Political Hay

Selective Urgency

In this administration Heaven can't wait -- except in Afghanistan.

By 10.22.09

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In the long run, we're all dead. -- J. M. Keynes

Unless you happen to be a soldier in Afghanistan. Over there, it can happen a little sooner.

Contrary to the immediacy that has followed every single mantra of the Obama administration, the focus on the Afghani battlefront seems to be marching to the beat of a very different and disengaged drummer.

On matters of domestic policy, the short-sightedness illustrated by Keynes' impetuous statement set a droning pace for the Democrats' agenda: we cannot wait for a stimulus; we cannot delay passing legislation on climate change; we must overhaul health care now: the time to debate is over. Never one to let crises go to waste, Mr. Obama and his administration have squeezed out every last drop of every crisis in order to make gallons and gallons of crisisade.

And it's beginning to taste really bad.

The stimulus was pushed through as the answer to our economic ills. We had to act with swift severity to avoid the pangs of an 8.5 percent unemployment rate. We had to get money in the system now or the banks would collapse, manufacturing would misfire, and the housing market would further implode. We just needed another tank of financial fuel. That would give us the confidence to drive our parked economy down a treacherous turnpike. We just needed more money and all the hazards would disappear.

Well, here's the thing about the economy, people won't buy, they won't borrow, and they won't make long-term investments unless they have faith in the path that lies before them. And as the unemployment figures rise beyond the threatened 8.5 to the current 9.8 percent -- even after the $787 billion stimulus -- people fail to see what they were supposed to be so confident about. Moreover, most of the stimulus has still not been injected into the market. Yet, now seven months after the stimulus was passed, and with 49 out of 50 states losing, not gaining jobs, the administration we hear that the stimulus has worked. Just what did we stimulate? Contrasting the heated rhetoric that surrounded getting the stimulus with the laissez-faire manner of its application, it's very hard to tell. Perhaps the stimulus was more about an administration than a nation. Too cynical?  Well, perhaps, but where are the fruits of the stimulated labors? Where is the state bird of industry -- the crane? Where are the bulldozers? Where is the rubble? Where are the orange barrels? Where is the stimulus in action?

What we're seeing is the embodiment of something our grandparents taught us; haste makes waste -- unless you can convince people against their better judgment that in the long run, they'll either suffer more, or fail to reap the benefits so "apparent" in immediate gratification. As someone once told me, the difference between a child and an adult is the willingness to forgo something good now for something better later. In other words, the long run does matter -- alive or dead.

Nevertheless, we're pushed down the slippery slope of an agenda based on haste.

On climate change, we were told that the time for languishing legislation is over. We need cap and trade to anoint the earth, mend the melting, and flush out the fossil fuels.  The earth might not last 50 years -- maybe not even past the 2016 Summer Olympic Games! Dire stuff! And the green jobs, ah the green jobs. Like the square wheel, the linen helmet, and the dog sweater, they await our impatient ingenuity. One can only imagine the efficiencies and economies of scale that come from adding artificial organic flavor to the unnatural industry of green jobs. Nevertheless, the believers push an environmental euphoria on our market-based democracy, banging the drum of dispatch. We (with allowances for India, China, Eastern Europe, and, gosh, pretty much the entire Third World) have no time to lose. Now is, indeed, the time.

And then there is the third rail of this disorient express is -- health care. First there were 47, then 46, now maybe 30 million uninsured. These nameless and faceless individuals were given a story and a quick narrative. They are suffering unspeakable things and they need to be rescued. They will reap immediate benefits of Government's hand on the scales of health care. It's a matter of, if not life and death, health and sickness. Moreover, while saving the health of the 30-47 million, Congress and Mr. Obama will fix the economy. That's why it needs to be done now. That's why immediate action is required. Because it will improve the health care system and the economy. It's an infinite good. Like a band-aid that cures disease with no side effects. CBO numbers showing the massive expenses associated with such a plan are a nuisance to the pace and must be disregarded for the sake of expediency. Forget "slow" -- swift and steady wins the race.

The president is undaunted by town hall meetings and democratic dissent as he scolds his detractors through his myriad speeches and ministers -- dissent is a distraction to reform. He will not be distracted -- not on health care. After all, this affects the immediate safety and well-being of Americans. There is no "in the long run" on health care reform. In the short run, we're burdened by medical bills that someone else should pay. There is no time to discover why some people seem to fall through the cracks of the insurance industry through a bipartisan, healthy debate. The insurance industry is on Obama time, now. We all have a destiny with a legacy -- the Obama legacy. And there is only one way to reform health care -- with all deliberate speed.

Long, pregnant pause.

But on Afghanistan, silence. On Afghanistan, inertia. On Afghanistan, deliberation. On Afghanistan, wait and see. No lofty speeches, no altruistic arguments, no righteous reverberations. Afghanistan is the squeaky wheel that is grinding to a rusty and uncomfortable halt.

General Stanley A. McChrystal, the man hand-picked by Mr. Obama to lead the fight in Afghanistan, has called for reinforcements, dating back to August 30 of this year. According to the General, the need is urgent and a failure to enact swift and decisive action risks putting our troops on a march toward an irretrievable "failure." General McChrystal even used terms central to the Obama stimulus/health care/cap and trade talking points: inadequate, crisis, and serious. These are terms that Mr. Obama should be very familiar with. Depending on how Mr. Obama responds, very soon, these terms could describe the state of his presidency.

General McChrystal's report was nearly two months ago. In Obama terms, it was one trip to the International Olympic Committee, one national student address, one address to a joint session of Congress, and five Sunday talk shows ago -- and counting. Yet, in all of those opportunities to address the "crisis" facing our troops, there is a stark absence of leadership from the Oval Office. Rather than familiarizing himself with his favorite pejoratives, Mr. Obama is crouching behind one of President Bush's -- stay the course. Staying the course in Afghanistan won't cut it. Staying the course will get an increasing number of troops and civilians killed, and with staying the course, winning is out of the question.

Mr. Obama has slowed his electoral sprint to a screeching halt. His self-ascribed "war of necessity" rings hollow as the General's pleas go unrequited. But this battle has needs. Like the economy, like cap and trade, and like health care, it has a lot of needs. It needs stimulus. It needs a better environment. It needs health care.

General McChrystal has asked for more troops and the evidence that action is needed piles up -- as do the bodies. In Afghanistan, people aren't getting sick, as much as they are getting dead. We hear excuses of unseemly elections and voter fraud as justification for the Obama delay. But would a friendlier regime allow us to root out insurrection with even greater impunity? Doubtful. Is a friendlier regime than the Karzai administration even realistic? How and why would a regime change -- if that is the outcome of the pending runoff -- be relevant to our fighting this battle? It wouldn't change the identity of the civilians, the insurgents, or the troops on the ground. It's hard to understand how an election, fraudulent or not, has anything to do with our mission in Afghanistan -- unless we're anticipating an even more hostile regime. In which case, we have even more reason to get on with the business of winning, now.

As the days pile up, so does the economic difficulty of the Afghan people. As the silence continues, so does the exploitation of environmental resources in the fight for Afghan liberation, and as the days pile so do the health care problems of troops and civilians who are suffering the indelicacies of battle.

Maybe we are placing this war in the wrong context. Perhaps we need to look at it in terms of economic stimulus, environmental policy, and health care. Certainly that would get the attention of our Commander in Chief. Certainly that would present an opportunity for him to give Americans and Afghans some hope.

In the meantime, Keynes pithy statement will become increasingly prescient.

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About the Author

Robert P. Kirchhoefer is a Washington, D.C. attorney who previously worked in banking and finance.