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The Nation

The Politics of Escalation

Tom Hayden & Joseph Gerson

Congressional leaders are cooperating with the Obama administration in quashing any serious criticism of growing military escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Indications are that there will be no benchmarks or conditions set on the more than $85 billion supplemental appropriation before Congress beginning this week. The administration, which once promised no more rushed supplemental appropriation, is rolling funds for war and swine flu into one package, while not yet disclosing how much is earmarked specifically for Afghanistan.

Rep. David Obey says he wants to give the Obama administration a one-year deadline for results, which likely means making it more difficult to withdraw from a deepening quagmire.

The only current congressional vehicle for dissent is a proposed amendment by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass) that requires the Secretary of Defense to report on an exit strategy from Afghanistan by this December, six months after Congress has appropriated funds for escalating the war. Even that modest measure, with fifty co-sponsors at present, has met with administration resistance to an exit strategy with benchmarks.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, under fire for what she knew about Guantánamo waterboarding and when she knew it, is going along with the administration by preventing the McGovern amendment from being voted on. Congressional leaders believe that war opponents are not sufficiently powerful to either require a vote on the McGovern measure to achieve more than two hours of debate on the supplemental, which could also include soliloquies on the swine flu.


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The Congressional Progressive Caucus has met with President Obama and, according to sources attending, will not be opposed at this point to his Afghanistan-Pakistan policies. Instead, the caucus is sponsoring a series of informational hearings on public policies for the region.

The Senate, with the possible exception of Sen. Russ Feingold, is not expected to question the Obama policies, either.

Insiders say the dominant message behind closed doors is a political one, not to embarrass the president. On policy, one knowledgeable expert reports, doubt is widespread in Congress and "no one has any idea where it will all end."

The desire to protect the president may shy Democrats away from demands that were routinely made of the Bush administration: requiring regular reports on an exit strategy, transparency in the budgets for war, clear definitions of casualty levels on all sides, application of human rights standards in detention centers, and others.

It is understandable that the economic crisis and high expectations for the new president have deflected Congressional Democrats away from their oversight role. As the quagmire deepens, however, antiwar questioning will rise again. The danger is that by then the Obama administration will be engulfed in the politics of escalation, as happened to earlier Democratic presidents.

Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at PitzerCollege in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement [new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.

Dr. Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs of the American Friends Service Committee in New England. His most recent book is Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World.

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