Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The War in Afghanistan: A Conservative Feedback Loop

The day President Obama gave his big speech on Afghanistan earlier this month, I wrote that I wanted to better explain why my opinion of the war in Afghanistan is souring at the very time the president is pouring in more troops. In that post I said that some of the goals the United States government had when it invaded Afghanistan have already been met (overthrowing the Taliban and striking a blow against Al Qaeda), while other goals are no longer aided by a large-scale American presence in Afghanistan (killing or capturing UBL and shoring up a new Afghan government).

But I've been developing another objection to the war in Afghanistan, one that isn't really specific to Afghanistan at all.

Chris Bowers at OpenLeft.com writes about what he calls "positive feedback loops for progressives," or progressive feedback loops. By his definition progressive feedback loops are progressive policies that "make America a more progressive place, and thus make all other progressive policy more likely to be enacted." For example, passing the Employee Free Choice Act would increase union membership, and stronger unions would help counterbalance corporate power, improve wages and conditions for workers, and boost progressive political candidates. This would help make everything else on the progressive wish list easier to accomplish. There are obviously lots of other potential progressive feedback loops, and Chris describes seven in his article.

Basically, I've begun to view the war in Afghanistan as a conservative feedback loop. Whether the war is just or not and whether our strategy is right or wrong, I think the war makes America a more conservative place and makes it easier to pass conservative legislation and defeat progressive legislation. The war helps create a political environment that is favorable to the long-term conservative movement, redistributing more of the nation's power and wealth into fewer hands. That in itself does not make the war wrong. It's just another thing that makes the war costly for the vast majority of Americans, which it already is in more ways than one.

How is the war in Afghanistan a conservative feedback loop?
1) The most obvious way that the war boosts the conservative movement is by diverting resources from domestic and social needs. Every dollar that goes to a hellfire missile is a dollar that does not go to universal healthcare, clean energy, education, and public works projects. It's a tried and true conservative strategy to ratchet up the deficit with tax cuts and military spending and then use the deficit they just created as an excuse to slash social programs that improve peoples' lives. Why they do that is a subject for another post, but war in general helps them do it. Even this month, Republicans in Congress have tried to use Afghanistan to block or delay health care reform, arguing essentially that the tax dollars and the attention of Congress would be better spent in Central Asia than America.

2) The war in Afghanistan--like most of our wars--concentrates power at the top of American society. Every president claims unconstitutional special powers in wartime. The Bush administration took this to new heights with the "unitary executive" doctrine, the "Patriot Act," domestic spying, and torture. Even today we take it for granted that our Democratic president bombs inside countries on which Congress has neither declared war nor authorized the use of military force. It's totally up to him, cuz he's the prez, and we're cool with that because, "We're at war." But an exalted executive is only part of the problem. "We're at war," covers a multitude of sins, like dealing no-bid contracts to weapons manufacturers while the working class pays the human toll. In short, consider who makes the decisions and who gets rich versus who bleeds and dies, and we see that long wars tend to lift up the powerful and push down everyone else.

3) The third (and hardest to quantify) way that the war in Afghanistan feeds conservative power is by perpetuating a culture of racial and religious fear. This isn't specific to the war in Afghanistan, nor, I think, is Afghanistan even a particularly bad example of it in history. But it takes fear and hatred to sustain a long foreign war, and somebody's gotta drum it up. Think of all the times you've heard, "Islam is an inherently violent religion," since 9/11. It's like, what exactly is being proposed in that discussion? Endless global religious war? A couple years ago, a relative said to me in a frank discussion, "Arabs are crazy. They're just crazy," like it was a genetic fact. Where is this coming from? It's almost like someone wants us to fear and hate all Muslims and Middle Easterners. And the fact that every time the president talks about terrorism he has to say something like, "Our struggle is not with Islam itself," or "The vast majority of Muslims love peace," I think proves my point.

We know that the conservative power structure in America has a history stoking and exploiting white fear of brown people. We'd be remiss to think that is all behind us. It's as true as it is tiresome to contemporary American ears: The conservative status quo has always benefited from dividing working people against themselves, playing one group against another. Conversely, the progressive movement has always been most powerful when it displays solidarity across racial, religious, and gender divides. It's divide and conquer from above vs. unite and conquer from below. Our actions in Afghanistan--and the culture we create at home to justify them--will fuel one side or the other in this very old struggle.
So these are three ways I think the war in Afghanistan acts as a conservative feedback loop. Notice that each of the points could be applied to almost any foreign war. I'm not making some backdoor argument that all war is wrong. I am saying that there is a long-term, sociopolitical cost to this kind of war that often goes uncounted. If you add this to the other more obvious costs of the war in Afghanistan, what do you think? Is it worth fighting?


Veronica said...

I like the language you use about “feedback loops” here, and I think you’re absolutely onto something—I’ve been thinking along similar lines lately about education AND about war in this country. I work (or, worked, as the case may turn out to be) for the University of California, where we’ve been seeing shocking slashes of budgets and funds. There continues to be a lot of rhetoric about the importance of public education, the importance of diversity in education, etc., and it kept striking me as strange—if you care about diversity, if you care about educating the entire public, why are you slashing funds from the part of our department (Writing) that teaches basic, introductory college-level composition (i.e. composition for students who did not go to high-ranking high schools with AP classes or who struggle with English composition because they were raised in multilingual households, i.e. composition for (for the most part) students of color, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, multilingual students)? It doesn’t make sense. BUT, I started to realize that if you think of the goal of public education as NOT educating a diverse population but instead feeding into the military-industrial complex, it makes perfect sense to educate only an elite portion of the population, and drive others away from higher ed and toward the army.

Same deal, in my mind, as the war: if you think of the goal as what the rhetoric is about—“spreading democracy,” ensuring our safety and freedom in the world, etc.—then it seems to make no sense to send in more troops, or to risk killing more innocent civilians in a country whose very unrest makes us feel unsafe. It would make more sense to go the sort of Peace Corps-esque route we talked about in one of your previous posts. But if you think of the real goal as something along the lines of this conservative feedback loop, then suddenly the escalation of war makes perfect sense.

Sorry for the long-winded reply; thanks for the interesting post!

Camp Papa said...

BTM, a very cogent argument. I despair of ending this mess with anything that even resembles a satisfactory outcome.

Veronica, I spent 33 years working in a public school system, mostly with low-income and minority students. I came to see the unrelenting right-wing attack on public education as a part of a larger effort to marginalize those students. Although it makes no sense to me, it seems as if someone has made the calculation that it serves the interest of the monied class to transform the US into a third world country with a population of a very tiny elite, a small middle class, and a huge under-class. In the long run, how can that do anything but breed violence and revolution?

Chris said...

It's not worth fighting. I'm disappointed in the latest troop surge. This war may or may not decrease terrorism in the world. That's the only benefit that I see. The hope that it may decrease. It's gambling and sacrificing human lives for a chance at a safer world (safer for who?)in the future.

Barack Obama and the Last Crusade at a cineplex near you!

Becky said...

Great post, and great follow-up, Veronica. I hadn't heard of the idea of feedback loops, but it makes total sense to me. And in addition to the aspects you list, I think there is just an overall conservative feedback machine to creating certain habits of mind in the electorate, particularly, maybe, in young people who are forming their ideas of what's "normal." Think of college freshman right now--we've been fighting the "War on Terror" since their early childhoods.

Dave said...

Interesting points. If I may paint with very broad strokes for a moment... In general I think the effect/purpose of conservative feedback loops is to accumulate power into the hands of the few who are already powerful. Well, you can't give power to someone without taking it from someone else, so that's what most conservative policies do.

Now consider quality public education. My God, it's like a painfully bright light to the hard right wing! Quality public education seeks to empower everyone with the tools they need to be thinking citizens rather than just consumers of what is fed to them. Citizens rather than consumers. Will we be manipulators of the world around us or just parts of a machine manipulated by someone else? Education goes a long way toward answering that question.

Veronica, I think you're right. California kids who can no longer afford a good education are more willing recruits to an army where they will have no voice and more willing applicants to a low-wage economy that requires a permanent underclass.

Keep up the good fight! Public education is a progressive feedback loop. But empowering every young person necessarily means that those at the top have less relative power, so the aristocracy will always be annoyed by a thriving UC system.