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Democrats Thu Dec 31 2015

Where are the Peace Candidates?

Americans are statistically more likely to be killed by a storm or by their neighbor's dog than fall victim to an ISIS marauder or jihad-inspired rando. Nonetheless, the Conventional Wisdom seized on the Paris and San Bernardino massacres to declare that national security was now the top issue in the presidential campaign. Thus seemingly the entire first half of the most recent presidential debates consisted of "moderators" pressing the candidates not only to affirm being on board the national mass hysteria train, but to state how much coal they were ready to shovel into the firebox. As a result, you can search the entire 20,000-word transcript for the third Democratic debate without stumbling across the word "peace" passing any candidate's lips.

The word "peace" is absent from Hillary Clinton's website, and only surfaces on Martin O'Malley's in a call to double the puny Peace Corps budget. Bernie Sanders has an issues page entitled "War and Peace" but at the debate seemed too fearful of being seen insufficiently "strong," which in Trump and media parlance means bellicose, to utter the P-word, and so only politely suggested that "policeman of the world" and "perpetual war" were not concepts he would endorse, although he was all aboard the bandwagon bannered "Destroy ISIS."

Note to commentators: a good followup question might have been, "Are you going to 'destroy' ISIS the same way the US destroyed Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Viet Cong?" Oh, wait.... Put another way, if we seemingly lack the ability to destroy violent organized crime or criminal gangs within our own borders, how can we eradicate a more well-armed threat halfway around the globe? But I digress.

To any American with even a smattering of moral education, it shouldn't be necessary to reiterate why war is so often stupid and horrible that it should always be a tool of last resort, and that "whether" and "why" should always precede discussion of "how" and "how much." Sadly, we currently seem to inhabit a Matrix-like false reality of delusional denial, complacent to let a long, massive, and often brutally tragic and destructive war be waged in our name, and with our money - so long as it's far away and largely outsourced to missiles and drones, with U.S. casualties far less than in comparable conflicts.

So, as a refresher, here are some reasons, as a goodbye to 2015, why the pursuit of just peace needs to be a principal plank in candidates' platforms, and why candidates for president and Congress should be held accountable on peace and war to the same degree that they are vetted on issues like transgender rights or religious freedom.

1. War kills and maims people, including lots of innocent people.
It almost makes me cry to have to type the previous sentence, but we've seemingly forgotten, or have taken so much media and iNarcissism tranquilizer that we are unable to consciously process the destructive human violence of the wars we are waging. Estimates vary but, by any account, the undeclared wars the United States has been waging in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and the other countries where we've bombed without any declaration of war have led to, at minimum, the loss of not only thousands of American soldiers but also the death of hundreds of thousands of others: opposition forces, vaguely-defined "militants," and of course civilians, including children, with many times more than that injured and/or displaced. Physicians for Social Responsibility this year estimated that direct and indirect consequences of the U.S. "war on terrorism" in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan include the deaths of at least 1.3 million human beings.

A recent Brown University study estimated nearly 27,000 civilian deaths in Afghanistan alone since the US invasion in 2001. While most of these are due to "anti-government forces," that doesn't negate that it's now considered a "success" that there were just over 100 civilian deaths from US and allied air operations in 2014. Let that sink in: in just one year, and a "good" year at that, coalition bombs in Afghanistan killed more civilians than the Newtown, Charlotte, Aurora, and San Bernardino shooters, put together, did. And we've been doing this now for over a decade.

That's just Afghanistan. In Iraq, there have been a minimum of 150,000 documented civilian deaths since a 2003 US invasion based on a pack of lies. While air bombings were at a lull between 2009 and 2013, the total number of civilians killed just by US and allied air operations easily exceeds the number of Americans who died on Sept. 11, 2001.
Iraq, remember, had nothing to do with 9/11.

This October, a US gun plane - in a country where we claim combat operations have ended - attacked a hospital run by the Nobel-winning Doctors Without Borders organization, killing dozens of civilians and injuring many others. Whether or not the attack was a war crime, the carnage was somewhere between that of San Bernardino and Paris, yet the story in the US was mainly relegated to small reports on inner pages, as opposed to the days-on-end front-page screams with respect to the other bloody massacres.

2. War destabilizes countries and regions

It's now beyond debate -- acknowledged even by President Obama -- that the Afghan-Iraq-Pakistan war and subsequent interventions, such as support for overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, destabilized the entire region, creating the vacuum that allowed radical groups such as Islamic State to arise. But this should not have come as surprise. Experts from the Brookings Institution to the Pentagon (Google "Desert Crossing") warned of this long ago. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Morton Halperin, for example, warned in 2002 that "American military conquest of Iraq will lead many more people in the Arab and Muslim world to choose the path of terror." Former Rep. and presidential candidate Ron Paul's 2002 prediction as to unintended consequences is worth a re-read. While the admission by the President falls under "better late than never," too few, including too few of those running for president or federal office, seem able to connect the dots and question that doubling down on something that horribly backfired makes sense.

3. War helps terrorists
Sec. Clinton has been forced to engage in a now-familiar walk-back of her seeming assertion in debate, akin to Carly Fiorina's claim of viewing nonexistent Planned Parenthood videos, that ISIS was using videos of Donald Trump to recruit jihadists. Regardless of whether Clinton succeeds in parsing away the plain meaning of her words, her undeniable assertion, that Trump is becoming "ISIS's best recruiting tool," has to be challenged as ridiculous.

Again: the 13 years of constant US war in the region have directly killed hundreds of thousands of people, mainly Muslims, and displaced and injured double that or more. The United States has dropped over 20,000 missiles and bombs just in Syria/Iraq v. Islamic State. The long sanctions against Libya caused a disputed but large number of child deaths. The extent of bombing and war and the sheer number of ordnance dropped and fired in the last 13 years of war is such that if even a small percentage result in "collateral damage," that loss is huge; just the air attacks by the US and allies have killed more innocent people than were killed on 9/11. In a related issue generally conceded to be a major source of discontent and radicalism in the Muslim world, the Netanyahu administration forges ahead with new settlements in Palestine while the US fecklessly wags (but does not lift) a finger, and we head towards the half-century mark of Israeli military occupation. Yet Sec. Clinton suggests that Trump, a blowhard who has not won a single American vote let alone held public office, more than any of the foregoing, is what is driving the disaffected to join Islamic State? Not the thousands and thousands of deaths, the millions of displaced persons, the screaming children and burnt hospitals, the hours and hours of video of the consequences of US and allied bombs and missiles, the thousands of killings (targeted and otherwise) in occupied Palestine, torture at Abu Ghraib, kangaroo courts and hunger strikes at Guantanamo -- not those, but Trump? Is the former Secretary of State serious?

Our war efforts - including the type of "assistance to moderate rebels" Clinton thinks we should have done more of, and earlier, also supplied Islamic State with materiel necessary to its 2014 sweep across Iraq and Syria, in much the same way that arms left from the first Gulf War were used against American troops and Iraqi civilians by militias following the second Iraq invasion. Two years before the ISIS anschluss, the New York Times was reporting how arms to rebels were flowing into radical hands. Other of the many outlets reporting on this phenomenon include The Atlantic in multiple stories, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, NBC, and British press such as the Guardian and Daily Mail. These stories are worth a read to let the Syriana-like madness of the current situation sink in.

4. War is horribly expensive
I still shake my head thinking how Lawrence Lindsey in 2002 was cashiered by the Bush administration for suggesting that the cost of invading Iraq could be as high as 1% to 2% of GNP (about $100-$200 billion then), and how Defense Sec. Rumsfeld assured the nation that the costs would be under $50 billion. As 2015 ends, the only question is how many trillions this seemingly perpetual and growing war has cost and will cost. Six years ago, Noel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard's Linda Bilmes authored The Three Trillion Dollar War. Now that figure seems conservative. There are of course ancillary economic impacts such as the opportunity cost, the impacts on oil markets, the contribution to worldwide recession, and now the impact of the refugee crisis. Again, some of these were warned of in advance, such as by the Brookings Institute's George Perry, in 2002.

5. Perpetual war corrodes our morality and ideals
Thirteen years of war grounded largely in lies is sucking away what this country aspires to be. Once upon a time most Americans believed, whether or not true in execution, that the United States became engaged only when attacked, and did not initiate wars. Now we seem to have embraced a grotesque Bush doctrine of unilateral use of force that shreds notions of sovereignty, that says we can bomb any "militant" anywhere on the planet based on might makes right, and that concurrently seems to be shredding attitudes toward torture, toward observance of the Geneva convention, toward protection of noncombatants. An argument in particular that the disengaged nature of drone warfare has a corrupting effect is thought-provoking, enough so to fill a book. On a long term -- and this war is now long term -- the "anything to keep us safe" meme is shredding civil liberties, the sense of privacy essential to democracy, and creating a "new normal" that tilts toward totalitarianism. On the most base level, perpetual war is a major contributor toward our national culture of violence, because it implicitly or explicitly endorses violence and killing.

It is unclear why peace is not more central to the 2016 campaign so far. For sure, the GOP for decades has been hawkish, with only the libertarian wing led by the Pauls holding up the old Republican non-interventionist POV. But Democrats surged to congressional and then presidential victory in 2006 and 2008, respectively, largely on opposition to the Bush war. A double whammy then seemingly took effect - whereas the GOP used its activists to gain victories across the country, the Democrats, instead, having won first the Congress and the White House, told their activists, "Get lost," with WH chiefs of staff publicly chiding the left and, at local levels, the Party stifling activist movements if they questioned Obama. Michael Heaney has recently written specifically on this in Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11.

So what we see now is the GOP raising money based on fear itself, and Democrats churning up an unprecedented money-raising machine not by challenging that fear, but via fear of the GOP. The deluge of e-mails from each party to its donor base often has no substantive content at all other than "Boo!"

Aside from fundamental respect for a base constituency, telling the Left, "You have nowhere else to go" is risky. Activists will never vote for a candidate of opposite ideology from the other party, but can refrain from writing checks, knocking on doors, making calls, or even voting.

A not-insignificant percentage of the electorate agrees that, as sketched above, our current perpetual war is bloody, counterproductive, unaffordable, unsustainable, and corrosive to our national spirit. The Democrats have more to lose from jingoism than does the GOP. A choice between two perceived evils cut from the same cloth creates opportunity if not necessity for third party candidacies, which may resonate in an America disgusted with both major parties.

Possibly Islamic State will suffer enough military defeat that Iraq, Obama, the Democrats, and for that matter Putin can all claim "victory" even though a simmering, much smaller network of jihadists persists, and even if it continues to carry out sectarian bombings, or inspire or even direct terrifying but non-state-threatening atrocities elsewhere. But even if so, all the arguments against war remain.

War and peace - not just a particular war but our entire foreign policy - deserves more discussion, and real discussion. It is distant but real people are suffering and dying. It was refreshing to finally hear in a national debate the scary and too-accurate phrase perpetual war at least be voiced, but political leaders need to lead on dismantling the growing national numbness toward that concept, with all its associated evils. Candidates for federal office, from president to Congress, need to demonstrate the degree to which their values truly oppose the evils of perpetual war, and have the courage to lay out meaningful steps and multilateral plans for building peace.

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