The tragedy of war could put Obama’s agenda at risk

If those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, then America really needs to crack the books, according to Marc Pilisuk. 

As a new, hopeful chapter in American history dawns, the Saybrook psychology faculty member is warning that the mistakes we’ve made before will be no less disastrous if we make them a second time around. 

The last American president who promised to fundamentally change American society was Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ).  The Great Society, the War on Poverty, the civil rights movement:  his progressive agenda stretched from top to bottom and promised to fundamentally reinvent America to be more just, equitable, and prosperous.

Both the national unity and the money needed to make this a reality disappeared in the jungles of the war in Asia. 

“LBJ had big dreams.  Big plans.  It was all sacrificed to the war,” Pilisuk remembers.  “Lyndon Johnson, who could have been a great president, walked out in shame.”

Last week President Obama ordered 20,000 more troops to go to Afghanistan, giving Pilisuk a sense of déjà vu.  
In 2009 Pilisuk worries, Obama could be headed down the same bleak road, sacrificing a promising, desperately needed, progressive agenda to a war that he didn’t start but is expected to finish. 

“The idea that the war in Afghanistan is just a matter of tactics and strategy that the clever administration will deal with is the same idea America had about Vietnam,” Pilisuk said.  “If we treat Afghanistan the same way, tomorrow all the plans for health care and a green economy can go down the tubes just like the War on Poverty did for Johnson.”

Pilisuk was active in the antiwar movement in the 60s: in 1965 he helped organize the nation’s first “teach-in” at the University of Michigan.  After that he was let go from a faculty appointment at Purdue University for writing an anti-war letter to the New York Times.  He’s studied the underlying causes of war for much of his professional life, and recently published a book on the subject, Who Benefits From Global Violence and War: Uncovering a Destructive System. 

Now, he says, whenever he hears the word “Taliban” in the media, he’s reminded of the way newspapers used to portray the Viet Cong.

“People talk about it as though it were an alien force, not a popular movement,” he says.  “In fact the Taliban, like the Viet Cong, was a popular movement – the Taliban didn’t control 90 percent of Afghanistan by force alone.” 

By failing to understand the war it’s in, the enemy it’s fighting, and why, America is almost certain to prolong the conflict.  In addition to the tragedy that will cause abroad, it could have dire consequences at home.

One consequence will be the fiscal cost of a prolonged war – money spent on bombs that could be spent on America’s future.  “As with any military escalation, there’s a tremendous amount that’s shielded from public review and that puts a lot of funding off the books,” Pilisuk says.  “We’ve already seen that in the Iraq war, which was largely funded outside of the ordinary defense department budget.” 

The result is a loss for any kind of domestic agenda that requires resources.

Another consequence is that the coalition that elected Obama may fracture over a prolonged war.

“That coalition gets broken as you start to get some people protesting the war and the costs of the war, and others trying to say:  no, stay the course, don’t break up the places where you could be influential,” Pilisuk says.  “The result tends to both prolong the war and doom the progressive agenda.”

Is there a way out?  Pilisuk thinks so, but it won’t come by doing business as usual.  First and foremost, he says, everything that the country does with the war should be “on the books.”  Not just to keep the public informed, but to keep the president informed.  The more information about what’s happening in Afghanistan becomes the province of an elite few, Pilisuk says, the more the president has to rely on key advisors who are themselves relying on secretive reports.  This tends to filter out much more than it lets in.

“We can’t afford the luxury of giving our military intelligence sectors a privileged platform in defining what has to be done internationally,” he says.  “Their mission is expressly to ‘find the enemy,’ and when that’s your bias, and no one else is able to examine what’s going on, it creates a situation where the chief executive is relying on biased, bad, information.  There can be more than one player, and there have to be those who speak for alternative, diplomatic, ways.”

That’s particularly true, Pilisuk suggests, “when dealing with the fierce and federally recognized tribal identities of a nomadic people who have fought off foreign invaders for hundreds of years.  The mountains and deserts of Afghanistan have been a historic graveyard for empires.”

The administration also needs to understand, Pilisuk says, that it can’t only deal with the people America has appointed to govern and chosen to protect:  it needs to understand the culture of its enemies well enough to know who has respect, and it needs to talk to them – even if it finds them unsavory.

“We don’t get to pick and choose who we negotiate with:  we have to negotiate with who is really there:  and there’s probably more allegiance to the Taliban in Afghanistan than there is to the Kharzi government,” Pilisuk says.  “The tribal identities in Afghanistan are very strong, and cut across the formal boundaries of the country.  It’s an enormously complex situation, and to bring in a U.S. ally and say ‘this is your leader now’ – is it any wonder that doesn’t work?”

The good news, Pilisuk says, is that the Obama administration is capable of understanding these nuances … even if it might not realize how much its agenda is already in danger. 

In fact, Pilisuk says, Obama has already handled a similar issue perfectly. 

“After the Rev. Wright accusations, when he was a candidate, he decided to stop listening to his advisors, who were telling him not to address the issues of race head on, but to keep saying the things that people had always said,” Pilisuk remembers.  “Instead he addressed the American people directly, on this very difficult issue, and spoke in a way that was beyond the politics of the moment.  He said:  you can keep doing what we’ve all been doing, finding scapegoats and not dealing with the legitimate anger of people on both sides; but if you keep on doing that you’ll be back to this point again, with no change.  I think that was a very powerful message that people listened to.”

Now that Obama is president it will be harder for him to do it again, Pilisuk thinks:  even more difficult to step beyond the beltway arguments and address the complications of a war on foreign soil directly. 

But what a change that would be – and what an extraordinary legacy. 

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