Focal Points Blog

Will Suu Kyi Ever Be Free of the Imprisonment-House Arrest-Release Merry-Go-Round?

Free Suu KyiAs you’ve no doubt heard, the house arrest of the Burmese people’s favorite daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, is due to expire on Saturday. Speculation is running rampant that the woman who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for advocating Burmese democracy and human rights may again be released from the house arrest under which she’s been held for 14 of the last 20 years.

Last Sunday’s the proxy party for Burma’s ruling junta predictably won their vaunted elections. As Reuters reports, the junta might now . . .

. . . seek to win some international legitimacy by freeing Suu Kyi at a time when she is little threat to the formation of a government it can choose and control. Her release might also appease the Burmese public and ward off the threat of protests. If the military wants Western sanctions to be lifted, this would be a step in the right direction, although it would be highly unlikely embargoes would be relaxed immediately. The regime knows there is a fierce debate as to the effectiveness of sanctions and that U.S. and European investors are tempted by the country’s vast resources and untapped potential.

In other words, the junta thinks that it wouldn’t take much to convince the West to retract its sanctions. It may be right because measures such as these, adopted purely out of human-rights considerations (unless I’m missing something), are becoming — in the words of Alberto Gonzalez when speaking about the Geneva Conventions — “quaint” in today’s increasingly mercenary world. Devoid of any such ethical compunctions, China is helping the junta develop natural gas and hydro-electric power, among other things. As well, it provides the junta with military equipment including fighter planes and naval vessels. The West not only wants in on Burma’s resources, but seeks to keep them from China.

As for Suu Kyi’s possible release, live-blogging for the Guardian, Peter Walker writes:

I’ve had a chat with Niall Couper from Amnesty International, who agrees that there’s no way of knowing when the release could happen. He also points out that even if Aung San Suu Kyi is freed the junta could arrest her again the moment she addresses her supporters. He notes: “I wouldn’t see this as a watershed moment. What you have here is one political prisoner among 2,200.”

Not to mention the oppression of its ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, one might be tempted to suggest that since the prospect of re-(house) arrest prevents her from doing substantive work when freed, she should reject it if offered to avoid appearing like a plaything of the junta. But, under the terms of her house arrest, Suu Kyi is even prevented from spending time in her garden. Only human, she must feel at times like a ghost roaming around her rundown lake-side house. Whatever the outcome, bearing in mind that in the past Aung San Suu Kyi has been offered the option of leaving the country, her courage remains unimpeachable.

Catfood Commission Provides Opening for Defense Cuts to Go Mainstream

Exceeding the expectations of many arms control advocates, the deficit panel commissioned by President Obama earlier this year has actually proposed $100 billion in cuts to the Pentagon budget (do consult Miriam Pemberton’s brief treatment of its pros and cons). The cuts come primarily from unnecessary weapons procurements, overseas basing, and health care benefits for military families.

It is rather stunning to see a bipartisan, mainstream group of advisors concoct such an attack on the Pentagon sacred cow. Such a recommendation departs even from the stated position of President Obama, who likely only commissioned the panel in an effort to co-opt the deficit hysteria that was threatening his ambitious domestic agenda. This should be a credit to the efforts of Barney Frank’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, who lobbied hard to let the Pentagon contract its share of austerity fever.

The cuts are somewhat modest (though proportional to cuts sought in other areas of the federal budget), and the recommendations don’t necessarily connect all the dots from various program cuts to that $100 billion figure. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether they will receive the endorsement of the full panel, not to mention of Congress. But for the first time in recent memory, there exists a mainstream substrate on which to catalyze opposition to defense spending. You want those weapons contracts for your district? Fine, vote against the recommendations of the bipartisan deficit panel.

Predictably, and if you can pardon the expression, industry groups are up in arms. Marion Blakey, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association, has exclaimed that cuts to new weapons systems would “undercut the capability of the nation’s defense industrial base to design, build, and support complex cutting-edge defense systems.” Of course, this is a thinly veiled admission that such programs have little to do with defense and everything to do with that “industrial base,” the military-industrial complex that has its tentacles in virtually every congressional district.

As Miriam Pemberton and John Feffer have shown, there is tremendous unrealized potential in that industrial base that doesn’t require a steady stream of Pentagon funds for exorbitantly expensive war toys. But just in case major arms contractors aren’t ready to convert their capabilities into less destructive enterprises, there is always the international market. Already anticipating potential cuts in the Pentagon’s procurement budget, the Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon behemoths announced last month their plans for a $60 billion sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. This would be the largest arms transfer in American history. And arms exports next year already expected to surge.

Nonetheless, the commission’s interim proposal allows for defense cuts to make a welcome (and much belated) ingress into the political mainstream. The panel has taken a few real political risks that are likely to ruffle some feathers. In addition to the weapons cuts, the panel also suggests cuts to Social Security and – gasp – recommends against repealing health care reform.

This, of course, is not tantamount to world peace. But if the panel is willing to take an ax (or at least a scalpel) to the Pentagon and Social Security third rails, and if it is even amenable to jumping on the health care reform landmine only two months before the Tea Party comes to town, why not go after that other massive drain on spending? Ending the war in Afghanistan, which already costs upwards of $6 billion per month by the most conservative estimates, would go leaps and bounds toward reducing expenditures on every aspect of the defense budget already slated for cuts: weapons procurement, basing, and medical care. With the summer drawdown already looking increasingly farcical, perhaps President Obama needs a bipartisan panel to tell him that this war is too expensive (since “wrong,” or at least “wrongheaded,” has gotten less traction). Like the defense cuts already proposed, when this idea appears in otherwise bland bipartisan circles, we will know it’s finally gotten somewhere.

Military Spending Takes its Place at the Table

The two chairs of the Deficit Reduction Commission have floated their trial balloon. Here’s my good news/ bad news quick take on their proposals for military spending:

Good news:

  • Cutting military spending—the formerly untouchable component of the budget—is off-limits no more. Secretary Gates has been proposing “cuts” that are actually shaved, and redirected, increases. What the Deficit Commission chairs are proposing is, actually, cuts.
  • Military spending gets equal treatment! It makes up half the discretionary budget (what Congress votes on every year). The team of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson propose cutting $100 billion from defense, and $100 billion from everything else. Proportional, in other words.
  • This includes $20 billion in weapons buys. This would be the largest cut in this budget since the end of the cold war. The list includes items that IPS’ Unified Security Budget task force, which I chair, and the Sustainable Defense Task Force, of which I am a member, have recommended, including ending, finally, the hybrid helicopter plane—the V-22 Osprey—that’s struggled to become airborne since the eighties, and that even Dick Cheney tried to kill; canceling the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program; cutting in half buys of the Joint Strike Fighter plane, the most expensive weapons program EVER; and further cutting the grab bag of high-tech toys, the Future Combat Systems.
  • They propose cutting 1/3 of our overseas bases, bringing home 150,000 of our troops in Europe and Asia, which IPS has also been advocating for years. The savings they project from this are far smaller than our projections.

Bad news:

  • They make no mention of savings to be gained from cuts to the nuclear weapons complex, for example, or to unneeded aircraft fighter wings, or submarines, or destroyers.
  • They get to their $100 billion number by gesturing toward large quantities of unspecified “efficiencies.”
  • While reassigning Defense Secretary Gates’ projected savings to the deficit is better than his plans to plow them back into his own budget, this money is sorely needed for job-creating investment.
  • No sooner had the balloon been launched than other members of the Commission began taking pot shots at it. Further deliberations, and the voting, are still to come.

Are Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Once Joined at the Hip, Headed for Divorce?

In the words of the old Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen song, as made famous by Frank Sinatra, nonproliferation and disarmament, like love and marriage, “go together like a horse and carriage.” Nonproliferation — preventing states that don’t currently possess nuclear weapons — works in tandem with disarmament — states with nuclear weapons divesting themselves of same. “You can’t have one without the other.” Right?

After all — continuing with the musical metaphor — that’s how the refrain goes in that old strain of a treaty, the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). Let’s all sing the sixth stanza (aka, article) together: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” (Actually, it would probably require a good rapper to do it justice.)

Yet many maintain that Article VI does not, in fact, commit nuclear-weapons states to a long-term divestment of those weapons. Christopher Ford of the Hudson Institute outlined this position as well as anybody in a Nonproliferation Review article that he wrote shortly after he left the Bush administration as its lead negotiator on the NPT. Negotiations toward that end in themselves, he wrote, are sufficient for a state to be in compliance with Article VI. In the years since, such as in a recent piece for his website, New Paradigms Forum, titled Disarmament Versus Nonproliferation?, he’s written about how nonproliferation doesn’t necessarily follow in the wake of disarmament.

For those who are believers in what I call the “credibility thesis” — that is, the idea that a lack of progress in demonstrating disarmament “credibility” is the main “missing ingredient” that has helped ensure that the post-Cold War world has seen so little progress in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons — this must have been a disheartening year. . . . as I have outlined elsewhere, our disarmament push seems to have won us no real progress.

Before we address if and why it was a “disheartening year,” we’ll note that the “elsewhere” Ford outlined our lack of nonproliferation progress is yet another piece he wrote titled Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation, and the “Credibility Thesis”. It reads, in part:

First, [the credibility thesis] explicitly assumes that the commitment of the NWS [nuclear weapons states] to the ideal of disarmament lacks credibility, and implicitly assumes that the United States is both the most important locus of the problem and the key to its resolution. Second, it assumes that if this disarmament “credibility gap” is closed, it will be possible to meet today’s proliferation threats much more effectively and with a much wider base of diplomatic support. [But the] postulated “catalytic effect” of disarmament progress in support of nonproliferation policy is usually described as being an indirect effect, and rightly so. With good reason, few people seriously argue that countries such as Iran and North Korea seek nuclear weapons simply because the United States or other NWS possess such devices themselves, and that proliferators’ interest in such devices would accordingly diminish if only the United States reduced its arsenal further. It is sometimes alleged in disarmament circles that NWS possession of nuclear weapons, merely by making them “legitimate,” encourages proliferation. . . .

In the recent New Paradigms Forum piece, he wonders . . .

Where, one might ask, is the credibility-derived “payoff” in nonproliferation cooperation for U.S. progress and leadership in this field to date? And what reason do we have to believe, in its absence, that such a payoff will materialize in the future?

This usage of the term “credibility” is almost unique to Ford. The only other instance we found was by Joseph Gerson of the American Friends Service Committee, who, last spring, referred to a credibility gap between President Obama’s disarmament vows and his actions. To put it another way, Gerson doesn’t seem to believe that the United States is showing sufficient disarmament leadership, or setting a strong enough example, in following the letter of the law of Article VI, to convince states desirous of nuclear weapons that their covetousness is misplaced. He represents the view of not only much of the disarmament community, but the Non-Aligned Movement (an organization of states not aligned with major power blocs).

Ford acknowledges those agents in the recent article.

There will surely be those who will argue that the credibility thesis has yet truly to be tested — that is, who will chalk up the world’s failure to unite in solving all these problems to our failure to do more, and more quickly, in moving toward “zero.” A global united front in support of vigorous nonproliferation would really have materialized, it will be said, if we had only done more to disarm.

It must be acknowledged that not only does Ford understand disarmament advocates like few other conservatives, but, odds are, his judgment is sound when he asserts that whether or not we disarm has no bearing whatsoever on the plans of states that hope to acquire or develop nuclear weapons. Still, it behooves us to look at the issue from the vantage point of a small nation, to which 50 nuclear weapons is the stuff of daydreams. The 1,500 to which new START binds Russia and the United States (if ratified by the Senate, which looks less and less likely since the elections) still constitutes an arsenal unimaginable in its immensity.

Furthermore, to the “street” in those nations, the idea that not only can’t you have nuclear weapons when others do, but that the nation with the most nukes is leading the call to deprive you of any, not only violates your sense of fair play at its most fundamental level, but is capable of inducing outright cognitive dissonance. In addition, while, deep down, the nation’s statesmen likely share those sentiments, they may also feel that the reading of Article IV alluded to above is, at worst, counterintuitive; at best, legalistic.

That kind of hairsplitting scarcely becomes a superpower-slash-world leader in disarmament. Besides, as Jonathan Schell says, the most dangerous illusion is that “we can hold on to nuclear weapons while at the same time stopping their proliferation to other countries. That is an absolutely unworkable proposition. It just cannot happen in the real world.”

What’s more, attempting to enforce nonproliferation while you still retain 1,500 weapons plus for your personal deterrence is yet another reminder to a small nation of its second-class citizenship as a state. After all, prestige might even be the better part of nuclear aspiration. (Note to nuclear-weapons states: when it comes to throwing small states off the nuclear scent, sharing research in such cutting-edge areas as nanotechnology might, when combined with disarmament, work synergistic wonders.)

On top of everything else we’ve come up with an ingenious force multiplier for our hypocrisy — the $80 billion Obama has committed to nuclear modernization over the next decade to win Republican Senate votes to raitfy START. We vastly underestimate Tehran if we think this is lost on the mullahs. In fact, they can be forgiven for perceiving new START as a smoke screen (however thin) for what really is more of a strategic retrenchment in our commitment to nuclear weapons than a rejection of them. Nothing says we’re into nuclear weapons for the long haul better than watered-down treaties and the compromises we make to secure them.

Still, there’s no denying the legitimacy of the conservative argument that the urgency of nonproliferation precludes waiting around for substantive disarmament which, if it’s actually happening, seems to be unfolding over a timetable spanning generations. But proliferation, with nuclear Big Brother — the International Atomic Energy Association — looking over the shoulder of states like Iran, while the nuclear black market is a shadow of what it once was, is proceeding at a glacial pace as well. One reason that the American public is skeptical that Iran isn’t close to developing nuclear weapons is that it can’t understand what’s taking a large state so long to get up to speed on a 60-year old technology.

Of course, nonproliferation can be enforced much more quickly than disarmament can be generated — by attacking the offending state. But the military road to absolute nonproliferation is closed, in the case of Iran, for instance, because social norms on the part of the United States prevent it from mounting a massive enough attack (read: high civilian casualties) to keep Iran’s nuclear program from rising from the ashes — and, this time, unfettered by international constraints it would now disdain. Thus disarmament moves not much more slowly than nonproliferation.

Whether or not disarmament discourages proliferation is immaterial — it’s our only recourse. Besides, does anybody think the time will come when small states will actually pass the United States on the up nuclear escalator while it’s on the down escalator to disarmament? The United States would push the emergency shut-off button to disarmament in a heartbeat.

In the end, what the chorus of the Cahn-Van Heusen song reminds us about love and marriage can also be applied to nonproliferation and disarmament: “Try, try, try to separate them, it’s an illusion.”

Republican Senate Rejection of START Could Actually Work in Disarmament’s Favor

The New York Times saw fit to provide valuable op-ed space to John Bolton and John Yoo on November 9. You’d think the latter, especially, best known for providing the Bush administration with legal justification for torture, would be reluctant to show his face — or byline — in public again. In this instance Bolton and Yoo are turning their collective wisdom to the new START treaty.

“The sweeping Democratic midterm losses last week raise serious questions for President Obama and a lame-duck Congress,” they write. “Voters want government brought closer to the vision the framers outlined in the Constitution” — laying it on a little thick, guys — “and the first test could be the fate of the flawed New Start arms control treaty [which] awaits ratification. The Senate should heed the will of the voters and either reject the treaty or amend it so that it doesn’t weaken our national defense.”

In his November 8 column for the Week, Daniel Larison of (the libertarian) American Conservative also addressed the fate of new START.

After the Republican gain of six seats in the Senate, including Mark Kirk of Illinois, who will be seated immediately, the arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, known as START, has much less of a chance of passing during the lame-duck session before January. . . . After the start of the new Congress, the treaty will be as good as dead.

When he then warns that such a course of action will “harm U.S. security interests,” he means something entirely different from Bolton and Yoo when they call for rejecting or amending new START in order that “it doesn’t weaken our national defense.” Larison is referring to the danger that “it will wreck the one mechanism available to the United States for verifying the nature and extent of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.”

In fact, there’s no love lost between this author and new START. For starters, as explained in April by Michael Bohm in the Moscow Times . . .

. . . Russia and the United States have agreed to apply “creative accounting” to pad the reductions on both sides to get to the much-desired 30 percent figure. . . . one trick was to count the 20 warheads on B-52 bombers as only one. At the end of the day, the real net cuts, according to Hans Kristenson of the Federation of American Scientists, will be only 100 U.S. deployed warheads and 190 Russian ones. [Another trick was revealed when] the two sides announced the final number — 1,550 deployed warheads — the key qualifier is “deployed.” The roughly 2,000 non-deployed warheads stored in U.S. military warehouses were not included in the New START.

More to the point, if Republicans truly reject or further water down new START, what becomes of the $80 billion for the next 10 years that the Obama administration promised to the nuclear-weapons industry in part to win Republican votes for ratification? Not to mention funding for, as Greg Mello writes in the latest bulletin of the Los Alamos Study Group, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility planned for Los Alamos, the cost of which “per square foot of useful space has grown to more than 100 times what [Los Alamos's] existing plutonium facility cost in 1978, in constant dollars.” In fact, “it’s the biggest project ever proposed for Los Alamos — six times the size of the whole Manhattan Project in New Mexico,” also in constant dollars. (I’ve still yet to digest that last revelation.)

Obviously concerned about losing that funding, Bolton and Yoo write, “Congress should pass a new law financing the testing and development of new warhead designs before approving New Start.” If it’s rejected or neutered, does the Obama administration plan to retract some or all of that funding? Unlikely, I know, but were that to occur it would look a lot more like disarmament than new START.

Yemenis More Sensitive to Disinformation Than Americans

Cargo explosivesIt’s not entirely certain whether the two packages containing explosives sent to the United States were meant to explode at the Chicago synagogues to which they were addressed or in mid-air. But since then the United States has been leaning especially hard on Yemen to roust members (perceived or not) of al Qaeda in its midst. On Saturday a Yemeni judge ordered the arrest of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric active in terror operations in Yemen and elsewhere.

He’s been high on America’s s**t list since it was discovered he’d been a mentor (if you can call advising on terror operations mentorship) to the accused Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan and to would-be underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a jet liner last Christmas.

Because of the omnipresence of his sermons on the web, Awlaki is sometimes called the bin Laden of the Internet. Dangerous as bin Laden 2.0, his crimes pale before those of the original version. Though, in comparison with Yemen, the closest Pakistan, the country in which bin Laden seems to be hiding, has come to apprehending him was arresting the American who came in search of him earlier this year, Gary Brooks Faulkner.

Meanwhile, shortly before the order for Awlaki’s arrest was issued, the New York Times ran an article by Mona El-Naggar and Robert F. Worth titled Yemen’s Drive on Al Qaeda Faces Internal Skepticism. “As Yemen intensifies its military campaign against Al Qaeda’s regional arm,” they wrote, “it faces a serious obstacle: most Yemenis consider the group a myth, or a ploy by their president to squeeze the West for aid money and punish his domestic opponents.”

Turns out that (and this is a collage of quote from the article) “many Yemenis seem doubtful that Al Qaeda was guilty [of the killings attributed to them], which took place in the same southern parts of the country where a secessionist movement has been growing for the past three years [or that they were] an excuse for American military intervention. [Meanwhile] counterterrorist raids are often described as punitive measures against domestic foes.”

One’s first impulse is to suspect that some deny the existence of al Qaeda because they don’t want to let on that they’re either working with or sympathetic to it. But that seems unlikely. El-Naggar and Worth report:

Yemen’s tribes are often cast as the chief obstacle in the fight against Al Qaeda, sheltering the militants because of tribal hospitality or even ideological kinship. In fact, few tribal leaders have any sympathy for the group, and some tribes have forced Qaeda members to leave their areas in the past year.

Whether or not they may carry it too far, it’s funny how alert Yemenis are to disinformation from their government compared to the public of a country awash in information like the United States. For instance, some Yemenis, as Awlaki himself once claimed, no doubt believe that Israel was responsible for 9/11. Whereas despite all the revelations about the CIA that have been dug up over the years, including possible responsibility for the assassination of President Kennedy, few Americans subscribe to alternate accounts of key events such as that and 9/11. The typical American fears being marginalized as a conspiracy theorist, a death-knell to one’s credibility.

When it comes to taking what their government says with a grain — okay, a mine — of salt, Americans could learn a lesson from Yemenis.

Housing Demolition in East Jerusalem

East Jerusalem

Walking through the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City is a pleasure to the senses: smells of garlic and tea sift through the air, bright colored scarves, coffee pots and evil eye jewelry hang in tiny shops, and crowds of locals and tourists clog the tiny, stone-paved streets. Though most tourists are drawn to Jerusalem for its historical and religious sites, the city is actually a huge locus of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The most tangible manifestation of injustice in Jerusalem is arguably the government sanctioned housing demolitions in Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem.

During a recent trip to Israel, I saw firsthand the discrepancy between Jewish and Muslim communities and the physical divide between West and East Jerusalem. I went on a day tour of East Jerusalem with the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (ICAHD), a non-violent organization that resists housing demolitions in East Jerusalem through direct action, domestic and international advocacy, as well as tours.

The difference between East and West Jerusalem is stark: where West Jerusalem has tree-lined sidewalks and functioning infrastructure, East Jerusalem has dusty, narrow streets, no trash pick-up, and water storage containers on top of houses because most residents are not connected to the municipal water mains. The separation wall stands eight meters high with barbed wire at the top, dividing Arabs in East Jerusalem from their families in the West Bank. Along with the lack of infrastructure in this area, there are no zoning laws so Palestinian residents are not permitted to build new houses: the legal measure that allows the Israeli government to demolish homes. This system serves as a means of making Palestinians leave East Jerusalem. The situation is complex, however, because once Palestinians leave the city, they lose their residency and therefore access to the Old City, their old homes, and their community. Because of this, many people do decide to remain in East Jerusalem despite the constant threat of housing demolitions.

While on the tour, we spoke with a Palestinian woman in the contested neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah. She had been displaced over a year ago – the Israeli government evicted her family and gave her home to Jewish settlers who often spark violence in the area. An international solidarity tent stands nearby where someone sleeps every night to keep watch on the neighborhood. The neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah has entered the limelight because of the scope of its injustice and the ways in which the Israeli government uses its legal system to expand Jewish settlements thereby shrinking the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem.

The most recent East Jerusalem protest ensued on October 25th after the Israeli police gave 231 demolition orders to Palestinian families all across East Jerusalem, including Silwan, an Arab neighborhood in close proximity to the Old City. According to Human Rights Watch, Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes peaked this year, reaching 141 in July. This is the largest number of demolitions per month since 2005. Meanwhile, the Israeli government subsidizes Jewish settlements all over the occupied territories and in East Jerusalem as well.

Though Israel places most its inexcusable violent measures under the banner of “security,” this particular form of destruction is purely discriminatory and does not fall into the category of Israeli defense. If Israel intends to continue the peace process, it must stop demolishing Palestinian homes and building Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.

Metropolitan Diary (Apologies to Times): Military Groupies Merrily Convene in D.C.

Military chaplainDear Diary:

Overheard below Washington, DC’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center last month on the Green Line Metro platform during the annual conference of the Association of the United States Army, which describes itself as a “private, non-profit educational organization that supports America’s Army” and “provides numerous Professional Development Opportunities.”

Above the Metro, banners for the Association were hanging from seemingly every lamp pole in sight. The banners featured a line of gun-carrying soldiers and read, “America’s Army: The Strength of the Nation.” Facing the Convention Center, two large, desert-tan armored military vehicles (one, fully amphibious and tracked), bearing the license plates “BAE” (a British weapons manufacturer), sat, at the ready, on the grass alongside the busy New York Avenue thoroughfare that runs through the heart of DC. Around the corner, inside a vacant storefront adjacent to the Convention Center, a local bike shop was running a “bike valet” as part of Green Festival DC, which was also being held at the Center.

On the subterranean Metro platform, which was festooned with posters for ITT Defense & Information Solutions, a group of well-dressed men were standing together in a small circle, waiting for a train, each wearing a pass from the Army conference around his neck.

One of the men, in civilian khaki pants and a smooth blue polo shirt, said, “Isn’t it ironic that there’s a Green Festival [just above ours]?”

“Yeah,” replied an Army chaplain in combat fatigues. “War is a terrible thing for the environment, not to mention for people.” And then he laughed.

Election Was Missed Opportunity to Convince Voters to Abandon Current Afghanistan Strategy

By all accounts, the war in Afghanistan was a non-issue in last week’s mid-term elections. As poll after poll has shown, the number one issue was jobs and the economy. Afghanistan ranked at or near the bottom of the list.

And yet, polling also shows that Americans are more optimistic about the direction of the economy than they are about the prospects of the war in Afghanistan. According to the most recent RBC Consumer Outlook Index, only 25 percent of Americans believe that the economy will get worse over the next year. Meanwhile, a vast majority of Americans (somewhere around 60 percent) believe that we are losing the war in Afghanistan.

If these numbers even come close to reflecting what Americans think, two things should have been true: the Democrats should have been able to convince voters to stick with their economic strategy and opponents of the war should have been able to convince voters to abandon the current strategy in Afghanistan.

But of course, neither of those things happened. Republicans succeeded in turning the electorate against the administration’s economic agenda and supporters of the war succeeded in keeping Afghanistan off the table altogether. The existence of a double-standard could not be more clear.

As we wallow in the post-election depression, we might stop for a moment and play a little what-if exercise. What if the same standard that was applied to the economy in this election were applied to the war in Afghanistan?

First, of course, there would have been a discussion of the war’s cost and its contribution to the soaring deficit. Between 2003 and 2008, the deficit went from $6.4 trillion to $10 trillion. Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have shown that at least a quarter of that increase came directly from the war in Iraq. Currently, the U.S. is spending $3 billion dollars a week on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stiglitz and Bilmes estimate the total cost of these wars, including medical care for veterans, will be between 4 and 6 trillion dollars. These numbers make the bank bailout, estimated at $350 billion (most of which has already been recovered), and Obama’s recent stimulus, which was trimmed to just $34 billion, look like pocket change.

Secondly, there would have been a backlash at the call for patience in seeing the war through. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell told voters that Obama and the Democrats in Congress had two whole years to turn the economy around. Now, they said, it’s time for a change. Imagine if they had applied the same logic to Afghanistan—which entered its ninth year one month before the election. Even if one concedes that the strategy changed under Obama, that would still be two years. If two years is long enough for a referendum on the economy, why isn’t it long enough for a referendum on a war?

Last but not least, there would have been a backlash against Obama’s war. The Republicans and Tea Partiers succeeded in making voters believe that Obama had single-handedly undermined their freedoms. Despite the fact that the health care and stimulus bills passed by the administration were products of compromise with the insurance companies and financial institutions, Republicans spoke of Obamacare, Obamanomics, and Obamunization. As general-in-chief, Obama had more power to shape the war in Afghanistan than he did healthcare or the economy.

What if the president’s opponents had expressed the same vehemence against Obama’s war as they did against the administration’s other policies?

Had even one of these things happened, I would be willing to credit the Republicans with fostering a real debate about the war, something that, up to this point, the Democrats have utterly failed to do.

A Progressive-Tea Party Foreign Policy Coalition? Don’t Hold Your Breath

For those of us who wearied of the “rejection of progressivism” storyline tailing the midterm election results before even the first votes were counted, a new and potentially more interesting sort of speculation has emerged as a welcome, if ultimately unconvincing, distraction.

Over at Foreign Policy, John Norris of the Center for American Progress has seized on the Tea Party’s opaque foreign policy messaging to assemble a speculative list of potential areas of foreign policy cooperation between progressives and Tea Partiers in the next Congress. Most interesting are his first two suggestions.

On Afghanistan and Iraq: “Some Tea Partiers, such as Marco Rubio and Sarah Palin, favor aggressive international interventions along the lines of Dick Cheney, but the majority of them view foreign entanglements of any kind with skepticism.”

On cuts to defense spending: “The Tea Partiers say they are serious about balancing the budget and substantially cutting the deficit, a goal that is almost impossible to achieve without taking a hard look at the Pentagon… The philosophy of the movement’s leaders on defense spending runs a remarkable gamut — from Palin’s preference for increased spending to Ron Paul’s libertarian argument that sharp cuts are needed.”

Tea-Party Senate candidates like Rand Paul, Ken Buck, Joe Miller, and John Raese bandied about varying degrees of skepticism regarding the role of the United States as an interventionist power, but of these, only Paul was elected (not that this is a huge loss – Raese also called for a missile defense system consisting of “1,000 laser systems put in the sky”). Paul also bears the distinction of being among the very few Tea Party candidates to explicitly put military cuts on the table. Senator-elect Mike Lee of Utah has similarly called for an emphasis on “military targets” in Afghanistan, followed by a troop withdrawal “as soon as possible.” But while Paul and Lee may be worth watching on these issues, they can hardly monopolize the Tea Party’s foreign policy voice among its Senate inductees. Marco Rubio’s victory speech dripped with the trappings of American exceptionalism, and indeed his first action as Senator-elect has been to schedule a trip to Israel, perhaps echoing his earlier demand that the United States endorse Israeli policies “without equivocation or hesitation.”

The foreign policy orientation of the few dozen Tea Partiers on the House side of the aisle, however, has received considerably less scrutiny. And while the Tea Party is certainly better represented in the House than in the Senate, it will confront a markedly different institutional context. Whether it was an attempt to co-opt the Tea Party or merely an effort to capitalize on its brand name, the inception of Michelle Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus last July means that the institutionalization of the Tea Party in the House has begun before the first members have even arrived – and with the Caucus’ 44 well-financed and often high-placed members, the new arrivals may find a more crowded “Tea Party” venue than they might have before imagined. To my knowledge, the Caucus’ most notable (and perhaps only) foray into foreign policy has been to endorse a resolution calling for an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities (although, a side note: tolerance for Israeli militarism already enjoys a fine degree of bipartisan approval).

Then there are the Tea Party voters themselves. According to a study by the Sam Adams Alliance, 69% of members identified “defense” as a “very important” national priority when they joined the Tea Party, while nearly 80% of members classify it so “today.” While the survey does not wander into the thornier territory of polling on actual policies, it seems clear that the projection of American power assumes a greater importance for Tea Partiers once they are inside the movement. It must be admitted that measuring Tea Party sentiment has proven a daunting task for many pollsters and that even reasonably accurate measures of Tea Party sympathy for this or that policy would not translate to predicting the behavior of newly elected officials. But one can probably be safely skeptical of a groundswell in Tea Party sentiment for major American foreign policy changes.

Without any clear popular mandate on foreign policy and without any information about how new members will assimilate into their respective legislative caucuses – not to mention any real evidence yet of a convergence of Tea Party and progressive foreign policy priorities – thoughts of such cooperation must be treated as mere speculation. One can certainly imagine a Washington that is rather more eccentric but fundamentally unchanged in its foreign policy disposition. Whatever the case, at least Mr. Norris has not told us that progressivism is dead.

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