you settle into the Oval Office, Mr. President, may I offer a suggestion?
Please do not try to put Afghanistan aright with the U.S. military.
To send our troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan would be a near-perfect
example of going from the frying pan into the fire. There is reason
to believe some of our top military commanders privately share this
view. And so does a broad and growing swath of your party and your
True, the United
States is the world’s greatest power – but so was the British Empire
a century ago when it tried to pacify the warlords and tribes of
Afghanistan, only to be forced out after excruciating losses. For
that matter, the Soviet Union was also a superpower when it poured
some 100,000 troops into Afghanistan in 1979. They limped home,
broken and defeated, a decade later, having helped pave the way
for the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is logical
to conclude that our massive military dominance and supposedly good
motives should let us work our will in Afghanistan. But logic does
not always prevail in South Asia. With belligerent Afghan warlords
sitting atop each mountain glowering at one another, the one factor
that could unite them is the invasion of their country by a foreign
power, whether British, Russian or American.
I have believed
for some time that military power is no solution to terrorism. The
hatred of U.S. policies in the Middle East – our occupation of
Iraq, our backing for repressive regimes such as Egypt and Saudi
Arabia, our support of Israel – that drives the terrorist impulse
against us would better be resolved by ending our military presence
throughout the arc of conflict. This means a prudent, carefully
directed withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi
Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere. We also need to close down the imposing
U.S. military bases in this section of the globe, which do so little
to expand our security and so much to stoke local resentment.
We cannot evade
this reckoning. The British thought they could extend their control
over Iraq even while pulling out their ground forces by creating
a string of bases in remote parts of the country, away from the
observation of most Iraqis. It didn’t work. No people that desires
independence and self-determination wishes to have another nation’s
military bases in its country. In 1776, remember, 13 little colonies
drove the mighty British Empire from American soil.
In 2003, the
Bush administration ordered an invasion of Iraq, supposedly to reduce
terrorism. But six years later, there is more terrorism and civil
strife in Iraq, not less. The same outcome may occur in Afghanistan
if we make it the next American military conflict.
the bright promise of your brilliant campaign for the White House
and the high hopes of the millions who thronged the Mall on Tuesday
to watch you be sworn in could easily be lost in the mountains and
wastelands of Afghanistan.
The Nobel Prize-winning
economist Joseph E. Stiglitz has estimated that the war in Iraq
will have a total cost of more
than $3 trillion. That war has clearly weakened our economy
and our armed forces even as it has made the national debt soar.
The Bush administration committed itself to Iraq before the recession.
Today, with our economy teetering, does the Obama administration
believe that it is time for yet another costly war in yet another
I’m aware that
some of my fellow Americans regard me as too idealistic. But sometimes
idealism is the best realism. And at a minimum, realism and idealism
need not be contradictory. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has
not only angered Iraqis who have lost family members, neighbors
or homes; it has also increased the level of anger throughout the
Muslim world and thrown up obstacles to our political leadership
in that deeply important part of the planet.
Like you, Mr.
President, I don’t oppose all wars. I risked my life in World War
II to protect our country against genuine danger. But it is the
vivid memory of my fellow airmen being shot out of the sky on all
sides of me in a war that I believe we had to fight that makes me
cautious about sending our youth into needless conflicts that weaken
us at home and abroad, and may even weaken us in the eyes of God.
As you have
noted, Mr. President, we take pride in our soldiers who conduct
themselves bravely. But as you have also said, some of these soldiers
have served two, three and even four tours in dangerous combat.
Many of them have come home with enduring brain and nerve damage
and without arms and legs. These troops need rest, rehabilitation
and reunions with their families.
So let me suggest
a truly audacious hope for your administration: How about a five-year
time-out on war – unless, of course, there is a genuine threat
to the nation?
interval, we could work with the U.N. World Food Program, plus the
overseas arms of the churches, synagogues, mosques and other volunteer
agencies to provide a nutritious lunch every day for every school-age
child in Afghanistan and other poor countries. Such a program is
now underway in several countries approved by Congress and the United
Nations, under the auspices of the George McGovern-Robert Dole International
Food for Education and Child Nutrition Act. (Forgive the self-serving
title.) Although the measure remains painfully underfunded, with
the help of other countries, we are reaching millions of children.
We could supplement these efforts with nutritional packages for
low-income pregnant and nursing mothers and their infants from birth
through the age of 5, as is done here at home by WIC, the Special
Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
Is this proposal
pie-in-the-sky? I don’t think so. It’s food in the stomachs of hungry
kids. It would draw them to school and enable them to learn and
grow into better citizens. It would cost a small fraction of warfare’s
cost, but it might well be a stronger antidote to terrorism. There
will always be time for another war. But hunger can’t wait.
McGovern [send him mail],
a former senator from South Dakota, was the Democratic nominee for
president in 1972.