Saturday, November 28, 2009

War and the economy, 2008 and now

In March 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama, even then approaching a glide path to the White House, spoke to campaign supporters in Charleston, W. Va., and began a unification of seemingly separate events — one with eerie parallels to the present day.

On March 3, noting a shift in the focus of Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war, The Washington Post's Peter Slevin reported that Obama “contend[s] that bringing the troops home would liberate cash for economic investment, infrastructure improvements and ... improved care for hundreds of thousands of war veterans and their families."

Addressing his backers, Obama made the connection between the Iraq War of Convenience and the perilous state of the economy, connecting it where people could understand it: on their everyday bottom lines.

When you're spending over $50 to fill up your car because the price of oil is four times what it was before Iraq, you're paying a price for this war," Obama said. "When Iraq is costing each household about $100 a month, you're paying a price for this war."

"For what folks in this state have been spending on the Iraq war, we could be giving health care to nearly 450,000 of your neighbors, hiring nearly 30,000 new elementary school teachers, and making college more affordable for over 300,000 students," he said, according to The Associated Press.

Speaking to The Post, Rep. Sherrod Brown of Ohio explained where his constituents were at on the issue of the Iraq war.

"They are starting to understand this economically," Brown said. "They are seeing that, because of tax cuts and because of the immense cost of the war, they aren't getting what they need locally.' "

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Fast forward 20 months later. Now-President Barack Obama is set to announce, on Tuesday at West Point, his long-awaited strategy on how to proceed with the war in Afghanistan. The expectation is that Obama will approve the Pentagon's request for more troops. How many troops we won’t know for sure until the president’s address; various media reports have said about 34,000 more troops will be sent (these in addition to the 21,000 earmarked for deployment earlier this year).

But setting aside for now the huge problem that even a modest escalation in U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would create for Obama’s relationship with his base, the president faces the risk of being hoist on his own petard vis-à-vis the domestic impact of a foreign conflict.



The same unity of foreign entanglement and domestic fiscal instability that Obama wielded on the campaign trail last year now works against him in the White House.

It’s no sleight of hand: just substitute the Afghan war for the Iraq war. One has the potential to be as financially ruinous for the American economy as the other.

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Steve Clemons, the editor of The Washington Note, a noted political blog, writing on Talking Points Memo on Nov. 23, observed that the Pentagon estimates “each new troop addition that the United States sends to Afghanistan will cost about $500,000. The White House is suggesting the price tag will be double that amount - or $1 million per new soldier per year.

“And can I add that these figures do not seem to include the long-term health costs that the U.S. commits to with our soldiers — nor other ongoing benefits.

“That means that a surge of 40,000 troops will cost approximately $40 billion on top of the $65 billion/year the U.S. is currently spending on its military deployments.”

Clemons’ back-of-the-pushed-envelope estimate may be a tad high, or not. Some military planners have been a little more thrifty, placing the extra annual cost — assuming Gen. Stanley McChrystal's troop recommendation of 40,000 forces is adopted intact — at $33 billion. White House officials have said the real amount is more like $50 billion.

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One White House official recently went off message in a way that revealed the conflicted thinking about the Afghan mission. Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, recently cabled Washington voicing his own concerns of the wisdom of sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

Eikenberry’s concern focuses on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and its recent history of corruption and fraud — a legacy that Eikenberry (a former Army lieutenant general) thinks may have contributed to the renascence of the Taliban, which by some estimates now controls about 80 percent of Afghanistan.

“Eikenberry's last-minute interventions have highlighted the nagging undercurrent of the policy discussion: the U.S. dependence on a partnership with a Karzai government whose incompetence and corruption is a universal concern within the administration,” The Washington Post reported Nov. 12.

For his part, Karzai has expressed doubts about the tango between his country and the United States. “The West is not here primarily for the sake of Afghanistan,” Karzai told PBS's “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” earlier this month. “It is here to fight terrorism. The United States and its allies came to Afghanistan after September 11. Afghanistan was troubled like hell before that, too. Nobody bothered about us.”

This is our partner in fighting the Afghan War? Show some love, Hamid.

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President Obama is facing a daunting balancing act of priorities: weighing the impact of any American commitment there, how effective Karzai can be as a leader with so many of his own people arrayed against him; how effective Afghan security forces can be in defending their own country; the role of fractious, nuclear-capable Pakistan as a neighbor; and Obama’s assessment of what can actually be accomplished to stem an insurgency whose repulsion may be a challenge on par with turning back the tide.

And it’s a challenge that the United States faces even as the dimensions of the domestic economic crisis have become frighteningly theoretical.

To this point, the issue of the cost of maintaining our military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has been addressed in rhetorical discussions of a seemingly endless river of dollars, in calculator-freezing amounts bearing zeroes that almost run off the page — calculations that suggest the American economy is a source of funds extracted from a bottomless tranche.

A trillion here, a trillion there and pretty soon, you’re talking about real money. Money that could go to give health care to how many hundreds of thousands of Americans, to hire how many tens of thousands of elementary school teachers, and make college more affordable for hundreds of thousands of students.

When President Obama speaks on Tuesday, in an address already being touted as potentially the most important of his young presidency, he’ll hopefully explain to the American people how he plans to square this maddening circle, reconcile the prosecution of what he’s called a “war of necessity” with the equal necessities of attention to a domestic economy hanging on by its fingernails’ fingernails.

The president has repeatedly proven his ability to bring the big concepts, the irresistible national issues, down to something people can understand, and even embrace. That rhetorical gift of distilling explanation may never be more necessary than now.

Image credits: Obama top: transplanted mountaineer, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. . U.S. casualties: via NBC News. Karzai: Harald Dettenborn. Obama bottom: The White House.

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