Isn't it time to call what Congress will soon vote on by its right name: war escalation funding?
Early in 2009, President Barack Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan with 21,000 "combat" troops, 13,000 "support" troops, and at least 5,000 mercenaries, without any serious debate in Congress or the corporate media. The President sent the first 17,000 troops prior to developing any plan for Afghanistan, leaving the impression that escalation was, somehow, an end in itself. Certainly it didn't accomplish anything else, a conclusion evident in downbeat reports on the Afghan war situation issued this month by both the Government Accountability Office and the Pentagon.
So it seemed like progress for our representative government when, last fall, the media began to engage in a debate over whether further escalation in Afghanistan made sense. Granted, this was largely a public debate between the commander-in-chief and his generals (who should probably have been punished with removal from office for insubordinate behavior), but members of Congress at least popped up in cameo roles.
In September, for instance, 57 members of Congress sent a letter to the president opposing an escalation of the war. In October, Congresswoman Barbara Lee introduced a bill to prohibit the funding of any further escalation. In December, various groups of Congress members sent letters to the president and to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opposing an escalation and asking for a chance to vote on it. Even as Congress voted overwhelmingly for a massive war and military budget in December, some representatives did speak out against further escalation and the funding needed for it.
While all sides in this debate agreed that such escalation funding would need to be voted on sometime in the first half of 2010, everyone knew something else as well: that the President would go ahead and escalate in Afghanistan even without funding in place -- the money all being borrowed anyway -- and that, once many or all of the new troops were there, he would get less resistance from Congress which would be voting on something that had already happened.
The corporate media went along with this bait-and-switch strategy, polling and reporting on the escalation debate in Washington until the president fell in line behind his generals (give or take 10,000 or so extra troops). The coming vote was then relabeled as a simple matter of "war funding." This was convenient, since Americans are far more likely to oppose escalating already unpopular wars than just keeping them going -- and would be likely to oppose such funding even more strongly if the financial tradeoffs involved were made clear. However, a new poll shows a majority of Americans do not believe that this war is worth fighting at all.
Nonetheless, as in a tale foretold, Congress is expected to vote later this month on $33 billion in further "war funding" to pay for sending 30,000 troops (plus "support" troops, etc.) to Afghanistan -- most of whom are already there or soon will be. In addition, an extra $2 billion is being requested for aid and "civilian" operations in Afghanistan (much of which may actually go to the Afghan military and police), $2.5 billion for the same in our almost forgotten war in Iraq, and another $2 billion for aid to (or is it a further military presence in?) Haiti.
This upcoming vote, of course, provides the opportunity that our representatives were asking for half a year ago. They can now vote the president's escalation up or down in the only way that could possibly be enforced, by voting its funding up or down. Blocking the funding in the House of Representatives would mean turning those troops around and bringing them back home -- and unlike the procedure for passing a bill, there would be no need for any action by the Senate or the president.
What Does $33 Billion Look Like?
So, how much money are we talking about exactly? Well not enough, evidently, for the teabagging enemies of reckless government spending to take notice. Clearly not enough for the labor movement or any other advocates of spending on jobs or healthcare or education or green energy to disturb their slumbers. God forbid! Yet it's still a sizeable number by a certain reckoning.
After all, 33 billion miles could take you to the sun 226 times. And $33 billion could radically alter any non-military program in existence. There's a bill in the Senate, for instance, that would prevent schools from laying off teachers in all 50 states for a mere $23 billion. Another $9.6 billion would quadruple the Department of Energy's budget for renewable energy. Now, what to do with that extra $0.4 billion?
And remember what this $33 billion actually involves: adding more troops, support troops, and private contractors, whose work, in turn, will mean ongoing higher costs to maintain the Afghan occupation, construct new bases there, fuel the machines of war, and provide the weaponry. Keep in mind as well that various other costs associated with the president's most recent "surge" are hidden in the budgets of the CIA, the Department of State, and other parts of the government. Looking just at the military, however, this is $33 billion to be added to an unfathomable pile of waste. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Congress has already approved $345 billion for war in Afghanistan, not to mention $708 billion in Iraq.
According to the National Priorities Project, for that same money we could have renewable energy in 1,083,271,391 homes for a year (or every home in the country for more than 10 years), or pay 17,188,969 elementary school teachers for a year. There may be 2.6 million elementary and middle school teachers in our country now. Assuming we could use 3 million teachers, we could hire them all for five years and employ that extra $13 billion or so to give them bonuses. "Honor our brave teachers" anyone?
Even these calculations, however, are misleading. As economists Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz demonstrated in The Three Trillion Dollar War, their book on the cost of the Iraq war alone, adding in debt payments on moneys borrowed to fight that war, long-term care for veterans wounded in it, the war's impact on energy prices, and other macroeconomic impacts, the current tax bill for the Iraq War must be at least tripled and probably quadrupled or more to arrive at its real long-term cost. (Similarly, the cost in lives must be multiplied by all those lives that could have been saved through other, better uses of the same funding.) The same obviously applies to the Afghan War.
The fact is that military spending is destroying the U.S. economy. An excellent report from the National Priorities Project, "Security Spending Primer," provides a summary of research that supports these basic and well-documented facts: