Point of View Columns

A billion here, a billion there….

In a story that may or may not be apocryphal, the legendary Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen was once quoted during budget discussion as saying, “…..a billion here, a billion there, soon we will be talking about real money.” Keep in mind that at the time of that possible quote (the early 1960’s) the New York City subway was 15 cents, a Cadillac could be purchased for less than $5000 and an Ivy League education cost less than $20,000. Certainly a billion dollars was a lot of money.
I was reminded of this quote when reading an article in the Wall Street Journal to the effect that more than $3 billion has been openly flown out of Kabul International Airport during the past three years- http://www.wsj.com . It appears that cash “……packed into suitcases, piled onto pallets and loaded into airplanes…..” There is a very definite suspicion that this cash comes from money provided by the United States, the European Union and NATO for security, supplies and reconstruction. While $3 billion is the quoted estimate, in my own work of searching for absconded sovereign funds, the rule of thumb is that any public estimate should be doubled if even minimal accuracy is a goal – “a billion here, a billion there…..”
The missing billions in Afghanistan is an item of more than idle inquiry of course. Dozens of American soldiers are dying there every month. At least a trillion dollars has already been spent in what has been called “the graveyard of empires (ask the leaders of the British Empire and the former Soviet Union). Yet if you asked ten members of Congress or ten members of the Obama Administration or ten people on the streets of New York
City what would define success in terms of the American military action in Afghanistan you would get a reprise of the seven blind men describing an elephant. Depending on where you stand or what you hold in your hand you might think a snake (the trunk), a rope (the tail) a wall (the side), a leaf (the ear) or a tree (a leg).
Interesting proverbs notwithstanding, the reality is that too much blood and treasure is being squandered on a war that can never be “won” because no one knows what winning looks like. In the meantime we are treated to the tragicomic demolition of the career of General Stanley McChrystal for demeaning the ability and capability of the civilian component of the war effort, right up to President Obama. Of course he had to be fired. Deference of the military to the civilian branch of government is what has prevented coups and civil wars in times of trial and tribulation. Insofar as the general’s motivation for giving an on-the-record stream of consciousness interview for a period of more than two weeks is concerned, the word hubris comes to mind. Pride certainly does come before the fall.
The McChrystal firing and the elevation of General Petraeus to be the commander of U.S. forces in the Afghanistan Theater was not the big story. The big story was that President Obama stated that what transpired was “a change of personnel, not a change in policy”. And within that the statement the blossoming tragedy that is America in Afghanistan begins to spread its blood-soaked petals, continually fertilized by stolen treasure and the lives of lost warriors and the innocents. And one wonders what further cataclysm will initiate a change of policy.
In the months leading up to the announcement of his Afghanistan policy, President Obama pondered and studied and every available policy option. His deliberative abilities are without question. Therefore one can only wonder how that deliberation missed a reflective moment or two considering the history of Afghanistan. It is not credible that the President was unaware of the military disasters sustained by invaders of that country from Alexander the Great to the former Soviet Union with the British Empire tossed in as well.
Yet the policy that was enunciated by President Obama reflected orthodox military strategy – with enough soldiers anything can be conquered. But how many soldiers is enough? How many deaths of soldiers and innocents can be justified by the amorphous mission that can barely be articulated? And how long will the killing and the dying continue to be sustained by the American public?
It would seem that the answers to these questions are wrapped in the fog of the moment. Our vision is obscured by the BP oil spill and the gross corporate incompetence and the lax governmental oversight, which seems to continue to this day. We are distracted by the drama of L’Affaire McChrystal with Lincoln-McClellan and Truman-MacArthur analogues flying through the air with the greatest of ease. The World Cup and the South Carolina political follies are like streamers and confetti strewn through our consciousness. And a woman in Nevada runs for the United States Senate and proposes that Americans pay for health care using the barter system – chickens being a suggested currency.
And all the while American soldiers and Afghan men, women and children are dying. And all the while there is yet another monthly domestic plot against the American homeland revealed, thereby revealing the bankruptcy of a policy that presumes to fight terror against America by killing some undefined number of Taliban and/or al Qaeda operatives.
The irony is that the Barack Obama was elected President of the United States on a platform of change. Change in attitude, change in spirit and change in the manner in which American policy, and foreign, is calculated and articulated. Right now, the American war in Afghanistan is, in the final analysis, more of the same. We await change and pray that it arrives soon.