Saturday, November 12, 2005

Bush’s speech and my reaction, Part I

Because of the length of the following post, I have decided to break it up into several sections. In my response to President Bush’s recent speech on Veterans Day, Bush’s statements will be in bold print and my response to them are in plain text.

“In the first four years as president, we increased spending for veterans more than twice as much as the previous administration did in eight years… We've increased the V.A.'s medical care budget by 51 percent, increased total out-patient visits, increased the number of prescriptions filled and reduced the backlog of disability claims. We've committed more than $1.5 billion to modernizing and expanding V.A. facilities so that veterans can get better care closer to home. We've expanded grants to help homeless veterans in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, because we strongly believe no veteran who served in the blazing heat or bitter cold of foreign lands should have to live without shelter in our own country.”

Although this is undoubtedly true, it should be noted that because of the recent military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would be inconceivable for spending on veterans NOT to go up, given the increase in demand for medical services and combat pay. In other words, yes, spending on veterans medical care has risen, but that is because so many more veterans require medical assistance. Has the increase Bush has given been enough to offset the rising demand? Maybe not. In 2003, for example, the Veterans Administration announced that it would start turning away many middle-income applicants applying for new medical benefits because it could not meet the demand. Click here for more.

Then, in Bush’s 2004 budget, the administration proposed making the VA's prescription drug benefit less generous. Currently many veterans pay $7 for each one-month supply of medication. The administration proposes to increase that to $15, and require a $250 annual fee as well. Congress rejected a similar proposal last year.

From the Washington Post earlier this year: The Bush administration disclosed yesterday that it had vastly underestimated the number of service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking medical treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and warned that the health care programs will be short at least $2.6 billion next year unless Congress approves additional funds. Indeed, I believe that an argument could easily be made that while Republicans do tend to be stronger on “defense” in terms of more money for military weapons, Democrats are far stronger on defense in terms of more money for actual soldiers and veterans. Also from the WP: “For the past four months, House and Senate Republicans have repeatedly defeated Democratic amendments to boost VA medical funding.” The age-old party divisions: more money for things v. more money for people.

In June, the House of Representatives voted for a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration. I urge the United States Senate to pass this important amendment.

I will not take this opportunity to argue against this absurd amendment other than to suggest that aside from being totally unnecessary (is flag burning in the US really that large of a problem for this drastic step?), it is also unenforceable. If I throw my old flag in the trash, can I be prosecuted for desecration? I have an uncle that burns all of his trash that he cannot bury, will he be in violation of the Constitution now?

In the four years since September 11th, the evil that reached our shores has reappeared on other days in other places: in Mombasa and Casablanca and Riyadh and Jakarta and Istanbul and Madrid and Beslan and Taba and Natanya and Baghdad and elsewhere. … Many militants are part of a global, borderless terrorist organization like Al Qaida… Other militants are found in regional groups, often associated with Al Qaida. Paramilitary insurgencies and separatist movements in places like Somalia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Chechnya, Kashmir and Algeria.

Bush has made this argument before and since Juan Cole dissects it far better than I, I shall merely repost his comment from his blog, Informed Comment:

“The Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines is just a small mafia gang of 90 persons that lives on extortion. It could no more overthrow the Philippines government than David Koreish could have taken over Texas. I don't actually think that terrorist analyst Marc Sageman found many, if any, persons engaged in international terrorism from Kashmir. There has been a lot of political violence in Kashmir, but there are two sides to it, and heavy-handed Indian military tactics have killed a lot of Kashmiris. The UN had decreed that a referendum would be held in Kashmir on its future, which India has ever since 1948 refused to allow. Likewise, Chechnya is a rugged area of clannish Muslims that the Russians conquered in the 19th century, and where they committed a sort of 19th century genocide in the course of "pacifying" it. Chechen demands for more autonomy after the fall of the Soviet Union were greeted by Yeltsin with enormous brutality, and Putin has not been wiser. Chechnya and Kashmir are sites of local struggles for more autonomy in a post-colonial context, and just reeling their names off as sites of an "ideology" of "hatred" does not tell us anything useful. The list Bush gave is highly deceptive. Chechnya and Kashmir are trouble spots, but they are crawling with Russian and Indian troops, respectively, and big powerful states have honed in on them like a laser. In the Philippines, you also have a Muslim separatist movement. But the most virulent terrorist organization is just a small handful of people. The Algerian military government won its costly struggle against political Islam during the past decade and more, in which perhaps 150,000 persons perished. The Islamists were roundly and decisively defeated. This victory requires the US to do what, now?”

First, these extremists want to end American and Western influence in the broader Middle East, because we stand for democracy and peace and stand in the way of their ambitions.

The problem with this statement is by ascribing this goal to terrorists, it distorts the legitimate grievances many Arabs have about American intervention in the region. In the Middle East historically, the United States does not stand for democracy and peace, but for propping up and/or supporting corrupt authoritarian governments. It is no great secret that bin Laden’s original target was not the US, but the Saudi Arabian leadership. He moved to the US only because of our support for that leadership. It seems pretty clear that in most Mid East governments, it is the government that remains pro-US because of the support it gets even while the public, the vast majority of which has nothing to do with terrorist organizations, are so staunchly anti-US.

It is perhaps telling that the one country in the region in which this trend is reversed, in which it is the public that is perhaps the most pro-US in the region, is Iran. In his book, Longitudes and Attitudes, Thomas Friedman notes (reasonably) that this is because Iranians cannot blame us for their own government failures. America, to them, does not meddle in their internal affairs, or do anything to support or protect their government.

Secondly, the militant network wants to use the vacuum created by an American retreat to gain control of a country, a base from which to launch attacks and conduct their war against non-radical Islam governments. Third, these militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.

This may be true as far as it goes but so what? Every country, including the US, has fringe groups that have the same goals. But as Juan Cole asks, “But who thinks this particular crackpot plan is in any way feasible? Look at America's friends in the Middle East-- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Yemen, Oman, Pakistan, etc., etc. Which one of them is on the verge of being taken over by al-Qaeda? Why, al-Qaeda had to plan out 9/11 from Europe because it could not operate in the Middle East! An al-Qaeda meeting in Cairo would have had more Egyptian government spies in attendance than radical fundamentalists!”

In his article, The War Bin Laden Wanted: How the U.S. played into the terrorist’s plan, Paul W. Schroeder makes a compelling case that our rhetorical response to bin Laden (hyping the organization up to a great national and international threat with tremendous power and potential) is exactly what AQ wanted.

“A revolutionary or terrorist movement has much to gain from getting a real government to declare war upon it. This gives the movement considerable status, putting it in some sense in the same league with the government with which it is now recognized as at war. No sensible government wishes to give such quasi-legitimacy to a movement it is trying to stamp out.”

Schroeder goes on to explain why bin Laden attacked us on 9/11, despite that fact that there was zero chance it would lead to an American retreat from the region. “The only sensible answer,” he says, “once the foolish and inadequate ones are discarded, is that Osama bin Laden anticipated the American reaction and wanted it. His purpose in attacking the United States directly in its homeland was to get the American government to do what it had not done in response to his previous attacks: to declare an all-out war against him and al-Qaeda and a worldwide War on Terror led and organized by the United States, with every other country in the world summoned to follow and support or be considered an enemy…. Deliberately provoking the United States into open, declared war against him, his forces, radical Islamism, and worldwide terrorism was bin Laden’s way of expanding a struggle he was already waging but losing, one he could not win on account of its insoluble contradictions, into a larger war free from internal contradictions that he could hope ultimately to win. To put it in a nutshell, Osama bin Laden needed the United States as a declared enemy to enable him to win his war against his primary enemies and thus achieve his goals.”

When Bush implies that bin Laden and AQ actually have the potential to “use the vacuum created by an American retreat to gain control of a country,” he does nothing but remind fence-sitters in the Middle East that instead of being a group of unorganized criminals, AQ has tremendous potential for political power, and might even be able to “establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.” Not a smart strategy in my mind.

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