Small World: The War to end war

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

We have now seen the opening salvo of this new and long-delayed conflict. In a major speech on May 23, President Obama announced that the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) must end. It began after 9/11/01 with the pursuit of al Qaeda’s leading cadres and their Taliban allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan; it must end without a formal victory and with the president ceding war-making powers. While there are still fanatics who hate and are pledged to destroy us, dealing with them will be the task of intelligence agencies, diplomats enlisting the cooperation of friendly states and, on a case-by-case basis, units of the armed forces.

Return volleys in this war have come from the reigning congressional hawks, Senators McCain and Graham. “Premature,” they charge. The danger of more attacks by terrorists persists and must be dealt with by a fully mobilized military. A president should not, as Obama suggests, be deprived of the power to exercise American might when and how he deems necessary.

The president spoke of winding down the GWOT as a requirement for preserving American values for civil and human rights and the constitutional order. It is rare for the executive branch to surrender power, but that is what — as a term-limited president — he appears to be doing. He is plainly establishing a framework that will constrain his successors within specific limits. He would put limits on the use of drones, shifting most of their operations from the CIA to the Pentagon where they will be a transparent “weapon of war” rather than a covert, deniable tool.

Another element of Obama’s ending the GWOT is to close Guantanamo prison on leased Cuban soil. It is harmful to our reputation internationally, costly and unnecessary, he argued, vowing to renew his struggle with Congress to end its use by sending home those who pose no threat, putting some on trial and leaving in a limbo of indecision those who can be neither tried (because of flawed evidence against them) nor safely released. They would, in his plan, be sent to maximum security prisons inside the United States. Congress discouraged him from that course in the past; his success in this round remains to be seen.

In my view, but not stated by the president, Obama’s presentation of these arguments — which will repay readers the effort to Google them — are but the first steps to turn around America’s military-dominated economy and politics. Call it isolationism, if you wish, but I think we have too long been at war. By my reckoning, since 1941 we have taken but a few years off from major or a series of minor conflicts. Twenty percent of our national budget goes to defense. The result is an economy that is heavily dependent on Pentagon procurement of goods and services and, thus, deprived of adequate funds for investment in civilian infrastructure — education, health care, transportation and communications. Consequently, young people entering the job market don’t find many opportunities for which they are qualified and the military becomes one of the few careers that are available.

To maintain a flow of budgeted funds — not paid for through taxes, but by loans — defense related industries apply pressure on Washington for the United States to take on foreign enemies. The public, however, is generally fed up with wars of choice. Past forays into Iraq and Afghanistan remain burdens on the economy through the VA and other claims. To preserve themselves in office, our legislators must appear “fully supportive” of our men in uniform and, hence, backing most weapon requests from the Pentagon and some that aren’t officially requested. No patriotic citizen can fail to support the troops, of course, but it is fair to wish our men and women were otherwise engaged.

We can only hope for — and fully support — a president who will take on the hawks in this critical, if undeclared war on future wars. It will be no easy task to wrench our society away from making or preparing for war, but it must be done — slowly but steadily — if we are to avoid the similar fate of over-extended and failed empires that have preceded ours.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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