8 December 2009: Election Day — May the Force be with us!

May the Force be with us!

College chum Ron J.K. and other people have asked me about President Barack Obama’s recent announcement of his administration’s plans for Afghanistan. Some were no doubt trying to bait me, knowing my liberal and internationalist leanings.
Here’s how I have responded.

Unfortunately, Obama and the U.S. are in a no-win situation. If he had announced plans for an immediate withdrawal, conservative commentators would label him a coward, and if he had declined to set any plans for withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, Democrats in Congress would rebel, and our costly and ill-defined wars would drag on without foreseeable end.

As he has proven with the delay in closing the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Obama can be pragmatic and flexible in trying to follow his principles. The latest surge of U.S. troops is focused on the short-to-midterm goal of properly securing Afghanistan beyond Kabul, and the announced withdrawal date isn’t written in stone and reflects longer-term political goals. I don’t think it would embolden our enemies, as some in the news media have claimed.

Obama’s strategy is far from perfect, but given the conflicting advice that both generals and diplomats have given him, it’s probably the best we can expect. During the 2008 presidential campaign, both candidates said the military shouldn’t be used for “nation-building,” but given the situation Obama has inherited, the effort to justify the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform is worth questioning.

Remember, Afghanistan’s insurgency humbled the Greek, British, and Soviet empires before us, and the mountainous country isn’t as easily partitioned as we managed after more decisive wars in Korea or Germany. Opium production has increased since the U.S. entered Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban have merely moved to Pakistan since Pres. Bush declared war on Iraq, and the government in Kabul is corrupt and in power only because of U.S. support. We often bet on the wrong horse.

How do we end the threat of terrorism? By getting to its causes in Islamic fundamentalism, the arms trade, socioeconomic inequalities, and failed nation-states whose borders and oil-rich elites were created by the West. The oft-proposed solution of a permanent military presence in the area would only foster anti-U.S. sentiment, cost more lives and billions of dollars, and weaken domestic and international support.

If the entire region could be disarmed and made into a U.N. protectorate, that could work, but it would still take vision and generations of patience. Why not take a page from the Cold War (and even Ronald Reagan, whom many still admire) and contain our foes and their ideology rather than pursue numerous unwinnable brushfire wars?

I wish the president, our nation, and the world luck in finding ways to resolve such persistent conflicts and minimizing the loss of life. Democracy spread in the 1990s but has experienced setbacks in the past decade. The U.S. should be a leader in promoting freedom, justice, and prosperity for all, but we also have to recognize constraints on the ground and in dealing with rising powers with whom we don’t necessarily agree.

On a related note, as the U.S. begins to emerge from the current economic recession and Congress grapples with health care reform, some politicians and commentators still claim that reducing taxes and regulation is the best way to deal with it. However, “trickle-down” theory has been disproven even as federal and personal debts climb and access to health care is based on class.

You can’t have corporate bailouts, provide payments to states, continue Social Security and medical benefits, and support a large military while at the same time cutting taxes and expect to come out ahead. Worker protections gained by (admittedly often corrupt) unions have eroded as corporations grow ever larger and maximize their rights as legal “persons.” Insurance premiums have risen, workdays have lengthened, and the middle class continues to get squeezed.

Even those of us fortunate enough to have jobs will have to acknowledge that our standard of living is slipping, partly because economic well-being is measured by consumption rather than homegrown production or environmental conservation. The federal government provides an economy of scale in which the costs of unemployment and other benefits can be spread over the largest possible number of taxpayers, reducing the pain for the many to help out the 10% of our fellow Americans who are unemployed.

Sure, big government is vulnerable to corruption and waste. But as the financial crisis has proven, so is big business, which is even less accountable. When Republicans controlled the Congress and White House, they did little to stem the growth of government, let alone reduce the deficit, which is a burden on future generations. Contrarians seem to be rooting for Obama to fail, and while I believe that dissent with and within the White House can be useful to decision-making, for all our sakes, we’d better hope that it’s successful!