Why not cut the Pentagon budget?

April 28, 2011

By Judith LeBlanc

This week, the debate on the federal budget deficit continues to rage, but not in DC. It’s in town hall meetings across the country during the Congressional recess and on the editorial pages of our local newspapers. (Hope you are participating!)

Folks are mad as hell that the federal deficit is being put onto the backs of the oldest, the youngest and sickest in our communities through budget cuts on the domestic programs which take up 12% of the federal discretionary spending, while the over 50% that goes to the Pentagon continues to grow.

Across the political spectrum, think tanks, military specialists and some in Congress are beginning to agitate for cutting the Pentagon budget.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus proposed the People’s Budget. It approaches the deficit from the angle of strengthening our communities at a time of great need. It finds the revenue needed through proposals for the super rich and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. It frees up revenue by ending the wars and cutting the bloat out of the Pentagon budget.

FACT: Boeing, which received a $30 billion contract from the Pentagon to build 179 airborne tankers, got a $124 million refund from the IRS last year.

Conservatives upped the ante on cutting military spending right after the 2010 elections. Americans for Tax Reform, along with almost every major conservative think tank, sent a letter to the GOP leadership saying that it would be hypocritical to be elected to Congress on the call to cut the deficit and not put military spending on the chopping block as well.

It’s not a Right or Left issue. It’s a community survival issue. We, the peace movement, must join the budget struggles and debate to raise the volume on the need to move the money from wars and weapons back to our communities. It’s not a deficit crisis. It’s a revenue crisis.

What can you do?  K.I.S.S. or Keep It Simple & Specific!

1.     Attend a community meetings or conference calls organized by your Congressional representatives. Check their websites or call their district office for dates and locations. Tell them to take the lead from the People’s Budget for the way out of the deficit.

2.     Call your Senators. Let them know that instead of cutting programs we urgently need in our communities, cut the Pentagon budget as a first step to deal with the deficit. If you want to get specific about what to do to save a trillion dollars: download in Word format a Peace Action List of ways to reduce the Pentagon budget or just tell them to read last week’s Time Magazine!

3.     Join or organize a Brown Bag Lunch action on May 18. Peace Action is partnering with Progressive Democrats of America to do vigils at lunchtime outside of Congressional offices to end the wars and redirect funding for human needs.

4.     Write a letter to the editor. It’s not a deficit crisis. It is a revenue crisis. It is way past time to change the spending priorities to focus on our communities, instead of useless weapons and endless wars.


A Critical Decision Looming for US Military Involvement in Afghanistan

April 28, 2011

by Peter Deccy, Development Director, Peace Action & Peace Action Education Fund

The war in Afghanistan is now the longest in US history.  The costs are frightful.  Over 12,000 American troops have been killed or injured. A full accounting of Afghan causalities is difficult to come by, but some estimates place it in the hundreds of thousands.  The US will spend $120 billion this year on the war.  The cost can only rise.

With a record of corruption well documented, the Karzai government rules very little of the country outside Kabul and no one expects it could survive long without US military support.  There is little evidence to support the contention that the Taliban are anywhere close to defeat.

The war has spread to Pakistan where drone strikes have fueled anti-American sentiments and further destabilize the government there.  Polls show the majority of Americans have concluded the war isn’t worth it.  The Democratic National Committee passed a resolution in March demanding a “swift withdrawal” of troops and contractors.

The political pressure to end this war is increasing. Right now, as administration and military leaders debate the extent of the President’s promised July ‘drawdown’, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has introduced S. 186, the Safe and Responsible Redeployment of United States Combat Forces from Afghanistan Act of 2011.

Boxer’s bill would put the Senate on record supporting the beginning of troop withdrawal in July and exerts oversight by requiring a clear end date to US military involvement in Afghanistan.

This is a critical moment in our opposition to this terrible war.  Support for this bill will strengthen the hand of those in the Obama administration who want to end this war.  It’s a moment when the action you take can have a real impact on a crucial decision the President will soon make.

Contact your Senators and urge them to co-sponsor S. 186.


Peace Action Releases Annual Congressional Scorecard

April 28, 2011

While lawmakers talk about cutting spending, the record shows that they have failed to make real cuts within the federal government’s biggest ticket discretionary spending area. That’s military spending, including the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is according to a peace and security performance report on the 2010 session of the 111th Congress, released jointly by Peace Action, the nation’s largest foreign policy advocacy group, and its largest affiliate, Peace Action West.

Peace Action and Peace Action West’s Congressional Voting Record for the 110th Congress is available for download here.

In a year when many members of Congress campaigned on making draconian spending cuts to bring down the deficit, Congress passed more than $30 billion to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to $160 billion for 2010.

According to Rebecca Griffin, Peace Action West’s Political Director, “That giant $160 billion pot of war funding is the first place Congress should have been looking for cuts. The war is not making Americans safer, and we’re going deeper into debt to pay for it.”

Additionally, one of the strongest examples of congressional support for military waste was the $485 million for the alternate engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Pentagon made it clear they didn’t want the funding because they had already hired another company to build an engine for the jet. Yet Rep. Chellie Pingree’s (D-ME) amendment aimed at cutting it fell short by 38 votes.

“This $485 million was for a program that the Pentagon didn’t need or want,” said Paul Kawika Martin, Peace Action’s Political Director. “But because Congress insisted the funding stay in, that’s $485 million less we have to spend on education, health care, and real needs here at home. For instance, that money would cover a year’s salary for 7200 elementary school teachers.”


Jean Athey’s Third Post from Afghanistan – The Shura in the Porno Cafe

April 25, 2011

Afghanistan ranks 176th out of 178 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index, only slightly better than Somalia and tied with Myanmar. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that no matter who I speak with, the conversation quickly turns to corruption. In Afghanistan, corruption doesn’t mean just a little skimming off the top by a few people. Rather, it means a corrosive destruction of society based on a complete lack of justice. It means that the government’s sole function is to accept bribes. It means that a small group of families controls all the wealth in the country while the huge majority of Afghans barely survive. And it means that no one can feel safe because power is concentrated in the hands of a few, who are beyond any law.

“The Americans promised that they would bring justice to Afghanistan, but there is no justice,” Salim, executive director of an NGO, tells me. Because of the lack of justice, he claims, the suffering of ordinary people is now “over the limit,” but anyone who dares to speak up is dealt with quickly. It is too dangerous for local leaders, unaffiliated with the Mafia government, to arise now, he claims. “Ordinary people feel like they are in prison. The only thing we are permitted to say is ‘Yes, sir.’ This is a return to slavery,” he declares.

Salim contends that the actions of the U.S. have fostered corruption, and in the process dramatically increased the power of a few families to such a scale that even the U.S. cannot control them now.  Billions of dollars have been poured into the country, and continue to be, but still average people cannot feed their families. Where is all this money disappearing, Salim asks? He points out that during the Soviet occupation, at least people could eat, there was a basic level of subsistence for everyone. But now, immense amounts of money simply enrich the war lords who control the government, further solidifying their power. And the people go hungry.

Read more on the Peace Action Montgomery blog.


Civil Society and Nuclear Disarmament

April 23, 2011

The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research’s (UNIDIR)  journal Disarmament Forum published an issue late last year devoted to views on civil society and nuclear disarmament. Peace Action national board member (and peace movement historian and author) Larry Wittner was among the leading activists and scholars contributing articles to the journal. Larry’s article, titled Where is the nuclear abolition movement today?, leads off the discussion with a very good “state of the movement” analysis. The other articles, featuring policy analysis and movement strategy pieces, are thought-provoking as well, and certainly worth a read by those of us working to abolish nuclear weapons worldwide.

My take on the rich material in the journal is that it paints an accurate picture of a relatively small but determined movement struggling (in the good sense of that word) to gain traction for progress beyond the modest arms reduction and non-proliferation measures of the last few years, while also relating to the broader context of global, and especially U.S., militarism.

Two contradictions are particularly evident — the global public consensus in favor of nuclear abolition is, as we know, having little sway with the U.S. and other nuclear states (as nuclear disarmament has broad public support but low salience or priority status for voters and even many activists), and the “rhetoric vs. reality” issue of the Obama Administration’s words (inspiring) being undercut by its actions (modest or even disappointing in the case of its commitment to nuclear weapons complex “modernization”).

The various articles are available on the UNIDIR website, and you can also order the journal there as well. Please feel free to comment on the articles here on this blog, and to circulate this link.


One Cup of Tea – Jean Athey’s second post from Afghanistan

April 22, 2011

“Some questions cannot be answered,” my new friend says, when I press him as to what he would advocate as the way forward in Afghanistan. “I am bewildered, dismayed,” he says, “in that things are not going in the right direction for the people of Afghanistan now.”

He worked in the Afghan government for several years, wanting to help rebuild Afghanistan, but resigned his position when he finally lost any shred of hope that the government could ever function in a way that would benefit the Afghan people. He describes the Karzai government as a mafia, both in its organizational structure and its actions. Because of such statements, I must keep his identity secret so as not to place his life at risk. I will call him Mahmoud, but that is not his name.

I have met only a few people so far, but all are unanimous in their contempt for Karzai and his government. One man said, “Karzai is the worst president in the history of the country.”

Mahmoud asks, “Why has the US, knowing very well who Karzai is, kept him in power? Why did the US continue to support him following the fraudulent elections? Why has the US allowed war criminals to run the country?”  He points out that some of those in the highest positions of power in the government have committed known atrocities, such as cutting off women’s breasts.

Read more, and view Jean’s photos, on the Peace Action Montgomery blog.


On the Way to Afghanistan

April 21, 2011

Jean Athey of Montgomery County (MD) Peace Action (and Secretary of the national Peace Action board) is traveling to Afghanistan with Women for Afghan Women (WAW), here is her first blog post about her trip:

Dubai Airport, On the Way to Kabul

I am fortunate to have been invited to accompany Fahima Vorgetts of Women for Afghan Women (WAW) on a trip to visit the projects funded by WAW in Kabul and nearby villages. Fahima is an extraordinarily impressive Afghan woman who has lived in the US for many years now. She sells Afghan carpets and handicrafts, and with the proceeds, funds projects for women’s education, health care, and other critical needs. I will have the opportunity to talk to the beneficiaries of these projects first hand.

In addition to the women from the WAW projects, I plan to interview a wide variety of individuals, each of whom has a special and distinctive perspective. Friends who have visited Kabul on earlier trips have given me introductions, and so once I arrive, I will be able to set up appointments. My goal is to learn as much as possible in the short time I have.

Why Go to Kabul?

I am taking this trip in order to become a more effective peace advocate.  There is no better way to acquire knowledge and an in-depth understanding of a country than to visit it. Obviously, a two-week stay in only one city will not make me an expert on Afghanistan, but I believe it will give me a much better sense of the complexities of this war and of the country itself and will lend credence to my statements.

I especially hope to learn more about Afghan women.  I was very moved by Ann Jones’ descriptions of Afghan women she has met, as described in her stunning book, Kabul in Winter.

I want to make the war become more real to me and to people at home, with whom I will share the stories when I return. It is far too easy to ignore this war. It seems to be happening in another dimension, far removed from anything connected to our daily lives. And yet, it is OUR government that has further destroyed an already-devastated country—and OUR tax dollars that are paying for the bombs, drones, and bullets to continue the destruction.

A few years ago, I was arrested in the office of Sen. Barbara Mikulski for sitting-in as a protest of her continuing votes to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the arresting officer said something surprising to me: “If you believe the war is wrong, you have a moral imperative to do everything you can to stop it.”  I agree with him. Interviewing people on the other end of our violence will, I hope, help me to do a better job of meeting that moral imperative.

Some Questions I Have

What stories are rarely, if ever, covered in our own media?  For example, the film Rethink Afghanistan shows a very large refugee camp on the edge of Kabul where people from all over the country have come to escape the fighting and where they live in appalling conditions. Nowhere else have I seen anything about this refugee camp, and yet, thousands of people live there in horrendous conditions, according to the film; children die frequently in this camp from exposure, for example. What can I learn about this refugee camp?  Another issue that doesn’t get any attention in our media:  under what conditions do women receive, or not receive, medical care? And who are the women in the women’s prisons and why are they there?

What ideas do Afghans have for the best way forward?  Numerous studies and proposals have been put forward in the U.S. about next steps, but Afghan voices are rarely heard. I don’t expect that all Afghans will speak with one voice. I know that there is a diversity of opinion—not surprising in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country, with urban-rural and religious differences; however peace comes, it will bring gain to some groups and loss to others. So, it will be instructive to see what different people, from different groups, advocate.

How is corruption manifested? We have heard that the current government is hopelessly corrupt, and yet we are fighting to strengthen and further empower this government. How do ordinary Afghans experience corruption and what do they propose as the way to counter it?

What is the best way to advocate for women and children? We have learned that the “warlords” are just as oppressive towards women as the Taliban–the same warlords that largely compose the Afghan legislature and for whose benefit we are fighting. How can we design a strategy to move to peace, while protecting women and children from the warlords we have funded and empowered and from the Taliban that we fight? Which civil society organizations  are doing the most for women and children and how can we support them?

Random Thoughts

My flight was from Dulles to Dubai, where I am now waiting for a connecting flight.  Dubai Airport is probably the most beautiful, modern airport I’ve ever seen. The atrium features many large palm trees, and the ceiling in the departure lounge is three stories high. I was surprised to see kiosks for Cinnabon and Cold Creamery.

With eight seats across, the plane was big, and it was almost full and mostly male. I’d bet that 80% of the passengers were American contractors. One guy had on a Blackwater tee shirt. The man sitting in front of me on the plane was going to Kabul to do “human resources” work for three weeks for DynCorp. I wonder how much money is going to pay salaries and expenses of just those people on my flight.

My husband and I had some electrical work done on our house last week, and I mentioned to the electrician that I was going to Afghanistan in a few days. He said that his neighbor, a construction worker, has had a job in Afghanistan for three years, at the rate of $130,000, tax free, for every six month stint. How many contracting firms there are, I have no idea. I read that there are 800 NGOs in Kabul—an astonishing number—most run by foreign consultants. What’s clear is that a lot of people are making a lot of money off of this war, and most of them are not Afghans.

I find myself here in the airport closely studying women’s clothing. In preparation for the trip, I struggled over what to pack. Because I am bringing medical supplies in my baggage for the WAW clinics, I had extremely limited space for clothes. The few clothes I packed needed to be appropriate, by which I mean, clothing that would help me fit in. So, a scarf—yes, no problem. Long sleeves and no scoop neckline—okay, I have a couple of things that fit both criteria. But then, I read that the tops to go over pants should be long, mid-thigh length. Hard to meet all the requirements with what I had on hand, and it is possible that in the end, I’ll buy something in Kabul.

Here in the airport, where people come from all over the Gulf and other places, quite a few women are wearing chadors, the total black cover-up costume, and a veil with just a slit for the eyes—very similar to a burqa. I have a visceral, furious reaction when I see them.  The chadors look hot, bulky, difficult to see through, hard to walk in, awkward and generally uncomfortable. Initially and inexplicably, my fury is directed at the woman for wearing such a thing and then I remind myself that it is extremely unlikely that it is her choice. My rage is more appropriately directed at whatever patriarchal society she comes from and the men who control her life.

Some chador-covered women wear stylish high heels, even high heel platform shoes, that you can see peeking out below the hem of the chador.  I imagine that these women feel that dressing stylishly under the chador is a way to express their individuality and modernity. To me, such shoes are a different form of oppression from the black chador, one that originates in the West, and seeing these shoes reminds me that the oppression of women is worldwide. How sad to see someone exhibiting BOTH the Eastern and Western forms of oppression of women, as reflected in apparel.

In a couple of hours, I’ll get on the plane to Kabul. Electricity there is supposedly sporadic and Internet access uncertain. I hope to have the time and ability to send this blog post right away and another one soon.


Yard Sign in My ‘Hood

April 11, 2011

'Nuff said?


Revisiting Indian Point: Thoughts on DC Days

April 7, 2011

by Katherine Mullen, Peace Action Education Fund intern

Growing up in the mid-1990s and early 2000s in northern Westchester County, New York, I hardly knew the significance of having the Indian Point nuclear plant 11 miles away from my hometown of Yorktown Heights. Located 50 miles from Manhattan on the Hudson River, the Indian Point nuclear plant occasionally made headlines in our local newspaper, although our community was strangely silent on the issue and existed in a bubble of economic and social privilege that is common in most of Westchester County.

When I was a junior in high school, my social studies teacher raised the issue in class and made us think about the consequences of living so close to an aging nuclear plant. That year, in 2000, Indian Point had its most serious incident when a small radioactive leak from a steam tube forced the plant to close for 11 months. My social studies teacher was the only adult I knew in our community who talked openly about the nuclear plant with students.

The Indian Point nuclear plant faded from my mind even more as I left Yorktown Heights after college and moved to Maryland in 2005. But I was brought back to my days living near the nuclear plant this week when I participated with Peace Action staff and members in the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability’s (ANA) DC Days and met nuclear disarmament activists from across the country who live downwind and downstream from nuclear plants and weapons facilities. For three days, we lobbied our Representatives and Senators for cuts to nuclear weapons programs, funding for environmental cleanup, support for nonproliferation, and a commitment to oppose loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors. We asked them to not include nuclear energy in a “clean energy standard” and to end funding for plutonium fuel (MOX) programs.

Most of the Congressional staff whom I met listened, responded thoughtfully and asked questions in our nearly 30-minute-long lobby sessions. Some aides knew more about our issues than others and all promised to bring our views to his boss, who knew as little or as much as his or her staff.

When my team met on Tuesday with Eric Bohl, a staffer working for Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), several members of the group talked about the need for cleanup at the Kansans City Plant, told personal stories about their experiences working at the plant and the negative health effects from it. Bohl was straightforward in telling us that he has yet to have a conversation with Hartzler on nuclear weapons since she and her staff have only been in Congress for a few months.

Earlier that day, as my team was waiting to meet with Shane Knisley, legislative fellow for Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), we had the rare opportunity to meet the Senator, who casually walked into his office carrying a coffee cup and enthusiastically greeted us. After learning that we were from ANA, Cardin encouraged us in our work and said that more people need to know about the importance of our issues.

As a first-time activist to these issues and being brand-new to lobbying, I am more inspired with the stories and determination of the activists I met during DC Days than with the slow and frustrating political machine that is Congress. Their stories of working, living and organizing communities near nuclear plants, laboratories and weapons facilities and their expertise and passion has created a new, deeper consciousness for me that I never had growing up in the shadow of Indian Point. I know first-hand how a culture of silence and denial exists around the nuclear weapons complex. The continuing work of more than 80 activists in DC Days and their communities is essential in shattering the silence, raising consciousness and moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

 


Obama’s Prague Plus Two Years Agenda on Nuclear Disarmament

April 5, 2011

(And now for something completely different – a respite from the criticisms peace activists justifiably level at President Obama over Libya, Afghanistan, Iran, military spending, Israel-Palestine, Guantanamo, continued support for nuclear power even after the Fukushima disaster and many other issues, for a consideration of his steps in the last two years on nuclear weapons issues.)

On April 5, 2009, President Barack Obama delivered a well-received speech in Prague on his vision for nuclear disarmament. The speech maintained consistency with positions he had taken as a candidate for president, and was noteworthy for specific incremental steps toward a nuclear weapons-free world as well as the president’s advocacy of nuclear weapons abolition (though he disappointingly said it would perhaps not happen in his lifetime – the president is a relatively young man, only a year older than me, and I certainly intend to see the scourge of nuclear weapons eliminated in my lifetime!).

Today, the Associated Press published a concise report card on the state of play of the objectives Obama set out in the Prague speech. This list omits the very bad “nuclear modernization” funding issue (the promised $185 billion over the next decade for “modernizing” the nuclear weapons production complex and delivery systems, supposedly necessary to secure Senate ratification of New START). However, there are two potentially promising (unsourced) tidbits regarding possible further cuts in strategic nuclear weapons independent of Russia and a fissile material cut-off outside the stalled Conference on Disarmament process.

Our colleague Stephen Young at the Union of Concerned Scientists proposed concrete, achievable next steps regarding the doctrine or underlying purposes and policies for U.S. nuclear weapons in a blog post on All Things Nuclear.

My own view, held for some time now, is the president and his administration need to become more assertive on executive actions the president can take that don’t necessitate long, difficult treaty negotiations and then extortionist Senate ratification battles. If this doesn’t happen, and the administration stays wedded to an incremental process of checking off things Bill Clinton didn’t get done in the 90’s (such as Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ratification, which looks very unlikely given the make-up of the Senate), the Prague agenda may well stall with fairly little progress toward the laudable goals outlined in the speech.

In addition to the two possible steps mentioned in the AP article and others in Stephen’s blog post, President Obama could reverse course and state that “nuclear modernization” is not in our country’s interest, in security or financial terms; throw real political and diplomatic support behind next year’s planned conference on a Weapons of Mass Destrcution-Free Zone (the only real solution to concerns about Iran’s possible pursuit of nuclear weapons and Israel’s actual arsenal of over 200 nukes); and announce the initiation of international negotiations for a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons (under which subsidiary or incremental issues could be addressed).

Taking these bold initiatives would certainly invite howls of protest from the Right and from the nuclear priesthood, but it would put them on the defensive and force them to defend their indefensible “nuclear weapons forever” policies, and put the U.S. in the leadership role it should be playing, not just on non-proliferation or incremental nuclear arms cuts, but for abolishing nuclear weapons globally.

 


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