Editor’s Note: In Joe Scarborough’s March 29 Politico op-ed, "The hypocrisy of the American left," Scarborough is kind to write that I’m "one of the few liberals to take a principled stand against what America is doing in Libya." Scarborough goes on, "…[vanden Heuvel] has written in The Nation that the anti-war left has been silent since Obama took office because they don’t want to hurt the president’s reelection chances." A point of clarification: as I’ve written here, the antiwar left needs to speak up and out about Afghanistan.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan isn’t worth fighting, almost 75 percent want “a substantial number” of US troops withdrawn from Afghanistan this summer, and yet Congressional staffers widely report that Members do not hear from their constituents about this war.
This radical disconnect between the poll numbers and action isn’t seen only at the grassroots but also within much of the political class (with some notable exceptions), and in the very few opportunities for action up for offer by the antiwar movement.
Maybe that’s why General David Petraeus faced mostly softball questions from legislators at hearings on Capitol Hill last week, and why Congress is able to get away with focusing its so-called budget “debate” almost entirely on cruel cuts in domestic spending, with virtually no discussion about the exorbitant costs of this war: over $385 billion to date and an additional $120 billion expected this year. Over 2,300 US and coalition casualties, tens of thousands of Afghan civilian deaths and over 10,000 US wounded. Also, more than 460 suicides by US soldiers last year, a figure that significantly undercounts both reservists and veterans, and a tragedy that will continue long after this war is over.
You wouldn’t know about all the real long-term costs from the sparse media coverage. For example, when taking into account caring for the physical and psychological wounds of returning soldiers, Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes estimate the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will reach $4 trillion to $6 trillion. (This looting of our Treasury at a moment when people also say they would opt for cuts in defense spending over cuts in Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security.)
But until people wake up, speak out, organize and mobilize to pressure their representatives and President Obama, the opposition numbers reflected in the polls won’t mean much, and the staggering numbers describing the costs of this war will continue to climb.
But where—aside from contacting their representatives themselves—should concerned citizens turn?
Peace Action offers this good petition to President Obama and also just held a Congressional lobby weekend along with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Civilian Soldier Alliance. There will no doubt be some good organizing around a forthcoming bill from Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern and Republican Congressman Walter Jones demanding an exit strategy and a timetable for a withdrawal.
But even while decent congresspeople do their work, they need to hear a steady drumbeat for withdrawal led by organizations that have the will and resources. Where is the inimitable MoveOn, for example, when it comes to seeking a responsible exit from Afghanistan? Actions could include op-ed, call-in and letter-writing campaigns; vigils and demonstrations; and pledges to contribute, host house parties and campaign only on behalf of candidates who demand this kind of substantive plan for withdrawal.
We are heading into a critical election year. It’s time for a new transpartisan majority—one that includes progressives, independents and libertarians (and conservatives with a conscience)—to make it clear that staying the course in this war is insanity. It’s time to invest in real security at home—security which doesn’t come from cuts in education, housing, heat and infrastructure, or from fighting Al Qaeda in a country where it hasn’t been present for nearly a decade.
If we’re going to achieve a change in course, citizens will need to make it clear that they want a real withdrawal to begin this summer—one with a fixed timetable. Obama added 50,000 troops in 2009, by July a plan should be clearly laid out to bring them home as quickly as safely possible. We also need smart diplomacy to bring a political resolution to this civil war. As the just released Century Foundation report lays out, this is a moment to begin negotiations on a political settlement involving the Afghan government and its allies, the Taliban and its supporters in Pakistan and other regional and international parties.
“Unless the people force this issue from the grassroots, sources in the Pentagon tell me we’re looking at a token 10,000-12,000 troop withdrawal with a sketchy timeline—2014 or even longer—for our continued military presence,” said Matthew Hoh, a former US Marine who resigned his Afghanistan post in protest and now serves as director of the Afghanistan Study Group.
Many Democrats—even peace activists—are reluctant to speak out against the war because they fear weakening Obama in 2012. But who’s to say Obama doesn’t want to be moved in this direction? Even the DNC endorsed Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s resolution supporting “a significant and sizable reduction no later than July 2011.”
“There are good career people in the Pentagon ready to draft an alternative to the ‘stay the course’ plan that will undoubtedly come from General Petraeus this summer, all Obama needs to do is ask for it,” said Hoh.
This is crisis time. A crisis of our democracy as seen in the disconnect between what people want and what they are getting; and a crisis in the economy when we have slashonomics and fantastically costly wars instead of smart investments to build a new economy.