As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Costs Of Reductive Thinking

Barack Obama had an interesting moment last week during that Organizing for America strategy session on health care. Trying to put in perspective the price tag of reform, he said this:

"Now, one thing that's very important to remind people, because you notice there's been a talking point from opponents -- 'trillion-dollar health care bill' -- they love repeating that. 'Trillion-dollar health care bill.'

"First of all, it's important to remind people that when they say 'trillion dollars,' they're talking about over 10 years. So this -- we're talking about $100 billion a year -- which is still a significant amount of money. But just to give you a sense of perspective, I mean, the amount of money that we're spending in Iraq and Afghanistan is -- what's the latest figure, Debbie? You figure $8 billion to $9 billion a month, right?

"So for about the same cost per year as we've been spending over the last five to six years, we could have funded this health care reform proposal, just to give you a sense of perspective."

I don't know if I was the only one, but my immediate reaction was, "Um, well, why don't you do something about that?" I mean, sure, the costs of an unnecessary war in Iraq and a war headed toward quagmire in Afghanistan could have paid for the front end of health care reform. But they're both still raging, at a time when we have few national security interests in those regions, and certainly nothing that could not be handled with a diplomatic, law enforcement and intelligence approach rather than a military one. So if the cost of the wars from 2003-2009 could pay for health care, the future costs from 2009-2019 could go a pretty long way in their own right.

It's particularly pernicious to find the President making this argument, when as commander-in-chief he has the ability to draw down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. If he wants to make that kind of comparison, he ought to back it up. Yet this transcript from Bruce Reidel, who managed a lot of the policy reviews on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the White House, might offer an explanation of why he won't go that far.

The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic World.This would be a victory on par with the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. And, those moderates in the Islamic World who would say, no, we have to be moderate, we have to engage, would find themselves facing a real example. No, we just need to kill them, and we will drive them out. So I think the stakes are enormous.

That's extremely dangerous thinking, as Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum make clear. It's also not new thinking - it's basically what kept us in Vietnam for so long, as President after President didn't want to be tagged as the one who lost a war. So they talked themselves into inane theories like this, psychological projections about "losing face" and "denying the enemy a rhetorical victory," and 58,000 Americans died as a result. Hundreds and thousands more will die this time, because this kind of philosophy leaves us no out. We cannot leave so long as one member of the insurgency wants us to go, because otherwise we would be giving them a great victory.

It's not surprising to see establishment figures embrace such a reductive theory based on image and manliness. But the guy who just made the connection between the costs of war abroad and the betterment of the lives of citizens at home? As Barney Frank said at a recent town hall meeting, "If we hadn't gone to the war in Iraq, which I thought was a terrible mistake and voted against, we would have had more than enough money to pay for health care." You cannot say things like that and still send soldiers into the battle. Not if you mean them.

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