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.
It's bad enough that we lost progressive champions like Russ Feingold, and that the leadership and committees of the House will be taken over by advocates of domestic austerity and endless war. In addition, the airwaves and print media will now be filled with pundits saying that the lesson of the election is that Obama must move to the right and cut the budget, except the military. But the worst thing we must now face is that the 2010 election is likely a preview of 2012, unless at least one of two things happen: decisive federal action to boost economic growth and employment, now much more difficult to achieve than before, and some dramatic new element is introduced into our national politics that changes the character of national debate.
Jonathan Chait pointed out last week that based on the state of the economy, historical trends predicted a Democratic loss of more than 40 seats, enough for Republicans to take the House. In other words, on average, based on historical trends, the fate of the election was sealed when the Obama Administration proposed and Congress enacted an economic stimulus package that was much too small to counter the fall in domestic demand resulting from the collapse of the housing bubble. Everything else that happened in the election has to be judged according to the baseline expectation of the Democrats losing at least 40 seats - enough to lose the House - due to the failure to restore economic growth and employment with a sufficient stimulus to counteract the fall in private economic demand.
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?
This week, the British government announced plans to cut its military personnel by 10 percent, scrap 40 percent of the army's artillery and tanks, and withdraw all of its troops from Germany within 10 years, the New York Times reports. The plan will involve a cut of about 8 percent in real terms in Britain's annual defense budget, significantly less than the 10 to 20 percent cuts that were under discussion. The Times attributes the reduced military cuts, in part, to US government pressure.
The reduced cuts in military spending are expected to lead to increased cuts in domestic spending:
The more modest scale of the military cutbacks placed extra strain on the government's overall effort to save more than $130 billion through spending cutbacks by 2015, a commitment that will require other government departments to make cutbacks averaging 25 percent. [my emphasis]
This what we have to look forward to with a Republican Congress: demands for budget cuts from which military spending is largely spared and which therefore will fall on domestic spending, like Social Security.
Recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been sounding the alarm about the fact that the burden of "our" wars is being disproportionately borne by a very small slice of the population: soldiers and their families.
Like, I am sure, many Americans, I have sharply conflicted feelings about this.
One the one hand: I strongly agree with Secretary Gates that the burden is disproportionately falling on a few, and that this is unjust, and I am glad that he is trying to use his position to call attention to this injustice and urge that it be remedied.
On the other hand: they are not my wars. I did not vote for them, I did not and I do not support them. I have worked with others to end them; obviously, my companions and I have not yet succeeded in this endeavor, but going forward, I am more seized with the urgency of ending the wars than with the urgency of spreading the pain more fairly while they continue.
Moreover, I am not a little irritated that my opinions, and those of my companions, are systematically marginalized when major decisions about the wars are made, but we are then urged to more fully share the sacrifices resulting from the decisions into which we were told that our input was not welcome.
Secretary Gates is surely aware of the paradox of his position: he bemoans the fact that the burden of the wars falls disproportionately on a few, but he is well aware that the fact that the burden falls disproportionately on a few is a policy choice that has been made by his colleagues with the goal of facilitating war politically.
If we allow ourselves to consider all possible remedies to the problem posed by Secretary Gates, including those that are politically absurd, an obvious solution presents itself: reinstate the military draft.
But this is a dead letter politically. The Pentagon doesn't want it; Congress will never approve it.
For the Washington Post, there's no such thing as a war that America can't afford.
In an editorial today, the Washington Post takes President Obama to task for being concerned about the cost of the war in Afghanistan and the fact that it conflicts with domestic priorities. That the Washington Post, a knee-jerk supporter of war for empire, would slam President Obama for this is the opposite of surprising. Nonetheless, what the Washington Post actually said in its editorial is still breathtaking:
Mr. Obama repeatedly cites the cost of the war and the need to shift resources to domestic priorities -- though spending on Afghanistan is well below 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.
We have been led to believe that official Washington is seized with urgency about long-term projections of U.S. budget deficits. Yet here is the Washington Post, downplaying the cost of the war in Afghanistan on the grounds that it is "well below 1 percent" of U.S. GDP.
Logically, there are two possibilities.
One possibility is that the Washington Post is saying that in the future, we can ignore any government expenditure or savings that amounts to less than 1% of U.S. GDP as being too small to bother about.
The other possibility is that according to the Washington Post there are two standards for judging costs. One standard is for war, in which an expenditure of less than 1% of GDP is too small to bother about. The other standard is for domestic spending that benefits the majority of Americans, in which a reduction of government expenditure of less than 1% of GDP is something that should be seriously considered.
A major contribution of the "inside experts" Afghanistan Study Group report (read here ; send to your reps in Congress here), released last week to spur Washington debate towards de-escalating the war at the next fork in the road is that its very first recommendation is this:
1. Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion.
The U.S. should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.
Predictably, there appear to have been two principal objections so far to this proposal:
1. Oh my God. How dare you suggest that the U.S. should support a peace deal with the Afghan insurgency. You must be some kind of amoral monster.
2. Ho hum. Nothing new here. Everyone already knows this. Why do you tax our patience by stating the obvious as if it were a profound revelation? This is already Administration policy. Move along, nothing to see here.
It should go without saying that these two objections are, as a matter of logic, mutually exclusive. A real peace process leading to a new political dispensation in Afghanistan that ends the civil war could be the worst idea in human history, or it could be a commonplace that everyone already knows and is already Administration policy. But it cannot be both.
There is a tradition among some peace activists of striking a pose of annoyed indifference to the question of how to get out of an unpopular war. "There are three ways to get out," goes one waggish response. "Air, land, and sea."
This is funny and emotionally satisfying, and also represents a truth for peace activists: ending the war is a first principle, not something contingent on whether a particular means of doing so satisfies someone else's notion of what is practical.
On the other hand, peace activists can't be satisfied with being right; they also are morally compelled to try to be effective. And part of being effective is giving consideration to, and seeking to publicize, arguments are likely to end the war sooner rather than later. It's not likely, for example, that discussing ways in which the war might be useful for the long-term maintenance of the "capitalist world system" will turn the Washington debate against war in the short run. If, on the other hand, central to the official story is a claim that the war is a war against Al Qaeda, but senior U.S. officials publicly concede that there is no significant Al Qaeda presence today in Afghanistan, that is certainly a fact worth knowing and spreading.