Predators in the White House

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In every election cycle, the politicians love to pretend there is a difference among them on the foreign policy questions. Yet on these issues of unsurpassed importance, we see the Democrats and Republicans are all part of the same bloodthirsty gang.

On the superficial level of presidential politics, Obama and Bush appeared light-years apart. They play opposites in the DC-approved official culture war between those who pretend to be genuine red-blooded Americans of the heartland and those who feign an understanding of the beleaguered urban minorities and oppressed underclass, when in truth both perfectly embody the same Wall Street-Pentagon-friendly power elite. This is most clearly seen in their virtually identical approach toward empire.

After 9/11, Bush could have used his Republican bonafides to stress not pacifism but at least the humble foreign policy he had promised. We shouldn't be "an arrogant nation," he famously said in his October 11, 2000, debate with Al Gore. "[O]ne way for us to end up being viewed as the ugly American is for us to go around the world saying, we do it this way, so should you."

But instead, Bush used 9/11 as an excuse to expand the federal government more than had happened in decades, gut the Bill of Rights, and start two major wars to "democractize" Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands, maybe more than a million innocents, were slaughtered in his wars. He left America in low morale, bankrupted from his recklessness, bloodied from battle, with thousands of Americans having returned in flag-draped caskets.

Obama in 2008 gave even more lip service to foreign policy humility than did Bush in 2000, or at least was perceived this way, and somehow everyone believed it. He said Bush made a terrible mistake in invading Iraq. He said we could save a fortune and restore American honor by withdrawing.

Yet here we are, over two years into his presidency, and the mountain of corpses continues to rise. In Afghanistan, there were more civilian deaths last year than any time since the war began. In Pakistan, Obama has unleashed unspeakable terror with his drone attacks, deploying more than three times as many last year as Bush did in 2008. This killing spree has greatly exacerbated a refugee disaster, wherein a million or two have been displaced from their homes.

But of course, most Americans don't care about the death of foreigners. Non-Americans are barely human. Yet even by purely U.S.-centric standards, the Obama model of war has amounted to a continuation of the Bush trajectory. My new Independent Institute policy report, What Price War? Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Costs of Conflict, goes into the numbers and cuts through the rhetorical fog of partisan nonsense.

Last year, 559 American troops died in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is ninety more than died in Bush's last full year — 2008 — in office. Both 2009 and 2010 were far bloodier for Americans in Afghanistan than any year under Bush. In 2008, Bush's deadliest year for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 155 died there — fewer than half of the 317 who fell in 2009 and fewer than a third of the 499 who fell last year.

Even conservative Americans should be alarmed by this, and liberal peaceniks should be horrified that their man has apparently increased U.S. belligerence from its 2008 levels, by which point U.S. casualties were winding down from their peak during Bush's most lethal years. All Americans have to be concerned with the financial cost too. Obama repeatedly promised to save money from the Iraq adventure and devote the savings to other priorities — which he has, more or less. Yet the U.S. was going to begin drawing down in Iraq anyway: Bush signed the Status of Forces Agreement in 2008, setting a timetable for Iraq similar to what we've seen followed under Obama.

Overall, the heightened violence in Afghanistan has meant a war price tag rivaling the worst days of war criminal George W. Bush. Even adjusting for inflation, in 2006, Bush was spending about $133 billion on his two wars in 2011 dollars. Last year, the cost was up to $170 billion. Then we have the record-busting Pentagon budgets that the Democrats have given us.

Obama could have gotten away with a more modest policy than Bush, simply by continuing on the path set at the beginning of 2009. But he wanted to show that the Republicans had "neglected" Afghanistan and so he tripled the U.S. troop presence, from just over 30,000 soldiers at the end of the Bush era to the 100,000 or so that are there now. This puts aside the vast increase in contractors, as I discuss in the report.

Obama has also bombed Somalia and Yemen and started a fresh new major war with Libya, in violation of the War Powers Act, the Constitution, and all semblance of common sense. So far, according to Defense Secretary Gates, the cost has been over $750 million. This particular battle costs about $40 million a month in direct costs, but I'm sure the Republicans are still patting themselves on the back for saving $5 million a year by cutting federal funding for NPR.

All of this ignores the more hidden costs of war: The uncounted thousands of innocents blown to bits and otherwise slaughtered because Obama doesn't want to appear "weak" in Afghanistan; the civil liberties violations that have only accelerated under this president; the many thousands of Americans injured and psychologically traumatized; the economic opportunities vanquished because of the trillions in resources devoted to and destroyed in these wars.

Concerning all the permanent fixtures of the American state — the trillions in entitlements, the national police power, the Fed and the armies of regulators — Obama has continued and expanded upon nearly everything we had under Bush, just as Bush ramped up what he inherited from Clinton and on and on going back decades. Nowhere is the tragic bipartisan continuity in U.S. policy starker than in the area of war. Yet as I note in my paper, there was no reason to expect otherwise: candidate Obama said Iraq was a mistake, but he praised the horrible surge and voted to continue funding the war, vowing the whole time to expand operations in Afghanistan.

Millions thought Obama would bring home the troops, wind down the wars, stop killing so many civilians, and save money while he was at it. Sadly, the murder rampage continues without interruption, only with a greater emphasis on picking on some nations rather than others and a different rhetorical cloak to obscure the evil of the slaughter. Hawks decry Obama as a pacifist who hates American power and doves often praise him for being more thoughtful than his reckless warmongering predecessor. The only real question is which dishonest characterization is the greater obscenity.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is research editor at the Independent Institute. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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