Who knew Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter would emerge as one of the most vocal opponents in the Senate of the President's military escalation in Afghanistan?
But so it is. In an op-ed this week in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Specter not only challenges the "surge"; he also challenges fundamental premises of the war. Specter writes:
I'm opposed to sending 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan because I don't believe they are indispensable in our fight against al Qaeda.
But if al Qaeda can organize and operate out of Yemen, Somalia or elsewhere, then why fight in Afghanistan, which has made a history of resisting would-be conquerors - from Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC, to Great Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s?
What can one Senator do? Well, one Senator can introduce legislation, for starters. At this writing, there isn't a single piece of legislation before the Senate that expresses opposition to continuing the war indefinitely. This is in marked contrast to the House, where Representative McGovern's bill requiring the Pentagon to present Congress with an exit strategy from Afghanistan has more than 100 co-sponsors. That's like having 23 Senators.
But Arlen Specter is in a unique position to do much more than introduce legislation. He could turn his Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary into a referendum on the Afghanistan war, because his primary opponent, Joe Sestak, supports the war and supports the escalation:
Under our constitutional democracy, Congress has the power and the responsibility to establish a policy on President Obama's plans to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and, if Congress opposes sending more troops, to try to block or alter this policy. The question now is whether Congress will act before the policy is implemented, and whether it will do so in a "clean" vote - an up or down vote solely on the question of sending more troops, unentangled with unrelated issues like flood relief for farmers or extending unemployment benefits.
If Congress does not act quickly, the President's proposal may become an accomplished fact. Already, President Obama has ordered Marine units to be deployed later this month. If Congress waits for months to debate the issue, most of the new troops may already be in place.
Anti-war Representatives are pressing for an early vote on funding for more troops so President Obama's policy will be judged by Congress before thousands of additional troops are sent into combat, the Politico reports. "Let us have this debate before he moves forward," Rep. Jim McGovern [D-MA] said. "I'd like it to be before we escalate one single American troop over there."
Republican support will be "vital" for continuing the war and occupation of Afghanistan, the New York Times points out today, noting that Obama's reliance on Republican votes for the war means Republicans could pull the plug at any time.
One danger for Mr. Obama is that he may be forced to abandon his own party on Afghanistan for the right, which could put him in a perilous position if Republicans at any point decide they do not want to support a Democratic president on the issue.
In an op-ed Tuesday in the Washington Post, conservative columnist George Will called for the U.S. to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.
Might George Will's op-ed encourage more Republicans in Congress to speak up in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops -- or in opposition to the increase that is now being planned?
When we get our troops out of Afghanistan will depend to a significant degree on what Republican members of Congress are willing to say and do.
This summer, the House of Representatives took what was in effect a "no confidence" vote on Afghanistan policy: it voted down, 138-278, Representative Jim McGovern's amendment requiring the Pentagon to present Congress with an exit strategy.
The majority of House Democrats supported McGovern's amendment. Among Democrats, the vote was 131-114, or 57 percent to 43 percent. But Republicans were overwhelmingly opposed. Only seven Republicans voted yes; 164 Republicans voted no; in percentage terms, 4 percent yes and 96 percent no.
As Senator Ted Kennedy has been eulogized in recent days, almost all of the discussion of his "legacy" has focused on domestic issues. Only a few have noted what Senator Kennedy himself said was the most important vote he ever cast in the U.S. Senate: his vote against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Economist Dean Baker, asked by the Beltway newspaper The Hill to comment on "the most significant aspect of Senator Kennedy's legacy," wrote:
I'll just agree with Senator Kennedy on this one. He said that his vote against the Iraq War was the most important vote that he cast the whole time he was in the Senate.
At a time when most of the political establishment, and certainly most of the media establishment, was cowed by an administration yelling about the threat of terrorism, Senator Kennedy stood back and looked at the evidence in a serious manner.
This was a display of courage and sound judgment at a time when these character traits were virtually absent from the halls of power in official Washington.
Democratic politicians are often praised by establishment pundits for showing "leadership" if they stand on the side of powerful against the interests of those they were elected to represent. But most people would see Senator Kennedy's vote against the war as a better example of "leadership": standing up for the people you were elected to represent, in the face of significant pressure to do otherwise. It's not surprising that the same media institutions which failed to challenge the Bush Administration's "faith-based" case for the war in Iraq would pass over this opportunity to remind everyone that they failed to show the same leadership as Senator Kennedy did when the nation needed it most.
It's been a month since Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was deposed in a military coup. Negotiations on restoring democracy supported by the United States broke down when the coup regime refused to accept a compromise that would allow President Zelaya to return.
The Obama Administration still says it is working for President Zelaya's return, but so far it has not responded to the call from Hondurans for increased U.S. pressure on the coup regime.
Indeed, when President Zelaya tried to increase pressure on the coup regime by threatening to return to Honduras without an agreement, Secretary of State Clinton attacked President Zelaya as "reckless," instead of expressing any concern about repression by the coup regime against President Zelaya's supporters.
Now Rep. Raul Grijalva is leading a Congressional effort to urge the Obama Administration to increase U.S. pressure on the coup regime by canceling U.S. visas and freezing bank accounts of coup leaders. Representatives McGovern, Conyers, and Serrano have signed on to Rep. Grijalva's letter to President Obama.
This isn't just about one man. It's about whether the 60% of Hondurans who live in poverty have a path to reform and redress of their grievances. President Zelaya was exiled for seeking reform of Honduras' constitution - a longstanding demand of social movements in Honduras.
If you don't know where your Representative stands, now would be a good time to call and ask. The Congressional switchboard is 202-225-3121. Ask to be connected to your Representative's office, and ask your Representative to co-sponsor McGovern's bill [H.R. 2404] and support McGovern's amendment (which is essentially the same text as the bill) when it comes to the floor.
This will mark the first time in the Obama Administration that there has been a debate and vote in the House specifically on U.S. policy towards Afghanistan. The amendment is quite worthy in its own right: do not the Congress and the American people - not to mention the people of Afghanistan - have the right to be told what the exit strategy for the U.S. military is? But it is also a wedge to open up debate in the United States about what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan and plans to do in the future.
Military commanders have made statements indicating plans to remain in Afghanistan until 2020. If ten more years of war is the Pentagon's "exit strategy," we - and the people of Afghanistan - have a right to know that and debate it.
Since you're calling your Congressional office anyway, let me call three other worthy amendments to your attention.
Last week, the House leadership prevailed on many progressive Democrats to vote for the war supplemental, paying for military escalation in Afghanistan with no exit strategy, giving $108 billion to the International Monetary Fund without requiring modest reforms such as requiring the IMF to publish minutes of its board meetings (as the Federal Reserve does.)
The leadership obtained this consent, in part, by making the vote a loyalty test. Does the loyalty run the other way?
Today the Rules Committee is scheduled to consider amendments to the FY2010 Defense Authorization. The Rules Committee, which largely defers to the House leadership, will determine if progressive amendments will see the light of day.
Amendment #2, offered by Reps. McGovern, Jones, and Pingree,
Would require the Defense Secretary to report to Congress, not later than December 31, 2009, on a U.S. exit strategy for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan participating in Operation Enduring Freedom.
As a freestanding bill, McGovern's amendment has 90 sponsors. President Obama himself said in March that the U.S. must have an exit strategy. McGovern's amendment simply says that the Pentagon has to tell Congress what the exit strategy is. Will the leadership allow McGovern's amendment to come to a vote?
McGovern's amendment is key to getting the honest debate over U.S. policy in Afghanistan that we have been so far denied.