If you think Alan Grayson was tough on Republicans over health care, wait until you hear him talk about Afghanistan.
The freshman Florida congressman, who represents a moderate district that includes parts of Orlando, rode into office on Barack Obama’s coattails last year—and has generally supported the president’s domestic agenda. But his loyalty does not extend to military matters—on which he’s shown a fiercely independent streak. Grayson is one of 51 House Democrats who have voted against funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and favors withdrawing all troops from the latter theater, as soon as possible.
“There is no need to occupy other countries against their will,” Grayson told The Daily Beast in an interview. “The British gave up on that 60 years ago. The Soviet Union gave up on that 20 years ago. What are we waiting for?”
“Grayson has been very strong from Day One on this issue, when there were very few of us talking about it,” says filmmaker Robert Greenwald. “First of all, he’s got a huge amount of relevant knowledge. Second of all, he’s fearless.”
Grayson, who became a Democratic hero overnight for his bare-knuckled assault on the GOP’s health-care opposition, is rapidly emerging as one of the leading voices of the anti-war left. He brings a certain authority to the cause; a defense lawyer in his previous life, he hauled Iraq War defense contractors into court, and racked up huge settlements—giving him both a substantive expertise and the kind of financial cushion that allows him to speak his mind with impunity.
He’s arriving at a crucial juncture in the Afghanistan debate. From his right, the president faces pressure to ramp up troop strength, as recommended by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and endorsed by lawmakers like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). From the left, Obama has been lobbied to leave the force size alone or even begin drawing it down in favor of devoting more resources to chasing al Qaeda in Pakistan. The debate threatens to split Obama’s progressive base and undercut whatever boost the president might receive from a health-care victory.
Grayson is hardly alone. Recently, online juggernaut MoveOn.org, one of the most important players in the health-care debate on the left, began lending its weight to the anti-war effort, pushing for an exit strategy in Afghanistan. Activist filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who built a liberal following by taking on Fox News in years past, has been steadily promoting his antiwar film, Rethink Afghanistan. This month, Grayson attended a screening of Rethink Afghanistan, then delivered a speech to the audience warning that aid to that country was “the fig leaf to try and make Congress and the American people feel better about war and about killing”—arguing that any nation-building efforts there are “fatally flawed.”
According to Greenwald, Grayson has helped galvanize the burgeoning movement.
“Grayson has been very strong from Day One on this issue, when there were very few of us talking about it,” Greenwald told The Daily Beast. “First of all, he’s got a huge amount of relevant knowledge. Second of all, he’s fearless to say it like it is: [The war] doesn’t make any sense and it’s not going to make us more secure.”
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) is another anti-war freshman joining Grayson on the barricades. She made headlines this year by voting against funding for the war to protest what she said was a lack of strategy in the region. According to Edwards, who visited Afghanistan before her vote, the war needs significant civilian aid rather than more combat troops—as well as a much clearer long-term strategy.
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By John Nichols at The Nation
The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has reached its “sell-by…” date.
A majority of Americans now tell pollsters the mission was a mistake. Ninety-eight members of the House – including liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans – have cosponsored Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern’s resolution asking the Pentagon to develop an exit strategy.
Unfortunately, the generals who run wars, and the defense contractors who profit from them, want to keep U.S. troops on the ground in that distant land. And President Obama is under pressure to surge tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops into “the graveyard of empires.”
The people have wisely turned against an occupation that has cost the United States too many lives and too many hundreds of billions of dollars while only making a bad situation worse for the Afghan people — especially, according to feminists in Kabul, women.
Unfortunately, the people do not have the power to end wars that they know have gone awry.
So it falls to Congress to demand an exit strategy.
We’ll explore the efforts to do that on Friday night in Manhattan, when Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and I join Congressman McGovern for a forum and film screening with filmmaker Robert Greenwald, director of Rethink Afghanistan.
Ramping up support for McGovern’s resolution is Job 1 in the struggle to bring the troops home and cede responsibility for Afghanistan to the people who live there – perhaps with an assist from an international entity, such as the United Nations, that can offer peacekeeping and development aid.
The deeper questions raised by the Afghan imbroglio will be explored Friday and Saturday in Washington, where the “Who Decides About War?” conference on war powers, law and democracy is being held at the Georgetown Law School.
Joe Biden met with CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus this morning to talk about Afghanistan — an issue that has pushed the vice president into the spotlight, landing him on the cover of the latest Newsweek.
I have an idea for how he can capitalize on all the attention, and do what generations to come will always be grateful for: resign.
The centerpiece of Newsweek’s story is how Biden has become the chief White House skeptic on escalating the war in Afghanistan, specifically arguing against Gen. McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy there.
The piece, by Holly Bailey and Evan Thomas, opens with details of a September 13th national security meeting at the White House. Biden speaks up:
“Can I just clarify a factual point? How much will we spend this year on Afghanistan?” Someone provided the figure: $65 billion. “And how much will we spend on Pakistan?” Another figure was supplied: $2.25 billion. “Well, by my calculations that’s a 30-to-1 ratio in favor of Afghanistan. So I have a question. Al Qaeda is almost all in Pakistan, and Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And yet for every dollar we’re spending in Pakistan, we’re spending $30 in Afghanistan. Does that make strategic sense?” The White House Situation Room fell silent.
Being Greek, I’m partial to Biden’s classic use of the Socratic method — skillfully eliciting facts in a way that lets people connect the dots that show how misguided our involvement in Afghanistan has become.
It’s been known for a while that Biden has been on the other side of McChrystal’s desire for a big escalation of our forces there — the New York Times reported last month that he has “deep reservations” about it. So if the president does decide to escalate, Biden, for the good of the country, should escalate his willingness to act on those reservations.
What he must not do is follow the same weak and worn-out pattern of “opposition” we’ve become all-too-accustomed to, first with Vietnam and then with Iraq. You know the drill: after the dust settles, and the country begins to look back and not-so-charitably wonder, “what were they thinking?” the mea-culpa-laden books start to come out. On page after regret-filled page, we suddenly hear how forceful this or that official was behind closed doors, arguing against the war, taking a principled stand, expressing “strong concern” and, yes, “deep reservations” to the president, and then going home each night distraught at the unnecessary loss of life.
Well, how about making the mea culpa unnecessary? Instead of saving it for the book, how about future author Biden unfetter his conscience in real time — when it can actually do some good? If Biden truly believes that what we’re doing in Afghanistan is not in the best interests of our national security — and what issue is more important than that? — it’s simply not enough to claim retroactive righteousness in his memoirs.
Though it would be a crowning moment in a distinguished career, such an act of courage would likely be only the beginning. Biden would then become the natural leader of the movement to wind down this disastrous war and focus on the real dangers in Pakistan.
The number of those on both sides of the political spectrum who share Biden’s skepticism is growing. In August, George Will called for the U.S. to pull out of Afghanistan and “do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units.”
Former Bush State Department official and current head of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haas argued in the New York Times that Afghanistan is not, as Obama insists, a war of necessity. “If Afghanistan were a war of necessity, it would justify any level of effort,” writes Haas. “It is not and does not. It is not certain that doing more will achieve more. And no one should forget that doing more in Afghanistan lessens our ability to act elsewhere.”
In Rethink Afghanistan, Robert Greenwald’s powerful look at the war (and a film Joe Biden should see right away), Robert Baer, a former CIA field operative says, “The notion that we’re in Afghanistan to make our country safer is just complete bullshit… what it’s doing is causing us greater danger, no question about it. Because the more we fight in Afghanistan, the more the conflict is pushed across the border into Pakistan, the more we destabilize Pakistan, the more likely it is that a fundamentalist government will take over the army — and we’ll have Al-Qaeda like groups with nuclear weapons.”
And Senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam vet and Biden confidant, told Newsweek that, while “there are a lot of differences” between Vietnam and Afghanistan, “one of the similarities is how easily and quickly a nation can get bogged down in a very dangerous part of the world. It’s easy to get into but not easy to get out. The more troops you throw in places, the more difficult it is to work it out because you have an investment to protect.”
And doing so, as we’ve seen, usually means losing more and more of that “investment”: each of the last six years of the Afghanistan war has been more deadly than the one before.
As President Obama and his advisers debate strategy for the Afghanistan war and its related crisis in Pakistan, a factor that so far has not intruded on their discussions is emerging: the antiwar movement is showing signs of strength.
In Congress and around the country, a segment of the progressive movement that helped elect Obama is coalescing around a critique of the eight-year war. That cohort, of unknown size as yet, is skeptical of an open-ended commitment; willing to provide Obama with friendly criticism; unwilling to accede to a second escalation of U.S. troops under the new administration; and searching for an exit strategy. Powerful progressive groups and members of Congress that quietly accepted Obama’s infusion of 21,000 new troops for Afghanistan this spring, however uncomfortably, are finding their footing to oppose the current one, even if they are not yet demanding fixed dates for troop withdrawals. It is unclear what effect they will ultimately have on the debate, but, buoyed by polls demonstrating the war’s unpopularity, they complicate Obama’s decisionmaking.
Progressives are “asking ourselves what we’ve not accomplished in last eight years that we could possibly accomplish over the next eighty,” said Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), a favorite of liberals and an opponent of the Afghanistan war, “and more and more, the answer is: nothing.”
That hope is frustrated by the present debate. For the past two weeks, cabinet-level officials and military commanders have met with the president at the White House to consider whether to continue with an expansive military-led effort in Afghanistan aimed at weakening al-Qaeda’s insurgent allies through bolstering the Afghan government or whether to focus the mission around harassing al-Qaeda directly in its tribal Pakistan safehaven. While officials have stated to reporters that all assumptions are subject to examination, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a joint appearance with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday, said withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is not under consideration. That means the baseline resource commitment under discussion is 68,000 U.S. troops, the highest troop deployment America has ever sent to the beleaguered central-Asian country.
Grayson is hardly the only Afghanistan skeptic in Congress, even varieties of congressional skepticism are still inchoate within the Democratic caucus. After a meeting at the White House on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rolled her eyes when her Senate counterpart, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), pledged support for Obama’s ultimate decision. “Whether we agree with it, [and] vote for it, remains to be seen,” she said. Two days later, Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), the chief House appropriator, called a counterinsurgency strategy “futile” and expressed doubt that the U.S. could reverse Taliban advances at acceptable cost.
In the Senate, Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) has called for a “flexible timetable” for withdrawal. While the influential Armed Services Committee chairman, Carl Levin (D-Mich.), remains a supporter of the war, he has balked at a call for a second troop increase this year, preferring to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces instead. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, also remains a cautious supporter of the war, although he has backed away from what he once called a “global counterinsurgency” by holding a series of recent hearings in which he raised probing questions about the prospects for successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.
Late last month, the antiwar movement received an infusion of support from a pillar of the new progressive online infrastructure: MoveOn.org, the progressive netroots organization with over 5 million members, and a staunch ally of Obama’s. Despite staying largely out of the spring debate on escalation, MoveOn, which ardently opposed the Iraq war, began emailing supporters to urge the president to adopt a “clear exit strategy” for Afghanistan, and on Sept. 29, sent out a request to its members to host country-wide screenings for filmmaker Robert Greenwald’s antiwar documentary “Rethink Afghanistan.”
Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn’s director of political advocacy and communications, explained that the organization’s membership, so far, wanted “to understand what the plan is” in Afghanistan. “Escalation with no exit strategy is all too familiar to them” from the Iraq debate, Hogue said, as are policy prescriptions “ramrodded from hawks outside and inside” an administration. The overall decline in public support for the Afghanistan war is reflective of MoveOn’s supporters, Hogue added. Recent polls have found that only 47 percent of the country thinks the war is worth fighting, and up to 70 percent of Democrats oppose it.
Escalation in Afghanistan comes as an anomaly to many Democrats. Obama on Friday received an unexpected Nobel Peace Prize, yet he campaigned for the presidency on a platform of recommitting to the Afghanistan war and increased troop levels by almost half within weeks of taking office. “One of the reasons [progressives] supported his campaign is because they believe in his multilateral approach to foreign policy issues,” Hogue said, including an increased reliance on diplomacy and a “clear plan on the ground” for the war.
Many of us who marched against the Vietnam War 40 years ago have a terminal case of déjà vu over Afghanistan as we blunder into our ninth year of bombing and occupation. More than 90 percent of U.S. funding there goes to military purposes, and we still aren’t winning hearts or minds. Our Nobel Prize-winning president promised to “forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan,” but so far he has only threatened to escalate our troop level by tens of thousands.
In the film, Greenwald and his team ask Afghans themselves if American troops are making them safer. The answers are no, no, no, a thousand times no.
So thank goodness for documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald, a latter-day saint in my book. It took Greenwald 40 years to figure out how to be the activist he was not during Vietnam. But he’s making up for lost time by getting us to rethink what’s going on in Afghanistan.
Greenwald was born into the back end of the Silent Generation, in 1943. Despite being raised in the hot pink sandbox of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he joined a common fraternity for boomers in college—those whose only resistance was to the draft.
Greenwald went on to a successful career in Hollywood, having made more than 50 movies, including a documentary about the 1972 Olympics, 21 Hours in Munich, and The Burning Bed, starring Farrah Fawcett. His latent activism didn’t surface until three events coincided: the September 11 attacks, his father’s death, and his own arrival in middle age. “I was very well compensated for my work in commercial film and TV,” says Greenwald. He could afford to take up a mission of social change. He launched Brave New Films in 2006 to make bold documentaries by accepting donations for funding and taking no compensation.
If you follow my seriousish blog at DownWithTyranny with any regularity you probably also know that as a hobby I run a fun travel blog on the side. I ran away from home when I was 13 — hitchhiked to Florida (though I only got as far as the New Jersey Turnpike where I was arrested) — and I’ve been on the road ever since. I lived overseas for almost seven years and I normally spend at least a month out of the U.S. every year — a habit I got into in the late 1970s. Lately I’ve been to Mali and Bali and I’m putting the finishing touches on a trip to Albania. When I write about foreign policy questions I like to think my time abroad informs what I have to say.
There aren’t many members of Congress who have traveled extensively out of the country. In his delightful book, Fire-Breathing Liberal, Rep. Robert Wexler marvels at how many of his Republican colleagues seem to think not possessing a passport is a badge of honor! Last weekend I spent some time with Rep. Barbara Lee who is no longer surprised when she talks with Republicans who haven’t been — and don’t want to be — outside of the U.S. The opposite extreme would be one member who certainly qualifies for the Century Club, Rep. Alan Grayson. When I told him I was going to Mali he was able to give me some travel tips for remote, seldom visited villages like Bandiagara and Sanga, and a few weeks ago he told me about some odd customs I can expect to experience in Albania.
In 1969 I drove to Afghanistan. Between then and 1972 I spent over half a year there, and never spent one single day in a hotel. Traveling from London, through then still-Communist nations like Hungary and Bulgaria, then through Turkey and Iran and into Herat, the most important component doesn’t feel like mileage, but time. Sure, I traveled in space; but what seemed far more profound was a trip back in time. Afghanistan was like being in the 11th Century, not the turn of the 20th. And I noticed immediately that the people there don’t recognize a country called “Afghanistan.” In Herat and Kandahar, respectively the 3rd and 2nd biggest towns, there was resentment towards the “central government” as a pretension — backed by foreign military equipment — of Kabul, the biggest town and what foreigners insist is the capital of “the country.” The only part of the discussion of Afghan policy more awkwardly missing from the calculations that there is no Afghanistan, is that all the men there — yes, all of them — are stoned all day, every day on the strongest hash (much of it opiated) on God’s earth. I know West Point was just named the best college in America by Fortune but do they teach them that stuff there?
This week Robert Greenwald debuted his intense new documentary, Rethink Afghanistan in Washington, DC. Rep. Grayson was on a panel and made some remarks worth taking a look at
“Sick for Profit”: Robert Greenwald Documentary Exposes Salaries, Claim Denials of Healthcare Profiteers
Sick for Profit, a documentary by Robert Greenwald, contrasts the salaries of insurance company CEOs with the experiences of policyholders denied medical claims. We play an excerpt.
Today, the Obama administration is having its fourth cabinet-level meeting on what to do about the war in Afghanistan, a conflict now eight years old. As the president and his team decide on a course of action, documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald has debuted “Rethink Afghanistan,” a politically-minded documentary being released in segments online for free (you can see the film in its entirety on his Web site).
In a phone interview with Speakeasy, Greenwald said that two events motivated him to make the film: a Christmas trip to Vietnam, where he saw “wonderful things happening between us and Vietnam,” and his re-reading of David Halberstam’s book on the war, “The Best and the Brightest.”
“The argument we make in the film is that there are a lot of unanswered questions about the war: How many troops? What’s the cost in lives and treasure?” says Greenwald. “In the film, we try to ask these fundamental core questions. It’s not just 10,000 troops there, or 12,000 there, it’s why troops at all?” He added, “Those are the questions we need to ask, and those are the questions you need to ask in a democracy.”
During a recent panel about the film, Greenwald said his production company, Brave New Films, took a lot of heat for the movie’s subject, and many donors backed away, citing deference to Obama and the notion that Afghanistan “was the right war.” Greenwald also said this was the first time he had ever released a movie entirely online, saying it made it easier to get many people talking about “rethinking” policy in Afghanistan prior to its full release.