Like many Americans, I have a great deal of sympathy with the thrust of Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity on October 30. It's bad enough that the debasement of public discourse is unpleasant, and encourages some Americans to want to withdraw from politics completely; but the debasement of public discourse is also a major obstacle to enacting policies that America needs.
If you think, for example, that endless war in Afghanistan is not in America's interest, and that we would be better off seriously pursuing a negotiated political solution with leaders of the Afghan Taliban and with countries in the region including Pakistan and Iran, it's not in your interest to have a political environment where someone can essentially shut down your voice by accusing you of wanting to "cut and run," or of being "soft on terrorism," or of "not caring about Afghan women." Such a political environment is a mandate for endless war. The debasement of public discourse has been a major obstacle to ending the war in Afghanistan.
This week the New York Times reported that serious efforts towards "talks about talks" have begun between the Afghan government and leaders of the Afghan Taliban. This and similar reports have sparked significant debate: are these developments really significant, or are they being hyped? Are Taliban leaders of sufficient rank being included to make the talks meaningful? Is Mullah Omar, leader of the main branch of the Afghan Taliban, being excluded? Is Pakistan being excluded? If key players remain excluded, won't that be likely to sink the talks?
These are good and important questions. What does not seem to be occurring so far to any significant degree is anyone accusing the Obama Administration of wanting to "cut and run," or of being "soft on terrorism," or of "not caring about Afghan women," because it is supporting talks between the Afghan government and leaders of the Afghan Taliban to end the war.
This is a very positive development; let's do what we can to make it persist.
It has not always been so.
Four years ago, Republican Senator Bill Frist, then Majority Leader, on a trip to Afghanistan, said that the war against Taliban guerrillas could never be won militarily and that "people who call themselves Taliban" should be brought into the government.
This could have been an opening towards a more sane U.S. policy that moved toward ending the war - the same policy that we are pursuing today, many American and Afghan dead later, according to the New York Times report.
But that's not what happened. Instead, what happened was this:
Democrats criticized Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) yesterday for saying that the Afghan war against Taliban guerrillas can never be won militarily and for favoring bringing "people who call themselves Taliban" into the government.
Democrats accused Frist of trying to "cut and run" in Afghanistan, something Republicans have been accusing Democrats of seeking to do in Iraq.
"Senator Frist now suggests that the best way forward in Afghanistan is to coddle the Taliban by welcoming Taliban members into a coalition government, as if 9/11 had never happened," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said yesterday in a statement.
And that's why Senator Frist's proposal never got a fair hearing, and a significant cause of the fact that we are only pursuing now - if the New York Times report is substantially correct - the policy that Senator Frist proposed four years ago.
If on Monday, some Democrats propose something reasonable and get shot down without a fair hearing, and on Tuesday Republicans propose something reasonable and get shot down without a fair hearing, then if you think in strictly partisan terms, the score is 1-1. But from the point of view of the broad public interest, the score is 0-2. So there is a broad public public interest in turning this situation around, or at least ameliorating it.
Which is why the broad public interest would be served if Jon Stewart would lead by example, and correct his nationally broadcast claim that Republican Senator Tom Coburn was holding up $1.15 billion in reconstruction aid for Haiti.
According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the aid consortium InterAction, the State Department, and Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy's "The Cable," it just ain't so.
The UN reports:
blockquote>In reporting that "not a cent" of the US$1.15 billion the US promised for Haiti reconstruction at the UN donors' conference in March had reached the stricken nation, the Associated Press largely cast the blame on a single senator - Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma who had objected to a minor provision in the legislation that authorized the spending.
Coburn had "anonymously pulled" the legislation until his concerns could be addressed, the wire service reported on 28 September, and the senator was swiftly vilified by prominent liberals for sacrificing the poor of Haiti on the altar of his ongoing campaign for fiscal prudence. Comedian Jon Stewart called him an "international a**hole of mystery", for placing a "secret hold" on the bill. MSNBC broadcaster Keith Olbermann said Coburn was "committing an atrocity against the people of Haiti and doing so in the name of 'We the People' of the United States."
It is true that Coburn has placed a hold on much-needed funds for Haiti - $500 million in fact - but he is not holding up the $1.15 billion that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised to a round of applause at the UN donors' conference.
That money was included in a supplemental spending bill that passed both houses of congress, after months of bureaucratic back and forth, and was signed by President Barack Obama on 29 July 2010.
As of September, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) reported that more than $1.1 billion of the $1.642 billion for Haiti relief had been spent since the earthquake. But the $1.140 billion for recovery and reconstruction has remained in the US treasury because the vast proportion of this assistance cannot be disbursed until the secretary of state reports to various congressional committees on exactly how the money will be spent and how its oversight will be managed. Senator Coburn has nothing to do with the obstruction of this money. [my emphasis.]
There has been some confusion on why the $1 billion Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act of 2010 has been delayed. Previous reports blaming Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) for holding up the bill while Haitians weather hurricane season and floods in unstable short-term IDP camps were incorrect. The bill is in fact delayed because of a complicated appropriations process, further tangled by the Pakistan flooding and Congressional recess, but is due to move soon. [my emphasis]
Josh Rogin reported for Foreign Policy's The Cable:
The problem is that Coburn's hold is not responsible for delaying the $1.15 billion Congress already appropriated in late July to help Haiti. That bill, which is totally separate from the one Coburn is holding up, was the supplemental appropriations act signed by President Obama on July 29. Authorization bills, like the one that Coburn objects to, are useful for setting out Congressional direction on how money should be spend, but aren't strictly necessary to the disbursement of the funds. The appropriations bills are the ones that actually spend the money.
Even the State Department acknowledges that Coburn is not responsible for the delay in this tranche of funds for Haiti.
"Senator Coburn's hold is not related to the $1.15 billion pledge made by the administration in March," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Cable. He explained that the State Department and Congress are still working on how exactly to spend the money, totally apart from Coburn's hold on the separate authorization bill. [my emphasis]
It's all teed up for you, Jon. Acknowledge that you slammed Senator Coburn unjustly. Change the discourse. Lead by example. Restore Sanity!.