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The Hollow Politics of Escalation

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An underlying conceit of the new spin about benchmarks and timetables for Afghanistan is the notion that pivotal events there can be choreographed from Washington. So, a day ahead of the president's Tuesday night speech, the New York Times quoted an unnamed top administration official saying: "He wants to give a clear sense of both the time frame for action and how the war will eventually wind down."

But "eventually" is a long way off. In the meantime, the result of Washington's hollow politics is more carnage.

The next days and weeks will bring an avalanche of hype about insisting on measurable progress and shifting burdens onto the Afghan army -- while the U.S. military expands the war. In the groove, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed, told CNN viewers on Sunday: "The key element here is not just more troops. The key element is shifting the operations to the Afghanis [sic]. And if that can be done, then I would support the president."

That's the kind of talk that I. F. Stone disparaged at the height of the Vietnam War, in mid-1970, when he concluded: "Not enough Asians are going to fight Asians for us even if the price is right."

Now, President Obama's decision to massively escalate the Afghanistan war is confronting people and institutions in the United States with a challenge of historic dimensions.

Among those inclined to be antiwar, it doesn't much matter whether they "support" the escalation. What matters is whether they openly oppose it -- and, if so, how vocally and emphatically.

There's a clear and well-trod pathway for ineffectual dissent from members of Congress who end up passively assisting the escalation by a fellow Democrat in the Oval Office. Avid support for the war effort is helpful but not necessary. Scarcity of determined opposition will suffice to keep the war politically viable in Washington.

At the core of the enabling politics is inner space that's hollow enough to reliably cave under pressure. Typically, Democrats with antiwar inclinations weaken and collapse at push-comes-to-shove moments on Capitol Hill. The habitual pattern involves loyalty toward -- and fear of -- "the leadership."

Early on, during President Johnson's Vietnam War escalation, Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening and then Frank Church were prophetic antiwar pariahs. As years went by, the war's horrors and growing domestic opposition led some others in Congress to find a solid inner core that withstood pro-war pressures. Eventually.

We're now in an early stage of such a progression. Due to careful silences in U.S. politics, many more lives will be shattered. Soon. And eventually.

The essence of a core becomes evident under pressure. It's one thing to voice opposition to sending more troops into Afghanistan -- it's another to really try to prevent the escalation. Few in Congress have gotten serious enough about halting the war's deadly spiral to sign onto Congresswoman Barbara Lee's bill H.R. 3699, which would prohibit any increase in funding for additional troop deployment to Afghanistan.

Among Democrats in powerful positions, some misgivings about the war are evident -- but willingness to withhold spending for the war is not.

The tragic limits of those misgivings were evident last week when ABC News interviewed Rep. David Obey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who called for a war surtax.

"On the merits, I think it's a mistake to deepen our involvement," Obey said. "But if we are going to do that, then at least we ought to pay for it. Because if we don't, if we don't pay for it, then the cost of the Afghan war will wipe out every other initiative that we have to try to rebuild our own economy."

Then came a direct question from the network correspondent: "The White House comes and asks you again to get through this Congress money for an increased commitment in Afghanistan -- are you going to be there fighting to get that passed?"

The congressman replied: "I'm going to be there fighting to get whatever they do, paid for."

But Congress can't stop the war while paying for it.

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