David Hoppe

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:: Getting used to war

Counting the cost

By David Hoppe


President Barack Obama's plan for the gradual drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan has drawn fire from both hawks and doves - if such distinctions really apply anymore. Enthusiasm for what has become the longest war in American history is at such a low ebb, these labels have lost their usefulness.

What we actually have contending here are two forms of fear. In arriving at his plan, President Obama has had the unenviable task of trying to split the difference between one brand of dread and another.

One of these brands is afraid that, by creating a schedule for withdrawal, the president is tipping America's hand and emboldening our enemies in the region. This brand also fears that, as American troops pull out of Afghanistan, the country will revert to its old ways and anything we may have accomplished there during the past ten years will be erased.

Meanwhile, the other side is frustrated that the president isn't moving more decisively to get us out of what they fear is an untenable quagmire. As they listened to the language in the president's speech last week, their fears mounted that he was allowing himself too much wiggle room, setting the stage for what could be a prolonged and costly American military presence in a decidedly unfriendly part of the world.

Obama's defenders have rightly pointed out that the president's actions in Afghanistan have been consistent with what he said during his campaign in 2007-08. At that time, Obama was highly critical of the war in Iraq, arguing that the real focus should be Afghanistan. And, when he announced a troop surge a year ago, he also promised to begin withdrawing some of those troops this summer.

That's fine as far as it goes. The trouble is in the distance. Even after the first 10,000 troops come home, more troops will be in Afghanistan than were there when Obama took office. This is his war now.

The fiscal cost of war has also become a major worry. This year the war in Afghanistan will cost $120 billion. That figure got the attention of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a group representing mayors from municipalities of 30,000 or more residents. These mayors are cutting services and programs for lack of funding. They report that double-digit unemployment exists in 103 out of 363 metro areas across the country.

The mayors did something extraordinary. They voted to adopt two resolutions -- calling for a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the abolition of nuclear weapons. Both resolutions also demanded a reprioritization of defense spending. It's the first time in 40 years - since the Vietnam War - that the Conference has made this kind of statement.

"Our children and families long for, and call for, a real investment in the future of America," said Mayor Kitty Piercy of Eugene, Oregon. Piercy noted that her city has had to cut $20 million over the past three years. That's real money in a city like Eugene. But it pales in comparison to the $6.6 billion in cash that federal auditors recently said has gone missing in Iraq.

That's right: $6.6 billion in cash intended for Iraq reconstruction projects cannot be accounted for. A special inspector general appointed by Congress said it may be "the largest theft of funds in national history."

Tell that to a fireman in Eugene. Or a teacher in Indianapolis.

But then we've known for a long time that the billions we've been pouring into Iraq, Afghanistan and, now, Libya - not to mention the hundreds of other military bases we have in countries around the world - are tapping us dry. According to a report written by Carl Connetta of the Commonwealth Institute, the Defense Department budget has doubled since 1998, a whopping $2 trillion total. If that's not enough to make you dizzy, there's more: Connetta's research indicates that, over the past 12 years, half that amount, or $1 trillion, cannot be accounted for by any set of policies or strategy.

Incredible as this may seem, it's a conclusion that has also been reached by one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate, Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma. In a piece written for the 3 rd Annual Command and Control Summit in May 2010, Coburn said this about defense spending: "The Pentagon doesn't know how it spends its money. In a strict financial accountability sense, it doesn't even know if the money is spent. This incomprehensible condition has been documented in hundreds of reports over three decades from both the Government Accountability Office and the Department's own Inspector General."

Does this make Coburn a dove or a hawk? Does it matter?

At the very moment when politicians are arguing about how deep to cut domestic programs and claiming that effective social insurance policies, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, are unsustainable, we are spending billions on military projects that no one can so much as name.

The long term cost to America's quality of life inflicted by our impulse to wage war as a way of assuaging our fears is literally incalculable. What's really scary is our capacity to get used to it.