Sexy Claire McCaskill

Anyone who says we can’t cut money at the Pentagon doesn’t understand what’s going on with contracting at the Pentagon.”

—Sen. Claire McCaskill

It’s not exactly a sexy subject, like the ongoing and unseemly fiscal cliff fight, but it is the kind of stuff that politicians are supposed to be doing, instead of creating artificial austerity crises:

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed a sweeping overhaul on Tuesday of the U.S. government’s wartime contracting procedures, the largest such reform in decades. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s (D-Mo.) amendment, included in the national defense bill, is aimed at improving oversight and cracking down on the rampant waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars in contracting practices.

Before Missourians sent her to Washington, legislatively sexy Claire McCaskill was our state auditor, and her concern for the government’s fiscal accountability and integrity inherent in that job has now borne some national fruit, that is if House Republicans, responding to contractor’s demands, don’t lop it off in the conference committee.

Five years ago she helped (along with Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia) pass legislation that created a commission to study waste and fraud involved in wartime contracting, and after years of investigation the commission found, according to McCaskill’s press release, that,

the U.S. had squandered up to $60 billion through waste and fraud on contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The panel identified major failures in contingency contract planning, execution and oversight within the government. It concluded that such waste will increase if accountability across government is not improved as U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.

Think about that: $60 billion down the drain, or, better put: in somebody’s pocket who didn’t deserve it. That $60 billion could more than pay for the federal government’s emergency sexy claireaid to areas hit by Superstorm Sandy (Obama is planning on requesting $50 billion or so from Congress).

And while we, day after day, witness what is going on in Washington over whether to fiscal-cliff ourselves into another recession, we can for a moment admire McCaskill’s political pugnacity on this issue:

While these wars wind down, we can’t lose the urgency to correct these mistakes and prevent them from being repeated in the future,” said McCaskill in a statement. “Protecting taxpayer dollars isn’t the flashiest issue. But it’s a promise I made to Missourians, and it’s something I pledge to continue fighting for, with dogged determination, until this legislation is signed into law.”

That, my friends, should be why we send people to Washington. Not to hold the economy hostage so rich people can save a few more dollars in taxes.

What Are The Troops Supposed To Think Now?

David Wood won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, after he published a series of articles on the severely wounded soldiers who have returned from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He has covered military and national security issues in a lot of dangerous places in the world for a number of publications. As his HuffPo bio reads:

He has been scared much of his professional life.

On this official-unofficial Veterans Day, Mr. Wood said the following on MSNBC about the implications of the David Petraeus scandal:

The thing that struck me about the Petraeus story is the damage that this puts on the troops and veterans. Because, look, the military for the last ten or fifteen years has emphasized that it’s a values-based organization. And the primary value that I hear talked about all the time, particularly in combat among what I call the working class of the military—the sergeants and lieutenants who do most of the heavy lifting in combat—the key value is, “doing the right thing when no one’s looking.” And there was nobody in the military, I think, who exemplified that more than David Petraeus. He talked about it all the time.

Now to find out that he was not only not doing the right thing, but lying about it, is, I think, devastating and will have a long-term, corrosive impact on the troops…I mean, think about the young kids who are in basic training now who are being taught, “do the right thing when no one’s looking.” Well, what are they supposed to think now?

While a lot of right-wing folks are wondering how Petraeus’s troubles figure into their wild conspiracy theory about a gigantic Obama administration cover-up of Benghazi, it’s nice to know someone is thinking about something else, something much more important.

Iraq And Iran, Truth And Consequences

Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was asked this morning on MSNBC what he thought about the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Here is his reply:

We are beginning to face the reality of what we have accomplished, namely, that we have destabilized Iraq; we have destroyed it as a state; we have reignited sectarian conflicts; we have contributed to ethnic distinctions between the Kurds and the Iraqis. 

We have a problem on our hands, which we didn’t solve by war, and which we cannot resolve anymore because we can’t continue to war indefinitely. It is a contribution to greater middle-eastern instability. 

Even as we see that sectarian violence has increased since we left Iraq, Mr. Brzezinski notes that, 

There are some people who are overtly arguing now—overtly!—that we should start a war with Iran. I don’t think that’s going to be exactly a very constructive contribution to greater middle-east instability…starting wars in the Middle East was not the solution ten years ago and it is not a solution two or three years hence… 

If Republicans want to make Iran an election issue, Democrats should welcome it. If Republicans don’t want to make it an issue, Democrats should insist on it. If there ever is a war with Iran, it should be because we are forced into it, not because conservatives talk us into another foolish preemptive act.

The War On Terror And Aid To Joplin

I just want to remind everyone who has a Scroogish opinion about federal disaster aid to Joplin of one thing: The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are costing us at a minimum $3 billion—every week of the year.  To put that in perspective, that’s the reported estimated damage caused by the tornado that hit our city a week ago, destroying or severely damaging almost one-third of it.

Here is a conservative estimate of the total cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars—no offsets for them, you know; all have been and are being paid for with borrowed money—as of 8:30pm Central Standard Time:

 

If you follow and buy into the argument by Nobel prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz, you get a much higher number.  Just in the case of the Iraq War, Stiglitz estimated the cost to be, well, his book (co-authored with Linda Bilmes) was titled, “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict,” so you get the idea.  It’s a lot.

Stiglitz believes that the Iraq war has had particular macroeconomic effects that are not part of the calculation most people make when totaling up the cost of the war.  For instance, he argues that “the war has led to higher oil prices.”  In his book he only conservatively attributed a $5-10 increase to the war, but believes “a reasonable number would be at least $35 and probably much more.”

He also argues that the war spending in Iraq didn’t and doesn’t have much of a stimulative effect on our economy, either in the short or long run:

If we spend money for somebody from Nepal to work in Iraq it does not stimulate the American economy in the same way as building a road in America or hiring a teacher in America. It certainly does not increase long-run productivity in the United States.

The third argument he makes, related to the Joplin emergency funding issue,  is this one:

This war was financed totally by deficit financing, unlike any other war.  Normally when countries go to war they talk about shared sacrifice. As America went to war we lowered the taxes on upper-income Americans. Really very strange behaviour in a context in which we already had a large deficit. The national debt has grown by almost $1 trillion just because of the war and by 2017 we estimate it will rise by another $1 trillion.  That is a lot of money.

He adds:

These three factors have led to a depressing of the U.S. economy today and weakening the U.S. economy in the future.

He also believes that “lax monetary policy” by the Federal Reserve, which was implemented in order to compensate for the decreased purchasing power in the economy resulting from higher oil prices, led to a distortion in the economy that itself contributed to the pre-collapse bubble before the fall of 2008.  How do you calculate that cost?

Finally, Stiglitz points out that the long-term cost of disability payments and health-care costs for wounded soldiers, and the cost for replacing equipment lost or damaged during the war, all add up to his final cost of what he called “a war of choice.” 

And the simple point is that in the case of the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan—both wars of choice that have been deficit-funded—no one in the Republican Party argued that the costs of the wars had to be offset in the budget or else there would be no funding for those wars.

As a commenter on this blog pointed out,

Picking up the pieces of disasters such as the one that hit Joplin is one of the many reasons why we have a government in the first place.

So, before anyone argues with me about “bailing” out Joplin, or argues that the costs of emergency funding for our city should be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget and thus become part of a protracted political fight, please tell me why you weren’t arguing since 2001 for cutting the budget to fund our war efforts.

That’s what I thought.

Time Will Tell

“We don’t know what the outcome will be.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

I remain agnostic about the wisdom of the United States—even with the United Nation’s resolution and international, including Arab, cooperation—intervening in Libya. 

At this time, there is no way of knowing whether what we are doing is the right thing to do.  In fact, we may not know for many, many years whether it was wise or foolish of President Obama to join in—lead, really—the international military operation against Gaddafi, and anyone who says they do know is not telling the truth.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen said on CNN this morning:

How this ends from the political standpoint, I just can’t say.

Of course not.  And here’s why:

…on a per capita basis, no country sent more young fighters into Iraq to kill Americans than Libya — and almost all of them came from eastern Libya, the center of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion that the United States and others now have vowed to protect, according to internal al Qaeda documents uncovered by U.S. intelligence.

That troubling bit of information was advanced in an article by David Wood, a seasoned journalist who has covered “military issues, foreign affairs, and combat operations” for Time and the Los Angeles Times, among others. 

Here is the title of his piece:

Anti-American Extremists Among Libyan Rebels U.S. Has Vowed To Protect

Wood references the Sinjar documents, a collection of al Qaeda computer data captured by Americans in 2007 in a predawn raid near Sinjar, Iraq, six miles from the Syrian border. The documents included background information on around 750 foreign fighters, who migrated to Iraq to kill American soldiers, many of those fighters coming from among the very people we are now pledging to protect. Wood wrote:

Almost one in five foreign fighters arriving in Iraq came from eastern Libya, from the towns of Surt, Misurata and Darnah.

On a per capita basis, that’s more than twice as many than came from any other Arabic-speaking country, amounting to what the counter terrorism center called a Libyan “surge” of young men eager to kill Americans.

Wood also notes:

Eastern Libya has been described by U.S. diplomats as a breeding ground for Islamist extremism. In diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, the region’s young men were said to have “nothing to lose” by resorting to violence. Sermons in the local mosques are “laced with phraseology urging worshippers to support jihad,” one diplomat reported.

As Wood is careful to point out,

extremist elements make up only a portion of the resistance to Gaddafi and have been present in every popular uprising in the region stretching from the Iranian revolution to the Egyptian people’s overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

So it would be inaccurate to say that it necessarily follows from the continued destabilization of Libya that some kind of anti-Western coalition is waiting to replace Gaddafi. But it would be equally inaccurate to say a Western-style democracy will emerge.

The truth is that especially in that part of the world, no one knows what effect our action or inaction today will have on events tomorrow.  After all, it was just five years ago—five years ago—that the Bush administration normalized diplomatic relations with Libya and rescinded Libya’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress at the time:

We are taking these actions in recognition of Libya’s continued commitment to its renunciation of terrorism and the excellent cooperation Libya has provided to the United States and other members of the international community in response to common global threats faced by the civilized world since September 1, 2001.

Who could have predicted all the events that have happened in North Africa and around the Middle East since Rice’s announcement to Congress in May of 2006?

Not one pundit or politician, that’s who. The same number who can’t predict future events today.

Obama’s action is risky and only time will tell if it was worth the risk, but unlike the invasion of Iraq in 2003, this time there will be no ground invasion of Libya and thus no occupation.  However, if there ever were to come such an invasion and occupation, then the future following that decision becomes quite foreseeable.

Indeed, we can see it in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

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