Guess Who Tried to Prevent the VA Crisis — and Who Stood in Their Way!

The Three Trillion Dollar War

Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz predicted the VA scandal.

Back in 2008, the eminent researchers — one a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, the other a Nobel laureate in economics — published a book called The Three Trillion Dollar War, where they argued that most Americans were drastically underestimating the cost of the Iraq War. They didn’t specifically describe the events that have unfolded in recent weeks, but they did point out the enormous burden that would be placed on the VA system as veterans returned from Iraq — a burden that we were not preparing for.

And that was before the surge in Afghanistan.

Upon taking the oath of office, Barack Obama tripled U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, sending over 60,000 troops into combat. Only now, five years later, have troop levels reverted to the level they were at when he took office. So you can add 60,000 troops for five years on top of the costs projected by Bilmes and Stiglitz — projections that were verified and replicated by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, as well as Nobel laureate Lawrence Klein, the father of modern economic forecasting.

And yet, Congress refused to boost the VA budget.

For years, discretionary funding for the VA health care system had been growing at approximately 6 percent per year, slightly less than health care costs for the average American family, making it the most cost-efficient system in the country. Meanwhile, it ranked at the top of quality rankings, better than all its private competitors, year after year. It was the best medical care system in America.

That is, until the troops came home.

“Republicans beat back a Democratic attempt to provide almost $2 billion in additional health care funding for veterans,” reported the Washington Post in 2005, “rejecting claims that Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals are in crisis.”

The following year, Bilmes told ABC News, “In 2004, the VA had a backlog of 400,000 cases. Last year it was 500,000 cases. Now the backlog is 600,000 cases. That’s just in two years. And the big wave of returning Iraqi veterans has not even hit yet.”

And yet, the VA budget kept growing by 6 percent per year, as if the war didn’t exist at all.

As if that wasn’t a big enough problem… “Proposed cuts in Department of Veterans Affairs spending on major construction and non-recurring maintenance threaten to derail efforts to update the department’s aging infrastructure,” reported the Washington Post in 2012. And so, Democratic Senator Patty Murray led the charge to boost the VA’s construction funding, only to have it beat down by Republicans.

Later that year, Paul Ryan, the Republican chair of the House Budget Committee, released the party’s annual budget proposal. Had it become law, the VA would’ve sustained billions of dollars in budget cuts, forcing smaller facilities to shut down in rural areas.

So it wasn’t surprising to Senator Murray when allegations surfaced of VA hospitals lying about the number of veterans on their waiting lists because they didn’t want the world to know that they were unable to give their patients lifesaving treatments. “In an environment where everybody is told, ‘Keep the cost down. Don’t tell me anything costs more.’ — it creates a culture out there for people to cook the books,” she said in a recent interview.

Who would’ve ever thought, after years of relentless cost-cutting in the halls of Washington, that the federal government actually spends our money on important stuff? Who would’ve thought that wars cost money, and tax cuts cost money, and maintaining our infrastructure costs money? Not the Republicans, that’s for sure. While the Bush administration plunged us into two wars and cut taxes on the rich, who were already taking a bigger piece of the pie than they had since the Roaring Twenties, Republicans in Congress were blocking every Democratic attempt to give the VA the funding they needed to give our veterans the medical care they were promised. And then, when the Obama administration tried to correct this funding crisis, Republicans responded by proposing deeper spending cuts.

Let this be a warning to every politician and every voter who thinks we can cut our way to prosperity: Those dollar figures represent real services that the government provides to real people. Every cut has a cost, and not just in money. In lives.

==========

This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

Staying in Afghanistan Is a Recipe for More Terrorism

Global Opposition to U.S. Drone StrikesBarack Obama is daring the terrorists. He’s standing in their front yard. He’s calling them out.

Of course, that’s not how it’s reported. “U.S. ‘nowhere near’ decision to pull all troops out of Afghanistan,” was the understated Reuters headline. Under negotiation is an agreement keeping 8,000 to 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan “through 2024 and beyond.” Also on the table are night raids and drone strikes that Afghan President Hamid Karzai refuses to allow.

This is madness. “If the job is not done,” said the Russian ambassador to Kabul, “then several thousand troops…will not be able to do the job that 150,000 troops couldn’t do.”

The only thing worse than the hopelessness of this plan is the backwardness of it. In an effort to prevent terrorism, we are continuing the very thing that creates terrorism: our presence!

Al Qaeda “has been precise in telling America the reasons [it’s] waging war on us,” according to CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who tracked Osama bin Laden from 1996 to 1999. “None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy, but have everything to do with U.S. policies and actions in the Muslim world.”

In his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, political scientist Robert Pape analyzed every known case of suicide bombers from 1980 to 2005. He found that “what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.” Specifically, he discovered that “al Qaeda is today less a product of Islamic fundamentalism than of a simple strategic goal: to compel the United States and its Western allies to withdraw combat forces from the Arabian Peninsula and other Muslim countries.”

The Obama administration can’t pretend that it doesn’t know this fact. In 2004, the Pentagon concluded that “American direct involvement in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies. Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. [In] the eyes of the Muslim world, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering.”

Firsthand accounts confirm these conclusions. British journalist Johann Hari interviewed former Islamic militants who had since rejected jihad. He probed them, in independent interviews, about what made them join the cause in the first place. “Every one of them said the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 — from Guantanamo to Iraq — made jihadism seem more like an accurate description of the world.” One of them put it this way: “You’d see Bush on the television building torture camps and bombing Muslims and you think — anything is justified to stop this. What are we meant to do, just stand still and let him cut our throats?”

New York Times reporter David Rohde saw this attitude up close when the Taliban held him hostage for seven months. Looking back on his captors, he remembered, “Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian civilians in military airstrikes, as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged.”

BBC journalist Owen Bennett-Jones found the same reaction in his research on the drone strike that killed Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud earlier this year. “Although many Pakistanis were happy that Mehsud was no long threatening them,” Bennett-Jones reports, “their relief was outweighed by the thought that the US’s use of drones in Pakistan was an unacceptable breach of sovereignty and a national humiliation.” The result was “a wave of sympathy in the country” for Mehsud and his fellow terrorists.

“As I travelled around the Middle East during the Arab Spring,” writes Bennett-Jones in this week’s London Review of Books, “the word that most often cropped up in the slogans in various capitals was not ‘freedom’ – the one the Western media recognised and highlighted – but ‘dignity.'”

These are the sad facts of a desperate region. We do not condone their violence, but we must understand their motives.

American troops, night raids, and drone strikes in Afghanistan will only make it easier for terrorists and insurgents to recruit angry young men to fight and die for their cause. By extending the occupation into perpetuity, we are not stopping terrorism at the source, as President Obama would have us believe. We are multiplying their ranks. We are taunting and humiliating them. We are endangering our nation.

==========

This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

At Times I Wonder

by Norman Horowitz

Growing up in the thirties, my family lived in an apartment building in the Kingsbridge Road section in the Bronx.

Playing baseball in the streets was not possible for a variety of reasons, so we played a street game that I loved: “stickball.” There were a variety of forms to the game, but you always needed a ball called a “Spaldeen” and a stick, usually borrowed from my mother’s carpet sweeper. This all worked out well…except that the police would sneak up on our game and confiscate our sticks. We would post lookouts to guard against police intervention, and when a cop was spotted, the warning cry was: “Chickey, the cops!”

I always wondered about this, and still think about it today: Why did the cops do this?

In light of the Petraeus “scandal,” I have to ask the same question about “the morality police” who judge what sexual behavior is acceptable.

And now a small joke to make a point. [Stop reading if you’re offended by foul language.]

Those who have died throughout the world the previous day are lined up outside the pearly gates to be interviewed by St. Peter, who will determine if they will be assigned to Heaven or Hell.

As the teeming throng waits, a roar passes through the line. The people are joyous!

Someone asks what has happened and one man replies, “Thank God, thank God, fucking doesn’t count.”

Just exactly who makes these rules concerning sex?

I admit, men who are sexually aroused have a tendency to do the stupidest things. However, in my experience, sexual transgressions have nothing at all to do with the effectiveness of a person’s work.

In my opinion, we suffer from a collective societal craziness that accepts going to war for questionable reasons in Iraq, killing and wounding so many, yet questions the appropriateness of a grown man having consensual sex with a woman not his wife while married to someone else.

We appear to have forgiven Clinton, bring back and forgive Petraeus!

Quote of the Day: Richard Schiff

I am not an Obama fanatic. I did not favor a surge in Afghanistan; didn’t support the nature of the financials bailouts; wanted universal health coverage; wanted proper prosecution of the thieves of Wall Street, believe the war on drugs must end yesterday.

But here, now, just shy of four years later I can look back and I can have respect for this man. He said he was going to bail out Detroit and he did; he said he was going to pass the stimulus package to stave off loss of jobs and rebuild infrastructure and he did; he said he was going to surge in Afghanistan to facilitate a later winding down of that war and he did; he said he was going to end the inane war in Iraq and he did. He passed Obamacare like he said he would. He reversed the loss of job growth trend like he said he would. He extended unemployment benefits and helped folks keep their homes like he said he would. And on and on it goes.

— Richard Schiff

Horowitz the Soldier

Norman wrote this over a month ago. I’ve been remiss in keeping up with his posts, but I’ll catch up in the coming week. — AWO

by Norman Horowitz

It was about sixty years ago during the Korean War that I enlisted in the Air Force. Our training was at Sampson Air Force Base in upstate New York in January — and was it ever cold!

My basic training lasted eight weeks and consisted primarily of marching and going to classes.

One night, I was assigned to guard a warehouse in the middle of nowhere for three hours carrying an unloaded rifle that I didn’t know how to use. Around midnight, I was delivered to my station by Jeep and told to walk up and down in the front of this warehouse until I was relieved in about three hours. It was dark and about fifteen below zero and windy. I was scared out of my mind. The three hours lasted forever.

I served as a student of electronics for almost a year, followed by three years as an instructor. I never did anything “military” other than “drill” from time to time during these four years.

That brings me to the very sad story involving the killing of 16 Afghans by U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales.

It appears that there is no question that the Sergeant is responsible for these deaths, but there is a larger responsibility that rests with Presidents Bush and Obama for continuing the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I cannot comprehend how our once-great nation allows a soldier to be in harm’s way during three tours in Iraq followed by a tour in Afghanistan. This man is someone’s son, husband, father, etc., and he was put in harm’s way day after day and year after year.

In 1969, a member of the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force wrote to its chairman that “while there is a reasonable possibility that a peacetime armed force could be entirely voluntary, I am certain that an armed force involved in a major conflict could not be voluntary.”

I expect that, were we to have a draft, the “system” would not as easily continue our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan requiring the system’s sons and daughters to be put in harm’s way.

Given the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with casualties, enlistments have dropped, and a majority of the American public no longer believing that these wars are worth fighting. We must conclude that Sergeant Bales has been unreasonably placed in harm’s way over and over again.

Of course the Sergeant needs to be punished by “the system,” but how about someone punishing those who operate the system?

Sergeant Bales will have a high-profile court-martial, President Bush will continue to clear brush in Texas, and President Obama will run for a second term as we get ready to go to war with Iran. Now what is wrong with that picture?