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Congress should get serious with a pay-as-you-go approach in Afghanistan

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Congress should get serious with a pay-as-you-go approach in Afghanistan: Obey vs. Obama
Response to the President's Speech: Obama reneges on anti-war platform.

By Tony Nuspl, Ph.D. in History

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On the plus side, there are at least three things Obama stated in his Presidential speech on December 1st that are what peace-minded Americans have wanted for some time now:

1) an exit date, the time frame of ending the occupation of Afghanistan by July 2011 -- his administration will be judged by this benchmark, come elections in 2012; he also reasserted that at least "combat brigades" will be out of Iraq by summer 2010, and "all of our troops by the end of 2011" --again, if executed as promised, both Iraq & Afghanistan would be wound down, with this schedule, before he's up for re-election.

2) a direct statement that we do not intend to occupy the country indefinitely (Obama stated "We have no interest in occupying your country."), putting the kibosh on the Pentagon's plans for endless war, and explicitly repudiating neo-con plans for so-called "nation-building" --and one can hope that means no permanent bases, either.

3) a promise to uphold human rights, an issue of grave concern given the known problems at Bagram prison, in Afghanistan, a legal black hole for many of its inmates, despite that prison being run by U.S. authorities; although Obama did not acknowledge the problems at Bagram explicitly in his speech, he did reaffirm his commitment to closing Guantanamo, the more notorious U.S.-run prison.

There were other encouraging elements to his speech. On the whole, Obama's pitch was that we cannot afford either Iraq or Afghanistan, that the cost of $1 trillion so far is too high; it's time to wind down. That dose of realism at a time when the U.S. faces 10% unemployment (17% when you include the underemployed) and when 1 in 8 people are on food stamps (1 in 4 children), is deeply appreciated. Can we redirect spending priorities yet?

Also fortunate, on the basis of what was said in the speech, it at least sounds like the neo-cons are finally out of favor. In reference to neo-con lobbying in favor of open-ended commitments to so-called “nation-building” (military occupation), Obama stated : "I reject this course. America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan. America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation's resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours." That was a pretty clear allusion to the neo-con agenda that got the U.S. mired in Iraq, under Bush-Cheney's duumvirate. Obama has stared down the neo-cons with their advocacy of the belligerent/egregious use of U.S. might all over the globe.

Nonetheless, Congress should reject outright the proposed escalation of troops, by refusing to grant the funds needed to supply the Pentagon's wish for 30K more troops, at a cost estimated between $55 and $100 billion per year. (Very few people are giving any credence to the White House's low-ball estimate of only $30 billion per year for the addition 30K troops to be deployed 7,000 miles away.) A decision by Congress to refuse funding could easily be defended by citing the cost of $1 trillion already spent in the Mid-East in the past 8-9 years. Enough is enough. We can also anticipate the Pentagon's next gambit: to ask for “emergency war funding.” There is no “emergency,” only a chronic habit of the Pentagon coming to Congress cap-in-hand to ask for immediate funds to pay for the latest “urgent” need, even when this need was debated for over 9 months. Surely there is still time for Congress to review the funding source for this latest bulge in troop deployment and to provide for a pay-as-you-go approach to war, unlike the previous administration and the previously Republican-controlled Congress (which acted like more of a rubber stamp for the executive branch, rather than as a co-equal branch of government). The nation need not be held hostage by every proposed funding request made by the Pentagon or the Commander-in-Chief.

I'd like to see an early vote on funding for more troops, before the thousands of additional troops are sent abroad –really, to the other end of the earth-- into a land-locked theater that is difficult to supply through mountain passes. There is an estimated cost of $400 per day per soldier, just in fuel costs. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) has it right when he states: "Let us have this debate before the President moves forward, and before we escalate one single American troop over there." If Congress acts now, it can stop or limit funding for the President's troop increase by a simple majority vote. As the President himself suggested, we can ill-afford this escalation, looking at the condition of the public fisc, largely in poor state due to the unprecedented $1 trillion bailout of corporate America provided after the Oct 2008 financial meltdown. Wall Street said to the President, asking for its hand-out: “We will work for billions.” The war-spending Obama now proposes will destroy the chance to use those tax monies remaining for constructive purposes domestically. What is Main Street to say to Obama to make him hear? How many jobs, how much education, how much health care could be provided within the borders of the U.S. with that $30 to $100 billion Obama now proposes to spend per year on U.S. foreign adventure? And in Afghanistan, whose entire annual governmental budget is only $1 billion per year, is the use of these tens of billions of dollars on the continued occupation of Afghanistan truly an effective use of those funds inside Afghanistan? How many more friends could we outright buy in Afghanistan, if we spent the money on civilian purposes? Humanitarian projects would arguably create much more good will toward America; at least they would not be destroying Afghan homes by aerial bombardment.

Not so courageous was the President's utter disregard of practical measures to pay for the escalation he had just ordered. Obama did not even dare mention additional taxes in his speech. There was no mention of the needed 1% to 5% tax increase proposed by Dave Obey (D-Wis), a graduated tax according to income levels to pay for further troops. Without the surtax, those troops are otherwise a direct drain on the public fisc. "On the merits, I think it is a mistake to deepen our involvement," Obey said. "But if we are going to do that, then at least we ought to pay for it. Because if we don't, if we don't pay for it, the cost of the Afghan war will wipe out every initiative we have to rebuild our own economy." What kind of “vital national interest” is it, if the Afghanistan quagmire allows the Pentagon to drain the public fisc year after year? Obama could have endorsed this proposed war surtax in his speech, such as a minimum 1% war surtax on those making over $250,000 per year, or 2% tax on those making over $500,000, with up to a 5% tax on those making over $1,000,000 per year.

Obey's point is a good one but an income tax increase is not necessarily the best way the U.S. has to finance wars sensibly. Unfortunately, not even Obey is talking about what is needed: a corporate surtax. A surtax on corporations was used previously in U.S. history to good effect. Obama made reference to Franklin Delanor Roosevelt as an inspiration, in his speech; FDR imposed corporate surtaxes on America's business class in order to pay for WWII. Under FDR, corporate taxes rose as high as 90% in the final year of the war. Now isn't that inspiring? Would we still be in Afghanistan at all if corporate America were forced to underwrite the profits of defense-industry contractors and/or outright mercenary corporations like Blackwater/Xe operating for the U.S. in the Mid-East? If the President is serious about an escalation, he should also throw his authority behind a means of paying for it, rather than putting the nation deeper into hock to satisfy his generals and/or to line the pockets of war-profiteers. So far, corporate America has paid nothing towards the extra cost of Afghanistan, or Iraq. The tax relief that is needed for the American citizenry at large, especially during the current recession, could be provided by shifting the war burden to corporate budgets.

There is plenty more room for criticism of Obama's speech. Obama pandered to the lowest common denominator by including a sickening amount of references to 9/11 in his speech, in a playbook that could have been borrowed from Bush, Cheney, Rice, and Rumsfeld, who used 9/11 to justify all manner of foreign policy adventurism. Here are some commentators eviscerating the speech on this specific point of harping back to 9/11, and the knee-jerk militarist reaction that dates from that period:

Glenn Greenwald: "Bush's escalation was based on many of the same counter-insurgency dogmas in which Obama's escalation is grounded, designed by many of the same people. So it's anything but surprising that it all sounds remarkably similar. This pretense that Obama spent months carefully deliberating in order to devise some new and exotic thought pattern about the war seems absurd on its face. "

Keith Olbermann: "The exit strategy that begins by entering still further. Lose to win, sink to swim, escalate to disengage. And even this disconnect of fundamental logic is predicated on the assumption that once the extra troops go in, when the President says "okay, time for adult swim, Generals, time to get out of the pool and bring the troops with you," that the Pentagon is just going to say 'Yeppers.' These men are still in the belly of what President Eisenhower so rightly, so prophetically, christened the military-industrial complex. They are suddenly sounding frighteningly similar to what the Soviet Generals were telling the Soviet Politicos in the 1980s about Afghanistan."

Justin Raimondo: "The Yanks are coming – and they’re leaving, too. What kind of doubletalk is this? Speaking of fraud, that’s really the basis of Obama’s rationale for the continued occupation of Afghanistan, because, you see, even he admits that al-Qaeda isn’t much of a presence: 'Al Qaeda has not reemerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe-havens along the border.' So we’re in Afghanistan in order to fight an enemy that’s in Pakistan? Good luck making that case – which Obama failed to make. The entire rationale for the continuing occupation of Afghanistan is unconvincing, which is why this speech was one of Obama’s worst."

Obama has thrown this bone to the generals and the hawks, for them to fight over for the next year and half or so. The outcome is already foregone: even Gen Petraeus has said there is no military solution in Afghanistan. So long as the conflict is not expanded to include ground troops in Pakistan, the 2011 exit time frame seems like it is feasible. The date set by the President of July 2011 can't come fast enough. Hopefully, peace negotiations can get started before then. At least Obama avoided demonizing the Taliban (Bush said al-Qaeda and the Taliban were "the same thing."); the prospect of working together with some Taliban was even mentioned. The President stated: "We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens."

More worrying, perhaps, is the nagging issue of the U.S./NATO occupation's illegality. Nothing Obama said in his speech could assuage the fear that the deployment is actually illegal. As commentator Dave Lindorff puts it, the continued occupation of Afghanistan, let alone the planned escalation of hostilities there, is “on the shaky legal basis of a hastily passed Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) voted by Congress back in October 2001, more than three years before Obama was even elected to the Senate.” There was nothing in that now eight-year-old resolution justifying the indefinite occupation of another country. Furthermore, after the Taliban were toppled from government in Kabul and al-Qaeda was chased out of that country, one could argue that that authorization expired long ago. Lindorff's argument is that the continued occupation is already illegal:

“Al Qaeda, the organization that was the target of the Congressional AUMF resolution in 2001, has long since abandoned Afghanistan for safer, greener pastures. This being the case, Obama’s war in Afghanistan, and especially his decision to intensify it dramatically, is being conducted illegally, without any actual authorization from Congress, as required by the Constitution. If the president wants to mire the US further and more deeply in a civil war in Afghanistan at this point, aimed at defeating the Taliban in that country, he should at least be required to obtain a new resolution in Congress.”
source online: http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/node/48157
Congressional authorization of the use of force by the President in Afghanistan was premised on the presence of al-Qaeda in that country; if there is no more al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, then the case for war disintegrates. If safe haven for al-Qaeda is already denied, then the occupation becomes illegal, by U.S. legal/constitutional standards. But how do you prove a negative? How do you prove al-Qaeda is not there? Congress was very addle-headed when it crafted authorization for the use of force, in the way that it did, to go after terrorism. It's time for Congress to revisit its moral culpability for the tragedy of eight years of war in Afghanistan, and perhaps, to thwart the planned 18 month extension that the President is now envisaging by rescinding that 2001 authorization to use force. Congress needs not only to pull the funding from this plan of the President's, it should also do everything it can to stop the President from getting the U.S. mired in another conflict in Pakistan, on shaky legal grounds.

The illegality of an undeclared war in Pakistan is perhaps is the most serious potential ramification of President Obama's speech. There was no mention of using force against Pakistan in the 2001 authorization provided by a then-Republican-controlled Congress. The presently-Democratic-controlled Congress needs to debate whether to stop this mission creep into Pakistan before it happens. Already Obama is potentially guilty of war crimes, for sending unmanned aircraft into Pakistan to launch missiles inside the Pakistan border, without any declaration of war against that country by the U.S. Congress. Democrats, wake up! You elected a majority of Congressional representatives to bring an end to the endless war-making by the U.S. executive. Call your Congressman and ask to block any further funding and any further authorization for war-making. Ask for the peace dividend that would come due, with the draw down of U.S. forces and eventual de-mobilization of the war-footing this country has been placed on for eight long years.

Is it really worth it to spend $100 billion a year to have 100,000 troops chasing after 100 terrorists (or maybe only 10) in the most remote mountains of our planet?

Failing an outright rebellion against the President's proposed escalation, I hope that the Democratically-controlled Congress will at least provide explicit authorization, with a declaration of war as required by the U.S. Constitution, before sending any further troops into Afghanistan. Such an authorization should also limit the ambitions of the Pentagon. If Congress is unable to see the sense behind the Pentagon's desired extension of the occupation, or if it deems the justifications provided by the President for the use of force in either Afghanistan or Pakistan as unconscionably weak, then Congress should not even ask those U.S. troops who are already stationed there to remain in Afghanistan and thereby risk life and limb. Given the dubious legal grounds for their presence in Afghanistan, more than 8 years since the original authorization was first granted, Congress needs to exercise its constitutional powers to provide oversight of this next foreign adventure. When does the carte blanche given to the Executive expire?

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