Politics Under Water
I'm just catching up on the week-end's offerings and read Glenn Greenwald's post from Saturday critiquing Jonathan Alter's piece in the latest Newsweek about the Iraq war vote. Glenn is correct that this false dichotomy of "support the troops" vs "support your constituents" is a GOP talking point that has become conventional wisdom largely because the Democrats conceded it. I can't answer for why they tend to do this, but it's one of the biggest problems we have --- and it isn't just the Democrats who do it, it's the netroots too. Every time we reinforce GOP memes about Democratic "cowardice" we help them make their case. Language is important and it's a big failure among the left that we fail to understand how our own words work against us. I'm guilty of it too.
But the problem is actually bigger than duelling talking points, as Glenn points out here:
There are all sorts of reasons which, though misguided, at least constitute coherent arguments against withdrawal. But the notion that de-funding constitutes a failure to support the troops -- in a way that, say, timetables do not -- is just inane, not even in the realm of basic rationality or coherence.
And yet exactly this nonsensical notion was permitted not only to take hold, but to become unchallengeable conventional wisdom in our public debate over the war. The whole debate we just had was centrally premised on an idea that is not merely unpersuasive, but factually false, just ridiculous on its face. That a blatant myth could be outcome-determinative in such an important debate is a depressingly commonplace indictment of our dysfunctional media and political institutions.
Yes indeed. It's just the latest in a long line of fatuous slogans that are determinative in making huge decisions in our political life. We are in the midst of an intellectual crisis in this country where certain dogmatic and incoherent beliefs are allowed to dominate the discourse in spite of the fact that they are demonstrably false. It's one of the most difficult problems we face.
The Iraq funding debate is a perfect example of hundreds we could choose from. The bill provided for the troops in every way. But it demanded that the president begin to plan for the withdrawal of those troops from Iraq by certain dates. Both of those things were supported by the people, in large numbers. The president vetoed the bill and this action was explained to the American people --- by Democrats as well as Republicans and the media --- as being done because Democrats were refusing to fund the troops. It was, of course, precisely the opposite.
So, we are stuck trying to work out reality based solutions in a political world that operates as if it is underwater. You can sort of see the vague outlines of what's in front of you, but it's distorted and wierd and everything moves in slow motion. For instance, one of the big questions that rarely gets asked by anyone is why in the hell we are "funding the troops" with emergency supplemental spending bills like this year after year in the first place? Why would a vastly powerful and wealthy country such as ours be unable to plan for the troops' basic necessities in a defense budget in the trillions? It's absurd, ridiculous, and yet everyone accepts the fact that the troops could be left foraging for food and bullets in the middle of Baghdad, and the only question is whether the Democrats and the President are to blame because they failed to pass a bill before Memorial Day.
It's a blackmail scam that the Bush administration has been pulling successfully since the beginning of the war. Here's an article from 2004, that could have been taken right out of the headlines last month:
You'd think it'd be a top priority for the Army, outfitting troops with new body armor, helmets, and communications gear. But the Pentagon can't seem to find the cash in its $420 billion budget to pay for the equipment.
Instead, the Army is relying on a supplemental spending bill -- one that's meant to fund the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq -- to cover the costs.
This is another case of Rumsfeld refusing to make a choice between the military's current needs and its future, of trying to have it both ways. He needs to get gear to the troops in Iraq. But he doesn't want to sacrifice any of the military's big ticket items in order to do it. So he pulls a little trick on Congress. First, Rumsfeld sends lawmakers his main Pentagon budget, which has lots of line items for projects like the hulking, $117 billion Future Combat Systems. And then, crying poverty, Rumsfeld asks for body armor money – which there's no chance in hell that Congress will deny.
It's a very, very slick Washington maneuver – one you'd be tempted to call a form of blackmail. Because G.I.s in the field are now counting on that supplemental to keep them safe, Defense News says.
The supplemental will fund much of the work being done by the Army’s two-year-old Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI), whose goal is to equip all deploying units — and, by 2007, all active and reserve units — with 76 items, including the Advanced Combat Helmet, body armor, desert boots and moisture-wicking T-shirts. Yakovac said the program could cost $5 billion.
“We’re hoping on supplementals to do that,” he added.
Roughly 150,000 soldiers will receive the RFI kits by the end of this year, with another 250,000 troops equipped in 2005, said Brig. Gen. James Moran, the Army’s soldier program executive officer.
The Administration’s $81 billion request for supplemental funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is poor budgetary practice that obscures the Pentagon’s true fiscal picture and erodes Congress’s oversight capabilities, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Pentagon watch-dog group.
“The Pentagon has padded this budget with tens of billions of dollars not related to combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Christopher Hellman, military policy analyst at the Center. “It is a fiscal slight-of-hand that Congress ought to reject.”
Traditionally, supplemental spending requests have funded unanticipated emergency needs that the normal annual federal budget process cannot accommodate. But the Administration’s request today includes billions for Army modernization programs, day-to-day Pentagon operations, weapons purchases and additional troops that should be funded through its annual budget.
Supplemental spending requests also lack the usual detail used to justify the federal government’s annual budget request, making accounting more difficult. Moreover, supplemental funding is left out of the deficit projections that accompany the annual budget.
“This method of budgeting hides the true size of the deficit, and it makes it extremely difficult for Congress to track how these funds are being allocated,” said Hellman. “Members of Congress should insist on better Pentagon budgeting practices and not simply sign a blank check.”
“When asked recently if the Pentagon was using the supplemental to fund non-combat requirements, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said, ‘that would be wrong, and we wouldn't do that.’ Well, it is wrong, and they are doing it,” concluded Hellman.
This year, here's the same old song, sung by the president himself:
"The Army will soon begin reducing quality of life initiatives, reducing the repair and maintenance of equipment necessary for deployment training, and curtailing the training of Army Guard and Reserve units within the United States, reducing their readiness levels." He continued that if emergency funding is not received by mid-May, "the Army will have to consider further actions, to include reducing the pace of equipment overhaul work at Army depots, curtailing training rotations for brigade combat teams currently scheduled for overseas deployment," a step that that the Secretary said, "would likely require the further extension of currently deployed forces." In other words, there are consequences for Congress' delay in getting our troops that the Defense Department has requested.
You see, the Pentagon is so strapped for cash --- every single year --- that they have to come begging for more money just to put shoes on the troops' feet. They do this on purpose so they don't have to cut any of that juicy delicious Military Industrial Complex pork. We know this. It's on the record, easily found in 30 seconds worth of Googling. But because of this absurdly cryptic, symbolic way we have of communicating in this country now, not to mention the ownership of our politics by big money interests, we aren't even allowed to bring it up. The yearly "supplemental" battle is really just the latest administration blackmail demand for more taxpayer money for their contributors, with Bush holding a gun to the troops' heads and saying "don't make me do it." We are arguing about a solution for a problem that wouldn't exist if the president didn't create it each and every year.
But that is such an obscure point that it isn't even relevant. Instead of questioning why we are funding anything in this opaque and illegal way, we are stuck in this confusing feed-back loop of PR, marketing and spin, struggling forward to 2008 trying to see through the dirty political water to what is actually going on. It's difficult.
The only thing I know for sure is that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are not going to withdraw from Iraq. They are playing a rough game and would rather see the troops die without bullets and body armor than admit in any way that their occupation is a failure. The Democrats remain somewhat paralyzed in the face of such sociopathic intransigence (who believes Cheney won't pull the trigger?) and the media remain unwilling to report this in any but schoolyard terms. So, the country must debate this under water --- and that makes us feel helpless and panicked as we watch more people dying in this useless ridiculous face saving exercise.
I don't know what we can do other than just keep building, building, building the pressure until it's unthinkable for Republicans to win their next election supporting this "war." Making the argument falls mainly on us, the activists and the grassroots --- and we are going to take a beating from the media for our trouble. Maybe, if we're lucky, we'll be able to come up for air in 2008.
How we fix the intellectual crisis is another problem and don't have the faintest idea how to do it. I just got Gore's new book. Perhaps it has some pointers.
By the way: the reason that Joe Biden and quite a few others gave for supporting this "emergency" supplemental was that the troops desperately needed mine resistant vehicles. Here's why they don't have them .