George McGovern, Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, will never get much respect as a political strategist, although he ran a good campaign up until the convention that year, followed though it was by a Nixon landslide. History, however, will be kinder to McGovern as a foreign policy analyst. He got it right about Vietnam and he gets it right about the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan today in The Los Angeles Times. As McGovern writes in his op-ed:
Three years ago, public opinion polls indicated that a majority of Americans believed our policymakers were wrong in ordering troops into Iraq. It is widely accepted that this sentiment more than any other factor in the 2006 congressional elections resulted in Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.
But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have faded as a political priority. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll conducted March 12-15, 2009 found that “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ranked fourth (cited by 8 percent) as the “most important” priority, behind the economy (63 percent), health care (9 percent) and the federal budget deficit (8 percent).
When pressed, however, to respond in more detail, we see a slightly different result from poll respondents. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll conducted less than a month earlier, from Feb. 18-19, 2009, found that 75 and 76 percent agreed that “the situation in” Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively were “extremely important” or “very important,” compared to 95 percent for the economy. The economy, and the range of associated concerns contained inside the term, still trumps other issues. but when asked to think about it a little more, three out of four voters are still quite worried about what we are doing in those countries.
Not that the higher-rated priorities are unconnected to the economic cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. McGovern cites the economic effect:
Are we now going to ignore for another three years the public mandate of 2006 against this costly, preemptive war based on deceit? And how can we justify putting thousands more U.S. troops into Afghanistan? We have already exhausted our treasury…Can there be any doubt that the enormous war cost has contributed to the financial crisis here at home? The expense of waging two Middle East wars, plus the loss of revenue caused by the previous administration’s tax cuts, have skyrocketed the national debt to a record high. Do we ever consider what the interest alone is on our $10-trillion national debt — much of it paid to China?
Frankly, we cannot afford a two-war commitment year after year if we want to balance the federal budget and restore our economy. The huge bonuses that directors of failing corporations have awarded themselves and their chief executives have rightfully angered people, but those figures are peanuts compared with the $12 billion a month we have poured into Iraq and Afghanistan over the last six years.
But there is a significant distinction between public perceptions of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Yet another CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll, this one conducted April 3-5, found that, when asked “Do you favor or oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan?,” 53 percent said they favored the war, with 46 percent opposed. And 68 percent favored Obama’s plan to send 20 thousand more troops to Afghanistan, with 31 percent opposed. But the respondents in this poll took a very different view when asked “Do you favor or oppose the U.S. war in Iraq?” Only 35 percent favored the war, with 63 percent opposed.
The problem with military occupations is that they go on and on, eventually numbing the public and political decision-makers to the downside of having an imperial foreign policy. It’s the “just a little longer and we’ll get things under control” self-delusion. McGovern understands this better than most:
The Obama administration recommends we leave 50,000 troops in Iraq to “police” that troubled country through 2011. There may well be flare-ups that will keep them there indefinitely, struggling to police the war-induced chaos.
In June 1950, President Truman ordered our troops into Korea, stating it would only be a brief police action that did not require a declaration of war. Three years later and after 38,000 American soldiers had been killed, the new American president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of Allied forces in World War II, promptly ended our involvement in the Korean War, to the relief of our combat soldiers and the American public.
Unfortunately, Washington left 40,000 American soldiers behind to police the 38th Parallel — for a brief time. Yet, more than 50 years later, nearly 30,000 American troops are still in South Korea. So much for brief police actions.
McGovern’s op-ed has other important things to say about the self-defeating effects of U.S. military occupations abroad. He goes on to urge an “orderly withdrawall” from Iraq by Thanksgiving. But a Newsweek/Princeton Survey Research Associates International poll conducted April 1-2 indicates that 46 percent of respondents said Obama’s plan to remove most U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2010 was “about right,” with 28 percent wanting them to “come home sooner” and 19 percent wanting them to “stay longer.” Disagree though many might with McGovern’s timetable, it’s hard to deny the common sense that undergirds his concluding sentence: “For our sake and God’s sake, let’s get out of there and begin healing our own bankrupted land.”