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When War Passes for Foreign Policy


“Take the profit out of war,” said Kevin Zeese, one of the more important activists of the Occupy Movement in the United States, “and you take out war.” His audience was made up mainly of U.S. war veterans gathered in New York to observe — and protest — the 11th anniversary of the conflict in Afghanistan. That is the longest war the United States has ever waged. The veterans ranged from those who had seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan to many who had fought in Vietnam. There was also one 88-year-old World War II veteran.

That link between profit and war sticks out in a recent Center for Public Integrity (CPI) investigation. The U.S. Congress could be spending $3 billion on tanks the army does not want. That includes repairing many M1 Abrams tanks the army won’t use. As Aaron Mehta, one of the authors of the CPI report puts it: the army “has decided it wants to save as much as $3 billion by freezing refurbishment of the M1 from 2014 to 2017, so it can redesign the hulking, clanking vehicle from top to bottom.” Congress disagreed.

Of course, the lawmakers batting for the tanks spoke about jobs. Their concern, in theory, is for the workers involved. If their factories shut down, the workers making the tanks could lose their jobs. But it seems the lawmakers’ own jobs were the real cause of their worry. The tank’s manufacturer, say the report’s authors “has pumped millions of dollars into congressional elections over the last decade.” A sound move, it seems. The CPI studied spending and lobbying records that showed donations targeting “the lawmakers who sit on four key committees that will decide the tank’s fate.” It also found that: “Those lawmakers have received $5.3 million since 2001 from employees of the tank’s manufacturer, General Dynamics, and its political action committee.”

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost anywhere between $2.5-$4 trillion. In a nation with a $16 trillion debt, that should count for something. In the “third and final” Obama-Romney debate (on foreign policy), it didn’t. Those numbers didn’t merit the slightest mention by either man. Obama claimed to be holding the line on military spending. Romney promised to raise it. As early as 2008, economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz co-authored a book with Linda J. Bilmes (an expert on U.S. budgeting, at Harvard) titled The Three Trillion Dollar War. That prophecy is pretty much on track. It could even prove an underestimate. As Bilmes pointed out in The Boston Globe, “Half of all U.S. veterans from this (Afghan) war are claiming disability benefits, racking up trillions of dollars in long-term support costs.”

The link with the economy, apart from with foreign policy, point out Stiglitz and Bilmes, is huge. “Spending on the wars and on added security at home has accounted for more than one-quarter of the total increase in U.S. government debt since 2001.” And this war was pursued without raising taxes. Indeed, with tax cuts for the rich thrown in at the same time, in both wars, during the Bush years.


About 6,000 American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s twice the number of victims in the dreadful attacks of 9/11. Besides, suicides among soldiers on active duty now average one every 24 hours. The death count does not include hundreds of others working for private military “contractors.” Elsewhere in the world, they’d be called mercenaries. Many dirty chores were outsourced to such forces as the U.S. tried to wind down its presence.

Obama said in the debate that he had come with a promise to “get us out of Iraq” and “we did that.” He had, therefore kept his promise of 2008. He failed to mention that in that year, he also ran with the line that Afghanistan was a worthy war. As President, his “surge” — adding 30,000 troops there for a while — has failed. The real task is how to get out without disgrace.

The debate had not a word on the numbers of casualties and deaths. Not a word on the financial costs of the wars and their link to the economy. Not a whisper on the lessons to be drawn for U.S. foreign policy. That, in a debate on foreign policy.

The human costs to others have been awful, too. No one knows for sure how many civilians have died as a result of the two wars. The estimates range from one hundred thousand to several times that number. As reported in these columns in 2008, a little over three years after the war in Iraq began in 2003, over 6,50,000 Iraqis were estimated to have lost their lives. A survey by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad had put it bluntly: “As many as 6,54,965 more Iraqis may have died since hostilities began in Iraq in March 2003 than would have been expected under pre-war conditions. The deaths from all causes — violent and non-violent — are over and above the estimated 1,43,000 deaths per year that occurred from all causes prior to the March 2003 invasion.” The survey has been attacked, but few deny the death count has been massive. Iraq’s overall mortality rate more than doubled from 5.5 deaths per 1,000 persons before the war began to 13.3 per 1,000 persons by late 2006. Also, many more civilians have died since the time of that study.

By late 2006, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had come up with other kinds of numbers. Close to 1.8 million Iraqis had fled their country since the war began. Another 1.6 million made up the internally displaced.

“What an incredible waste of human life these wars inflict,” Paul Appel, a Vietnam war veteran, told us at the October 7 meeting in New York. “Looking back, I was having to face that before I even left for Vietnam. I was given the job of letting parents know their sons had died in the war. I had to go along with the army priest. Once, I was left to do it on my own.” Appel is a farmer from Illinois. With him was Dud Hendricks, a former sports coach from Maine. And many others from modest backgrounds. A few hours after we met, they were all arrested and led away in cuffs. The vets wouldn’t leave the Vietnam War Memorial where they had gathered, by 10 p.m. A highly embarrassed police squad took them away.

None of the four candidates for president or vice-president has ever served in the military. At the debate that night, Romney declared his firm support for using Drones in the way they are now employed in Pakistan. Obama smirked. It was a policy he had driven big time. That these have caused very high civilian casualties did not matter. The drones are now over Libya as well. His trump card, of course, was the killing of Osama bin Laden. His huge foreign policy achievement. Yet several groups associated with Bin Laden were not overwrought by his death. Their disconnected leader had become an embarrassment.

The debaters revelled in clichés. Obama: “America is the one indispensable nation in the world.” (So there are many that are dispensable?) “I’ve got a different vision for America.” Romney: “America must be strong.” “I’m optimistic about the future.”

So where does it go from here? It goes to a zillion more television ads adding even more to this insanely expensive contest. The pundits are already working out in which states the campaigns will cut back on spending in order to push more money into some swing states.

It is not easy to beat an incumbent American President. In the last 112 years, only four elected presidents seeking re-election have been defeated. (Gerald Ford who lost in 1976 does not figure in that list. He was not elected but became President when Richard Nixon quit in disgrace. In 80 years since 1932, only Jimmy Carter (1980) and George H.W. Bush (1992) have been beaten.

Yet, Obama, while having that great edge, does not have it all sewn up. It’s easy to forget that in 2008, just before Wall Street hit the fan, John McCain was slightly ahead of Obama in the polls. The meltdown that year transformed the scene. The state of the economy hardly gives Obama a great boost this time around.

Meanwhile, the pundits are back to guessing whose body lingo was better in the final debate. Who looked “more presidential.” A more cutting response to that process, though, comes from Andrew Levine in CounterPunch.org. “What does being a better debater have to do with anything? Presidents don’t debate. The candidates might as well compete by jousting or pole-vaulting.”

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Sainath is presently in the US teaching for the (Fall) semester. He can be reached at: Sainath@princeton.edu.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@mtnl.net.in

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