Anti-war stirrings among Oregon officials, grassroots peace movement

Chris Lowe

October 7, 2010 is the ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. After nine years, support for the war in Afghanistan has been declining in recent months according to a number of polls, although some polls with differently framed questions give a different picture.

In this context a group of 27 state and local elected officials from across Oregon on October 7 released a letter (downloads a pdf document) calling on Congress to move as quickly as possible to get out of Afghanistan, citing its huge costs and harm to domestic priorities in the state, especially during the current period of severe unemployment. Names are listed at the end of this post; interestingly the Portland metro area is hugely underrepresented.

Likewise a coalition of grassroots organizations has called for an anti-war demonstration in Portland on Saturday October 9 , with the theme “Money for Jobs and Education, Not for Wars and Occupations.”

Meanwhile members of the Oregon Congressional delegation figure disproportionately and prominently in an effort to gain support for a bi-partisan sign-on letter to President Obama’s National Commission Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Commission calling for large military spending cuts.

The letter to the Catfood Commission, so-called because of the degree to which it has been stacked in favor of cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other safety net social programs, initiated by Representatives Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Ron Paul of Texas, calls on the Commission to look not only at direct war spending, but at baseline peacetime military budgets, when considering ways to cut overall government expenditure.

State and local officials' letter

The state and local officials call on the congressional delegation to

oppose funding for the war unless it is used for a safe and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops and contractors; to support legislation increasing congressional oversight of the war, including setting a timeline for military withdrawal; and to articulate and promote an alternative vision for a nonmilitary strategy in Afghanistan based on diplomacy, development and humanitarian aid.

They question whether nine years of war have made Americans or Afghans safer, and point out that the Obama administration itself estimates that there are only 50 to 100 members of Al Qaeda left in Afghanistan. Fighting Al Qaeda has been advanced by the president since he was a candidate as a main reason for raising emphasis on war in Afghanistan while reducing the size of the U.S. forces occupying Iraq.

The heart of the officials’ letter, however, is the effects of the enormous financial costs of the wars in limiting ability to meet needs at home, at a time of sharply declining state and local revenue and high unemployment.

Oregon schools have already shortened the school year, and may have to lay off teachers and staff. Programs for the elderly, disabled and poor families could be cut by as much as $158 million, raising health care costs and eliminating much‐needed in‐home care. More than 400 state workers are facing layoffs. Congress has struggled just to pass funding for programs like unemployment benefits that help our most vulnerable citizens, while easily passing billions of dollars to fund a misguided war.

By implication, that statement is also their answer to the question of why state and local officials are involving themselves in matters of foreign and military policy.

The letter concludes with a call for stronger congressional leadership in bringing the war to an end, in the name of a shifted emphasis in how we define “security”:

The Oregonians we represent need a congressional delegation fighting for policies like health care, education and jobs that will bring them real security and improve their lives.… On behalf of the Oregonians we represent, we call on you to demonstrate leadership by championing a new strategy in Afghanistan based on diplomacy, development, and humanitarian aid and work to bring the war in Afghanistan to an end.

Congressional sign-on letter to the Catfood Commission

To some degree the Oregon Democrats in Congress might argue that they have been providing such leadership. For instance, all four Democrats in the Oregon House delegation were among the 114 representatives and 102 Democrats to vote no on the last war supplemental in July.

However, that vote occurred only after the Democratic House leadership stripped out various domestic provisions in order to secure Republican votes needed to pass the supplemental. Such domestic provisions in the past often have led Oregon representatives to support war supplementals to which the provisions were attached. No longer is such a “butter through guns” approach workable, the state and local leaders’ letter suggests. Again by implication, strong leadership means finding ways to change the actions of Democratic congressional leaders and a Democratic administration who have relied on such tactics.

The extent of Oregon congressional support for the [Frank-Paul sign-on letter] ( perhaps indicates similar thinking already going on among Oregon members of Congress. Among the 49 representatives and senators who had signed by September 30th were Representatives Blumenauer, DeFazio and Schrader, and Senator Wyden. Moreover, Blumenauer was a very early signer, while Wyden is both an early Senate signer when the letter was opened to senators, and has taken responsibility for providing the office and staff for other senators to contact in order to sign on (information from an e-mail circulated by United for Peace and Justices’s Legislative Action group).

In concept the Frank-Paul letter goes deeper and broader than the state and local officials’ letter. While briefly mentioning the 19% of discretionary spending that goes to “direct war costs,” it is more concerned with the 37% (for a current total 56% of discretionary spending) that forms the “base” military budget.

Like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Frank-Paul letter raises questions about the need for some kinds of weapons systems with origins and purposes lying in the Cold War. But unlike Gates, the letter's signers do not propose simply to change the direction of spending on such systems to other purposes. And like both military administrators and peace activists historically, they call for investigation and reform in the process of military procurement, often seen as wasteful if not corrupt. But again, that is not all they do.

Rather, they question the entire global military posture of the United States, and the entire scale of military expenditure. According to the letter, the U.S. military budget represents 44% of all military spending in the world. This scale, they argue, is both unsustainable and unnecessary for U.S. military security in the post-Cold War world. In their view, the U.S. needs to

make an honest examination of the cost, benefit, and rationale of the extensive U.S. military commitment overseas… Years after the Soviet threat has disappeared, we continue to provide European and Asian nations with military protection through our nuclear umbrella and the troops stationed in our overseas military bases. Given the relative wealth of these countries, we should examine the extent of this burden that we continue to shoulder…

Such an argument is potentially radical stuff. The informal empire of the United States is to a very large extent embodied in military bases, numbering over 1000, spread around the world, and in the armed forces and weapons in those bases. Taken far enough, the Frank-Paul logic implies a much greater reliance on collective security and diplomacy, a much-reduced capacity to engage in wars of choice or aggression such as the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003, and a need to rethink U.S. foreign policy away from the arrogations based on the principle that might makes right that have so often characterized it since the end of World War II.

What the Frank-Paul letter gains in conceptual boldness, it loses back again in practical effectiveness. It is a letter to a commission having only advisory powers, and moreover a commission widely and deservedly seen as designed to lay the groundwork for an assault on Social Security, Medicare and other parts of the social safety net.

Further, as of September 30th. the Frank-Paul letter had only 49 signatories. There may have been a few more gained by October 7, the extended final deadline.

This limited scale of support indicates that little has changed in the sacralization of military spending, also reflected in spending rules that say increases in discretionary domestic spending must be offset, but not increases in for the military.

On the other hand, the existence of the letter at least indicates the beginnings of a coordinated effort in Congress to change the treatment of the tools and methods of violent domination as untouchable and holy.

Dire economic circumstances have put on the agenda the possibility that inflated military spending will not increase U.S. power, but lead to its collapse, as with many empires in the past. The question is whether those risks can change the political dynamics that make the military sacred in American politics.

Parts of those political dynamics are economic, with the interests both of many large corporations and many workers tied to military production. Parts are ideological, in which most conservatives (excluding some libertarians like Ron Paul) seek to seize the mantle of patriotism, tie it to militarism, and hold moderates, liberals and other progressives hostage to charges of being weak if they do not go along.

And, in recent decades, parts of the political dynamics are partisan, with the ideological pattern used more specifically by Republicans against Democrats. This has caused internal Democratic divisions, timidity, waffling, and a sense hopelessness to change things, leading to the kind of opportunistic pragmatism represented by signing off on war budgets because at least something good domestically is attached.

Demonstrations and a progressive conundrum

Which brings us to the march, rally and teach-in planned in Portland on Saturday, October 9. Past discussions suggest that many readers of BlueOregon are skeptical of this kind of politics in principle, seeing it as essentially expressive and ineffective, and sometimes as embodying an undeserved claim to moral superiority or purity.

Those critical views or feelings may be made stronger by the fact that there is an election coming up soon in which progressives and Democrats face stiff challenges if not disaster. Some who might otherwise be in sympathy with the demonstration, or even participate in such actions at times, will be doing canvassing, phone banking or other electoral work on Saturday, and think that those demonstrating ought to do the same. Others may at least think that, even if they aren’t able to do the electoral work themselves at that particular time.

I would like to suggest that matters are more complicated. The plain fact of the matter is that voting for Democrats under current circumstances is not enough to end our misbegotten wars or to desacralize spending on the military and related ideas of domination and destruction as embodying power and patriotism.

The ineffectiveness argument, with respect to wars and militarism, runs both ways.

Moreover, the actions and arguments of the elected officials discussed in this post point to an ineluctable intertwining of the costs of war and militarism with limits on our abilities to meet economic and fiscal crisis and human needs at home.

Those who choose to do or promote electoral work on Saturday will say with reason that if Republicans take the governorship, or make great gains in the state legislature and Congress, or both, those same domestic priorities will likewise suffer. But that does not make the moral and material costs of bad wars and excessive military spending any less real.

People may have honest motives of need to bear moral witness against what they regard as evil carried out in their names, or honestly believe that moments of commemoration like anniversaries must be seized to press against mistaken policies supported wholly or partly by both major political parties.

There is a genuine progressive conundrum here that will not be solved or evaporated by name-calling or motives mongering. I personally won’t be doing either kind of political work on Saturday due to family obligations, but I know and respect people who will be doing each. I suppose I most respect those who try, over time, to do both, as far as their circumstances permit.

Signers of the state and local officials' letter to the Oregon congressional delegation

Signers of the state and local leaders letter:

State senators: Alan Bates, District 3, Ashland, Bill Morrisette District 6, Springfield

State representatives: Sara Gelser, District 16, Corvallis, Phil Barnhart, District 11, Eugene, Michael Dembrow, District 45, Portland, Margaret Doherty, District 35, Tigard

County commissioners: Linda Modrell, Benton County, Corvallis, Annabelle Jaramilio, Benton County, Corvallis; Rob Handy, Lane County, Eugene, Pete Sorenson, Lane County, Eugene; Dick Schouten, Washington County, Hillsboro; Dave Gilmour, MD, Jackson County, Medford; Bill Hall, Lincoln County, Newport; Deborah Kafoury, Multnomah County, Portland, Judy Shiprack, Multnomah County, Portland: William Lennox, Wasco County, The Dalles

Mayors: Kitty Piercy, Eugene; Don Hampton, Oakridge

City councilors: Mike Bellstein, Corvallis, Patricia Daniels, Corvallis, Richard Hervey, Corvallis, Joel Hirsch, Corvallis, Jeanne Raymond, Corvallis; George Brown, Eugene, Andrea Ortiz, Eugene, Betty Taylor, vice president, Eugene City Council

Education Service Districts: Carol HorneDennis, Lane Education Service District, Eugene

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    Chris, Thanks. I did not know of the Saturday rally and now plan to be there. And thanks to all our leaders who signed the letter.

    Yes, we should get our US troops out of Afghanistan! Yes, we should cut the Defense Department budget significantly. I’ve blogged repeatedly on both issues. For example, see here and here.

    The peace issue you did not touch upon, nor do I think it is part of the rally, is the issue of what we need to do in Oregon to give peace with China its best chances going forward. It is the peace issue we can actually do something about on our own in Oregon. We can increase our teaching of Mandarin in the public schools and have school districts pay for a high school student to study in China for an academic year. Neither takes any additional funding. Unfortunately, the teachers unions (OEA and PAT, specifically) have not supported such legislative bills or local school district proposals. See my post “Teacher Can’t Be Both For Peace and Against Study Abroad” here.


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    I've posted a few photos from the anti-war rally here. It was very rainy.

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