Turning away from wars of choice

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By Rick Howell

    Next month is when U.S. forces are to begin a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan, with all American troops supposedly to be out by 2014.

    But pressure is coming from many quarters, urging the White House to adopt a speedier exit from that historically troubled country. According to any poll you can cite, a clear majority of Americans want a quicker end to a war that has lasted 10 years and produced very little in the way of results.
    Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry thinks we can speed up our exit, though Kerry doesn’t seem inclined to push the issue too hard. He’s balancing that desire with his need to support the president of his own party.
    What’s more revealing is the degree of anti-war sentiment, if you will, – as amazing as that is – among none other than the current field of Republican presidential candidates.
    At their recent debate in New Hampshire, most of the candidates expressed a desire to get out of Afghanistan “as soon as possible,” which is exactly what Mitt Romney said.
    There was little passion, if any, for the “war on terror,” which now, more than ever, is little more than a political phrase.
    Still, some people appear to think that as long as there’s a single terrorist out there somewhere, then we need to deploy tens of thousands of troops in sinkholes just like Afghanistan.
    In the Senate, this view is championed by the two biggest hawks of our time, John McCain and his South Carolina buddy, Lindsey Graham.
    Graham lectured the GOP candidates for their views on Afghanistan and said he was “horrified.”
    Only a psychiatrist could determine why McCain, who suffered so badly in Vietnam, could still have a romantic love for war. But militarism runs deep in this culture. Too many people see knee-jerk support for any and every American war as the only authentic way to define “patriotism.”
    But surely in this era of tight money and lean budgets at every level of government, we simply cannot afford a Roman-type, global military empire that wants to stretch its tentacles over every corner of the Earth.
     And we must lose the idea that somehow, regardless of costs in human lives and money, we have an obligation, moral or otherwise, to “save” people from the neighborhood tyrant.
    We should reject any more attempts at “nation-building,” especially in the Muslim world, where people have long since made it clear that they don’t want our help or our presence.
    Last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution urging Washington to end the two wars and divert the spending back for domestic use. The group noted that we’ve spent $126 billion every year on Iraq and Afghanistan.
    Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa put it best: “That we would build bridges in Baghdad and Kandahar and not Baltimore and Kansas City, absolutely boggles the mind.”
    Then there are the words of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has seen up close the costs and the waste of what even he called “wars of choice.”
    Gates told The New York Times that what he’d learned “most clearly” is that the current wars “have taken longer and been more costly in lives and treasure” than he anticipated.
    He also said: “I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.”
    Alas, our history shows, from Korea to Vietnam to Grenada to Panama, and now in the Arab world, we’ve had far more wars of choice than of necessity. And they must stop.
    If even conservative Republicans now understand that, we’re making progress.
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    Rick Howell, a Bedford native, can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.