.
"The insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience," said a senior Defense Department official involved in assessments of the war. Taliban elements have consistently shown an ability to "reestablish and rejuvenate," often within days of routed by U.S. forces, the official said, adding that if there is a sign that momentum has shifted, "I don't see it."
So, since the policy of military escalation has failed, according to the U.S. government's own assessments, we should expect that in December, when President Obama promised that the policy will be reviewed, we should see a fundamental change in policy. Right?
But, according to the same Washington Post report, "no major change in strategy is expected in December."
How could it be, that the policy has failed, according to official U.S. government assessments, and yet no change is expected when the promised review occurs?
You can't follow U.S. print media coverage of the war in Afghanistan for any length of time without running into some variation of the following assertion:
"The Taliban Will Never Negotiate, As Long As They Think They're Winning."
No serious effort is usually made to substantiate this claim, which is asserted as if it were a self-evident truth. What you generally don't see, reading the newspapers, is a sentence that looks like this:
"The Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning, and the reason that we know this is...."
Yet, if you look back over the course of the last year, the assertion that "the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning" is a very important claim. Why did the U.S. send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan last year? Because "the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning." Why are we killing innocents today in Kandahar? "Because the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning."
A claim that is a key buttress of life and death decisions about people we have never met and know little about and who have no say in our decisions, and yet which has never been substantiated, is a claim that deserves sustained scrutiny.
How could it be a self-evident truth that "the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning?" Logically, two possibilities present themselves:
1) It is an immutable fact of human nature that no party engaged in a conflict ever negotiates as long as they think they're winning. The US never negotiates as long as it thinks it is winning; Britain never has; France never has; no guerilla army or insurgent movement ever has.
Like many Americans, I have a great deal of sympathy with the thrust of Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity on October 30. It's bad enough that the debasement of public discourse is unpleasant, and encourages some Americans to want to withdraw from politics completely; but the debasement of public discourse is also a major obstacle to enacting policies that America needs.
If you think, for example, that endless war in Afghanistan is not in America's interest, and that we would be better off seriously pursuing a negotiated political solution with leaders of the Afghan Taliban and with countries in the region including Pakistan and Iran, it's not in your interest to have a political environment where someone can essentially shut down your voice by accusing you of wanting to "cut and run," or of being "soft on terrorism," or of "not caring about Afghan women." Such a political environment is a mandate for endless war. The debasement of public discourse has been a major obstacle to ending the war in Afghanistan.
This week the New York Times reported that serious efforts towards "talks about talks" have begun between the Afghan government and leaders of the Afghan Taliban. This and similar reports have sparked significant debate: are these developments really significant, or are they being hyped? Are Taliban leaders of sufficient rank being included to make the talks meaningful? Is Mullah Omar, leader of the main branch of the Afghan Taliban, being excluded? Is Pakistan being excluded? If key players remain excluded, won't that be likely to sink the talks?